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The Lib Dems are back - even if Brexit doesn't matter

A mostly ignored fact about the 2015 election is that Tory gains came from the Liberal Democrats, not from Labour. The Conservatives were able to take 27 seats from their coalition partners thanks to a combination of factors: some very astute decisions about campaign resource targeting, the general nationwide tanking of the Lib Dem vote, but also a counterproductive pickup in the Labour vote. In quite a few seats, particularly in the southwest, Labour increased its vote share at the expense of the Liberal Democrat candidate and allowed a Tory to win - sometimes even when the Tory vote barely moved, or even decreased, from 2010.

So there are some seats - in particular Twickenham, Kingston & Surbiton and Eastbourne - that the Lib Dems would take back even if the only thing that happened was that people who switched from Liberal Democrat to Labour between 2010 and 2015 switch back. Pure 'Labour is bad' considerations will boost the Lib Dems in a lot of seats. The party has also been overperforming its polling in council elections, and will probably get a boost from the extra attention in the run-up to a national election. Coalition government doesn't look so bad now, though having this election in 2017 rather than 2020 does mean that some of the reputational stain is still lingering. Nonetheless, the Liberal Democrats are clearly going to recover quite a few seats, even before we get to thinking about how Brexit has reanimated the party. Yes, first-past-the-post is outrageous and it's absurd that anyone has to think about this kind of thing.

Brexit is making a mess of... everything

That's true in a very wide-ranging way, but also in a narrow electoral way. The rough trend of by-elections and local council elections since the referendum has been that a lot of voters are sorting based on their Brexit preference. UKIP have been sinking as the Tories under May make it clear that they're a genuinely committed Brexit party; the Liberal Democrats have been taking Europhile votes from both Labour and the Conservatives, most strikingly in Richmond Park.

The fully-extended endpoint of this trend would be that the Tories and Lib Dems become the dominant parties in the parliament. That's not going to happen: some people don't care that much about Brexit, some people are still against it but think it should now just happen and won't bother to change their vote, some people are anti-Brexit but just think the Liberal Democrats aren't good enough on other issues for it to be worth the switch. The election naturally brings into play a lot of other issues which make sorting along this issue alone less likely. And there's a major inertia that comes from being one of the two biggest parties in the country for nearly 100 years, which will insulate Labour as well.

It's worth saying, though, that up to the night of the 2015 election - even after the exit polls had been published - people refused to believe that the vote in Scotland could realign so radically. But it did, and the history of the Scottish shift is extremely similar to what's happening now: a bitter referendum split the parties, particularly the Labour party, and in its aftermath people sorted themselves into the parties with a clear stance on what had become the defining issue of national politics. The Conservatives are now a bigger party in Scottish Parliament than Labour. These things happen.

There's a tiny silver lining: if UKIP voters start to shift back to the Tories, that greatly reduces the prospect of either party winning seats in the north from Labour, which UKIP is constantly talking about challenging for. But they're always talking, and it's never really happening, so this is a pretty minimal gain from what's otherwise a dangerous trend.

The ongoing Brexit debate, which will probably continue to split British voters along 'open vs closed' lines for several years, is incredibly bad news for Labour. This is a longer post, for another time, but the issue is not Jeremy Corbyn being spineless or Eurosceptic. Most Labour MPs represent seats which voted for Brexit, even though most Labour voters nationwide voted against it. That's a difficulty to which there's no good solution, in the short term. And if you have a Tory Prime Minister willing - as David Cameron wasn't - to go all-in and become the closed/nationalist party, then life is difficult on the left.

Theresa May is breaking British democracy

It sounds dramatic, and is. Nothing in the UK is quite as obviously kleptocratic or illiberal as what Donald Trump is pulling in the United States. But this is not how things work in a healthy democratic political system.

There could be good reasons to hold this election. Perhaps people should have an opportunity to reconsider Brexit now that the picture of what it involves is becoming clearer, to avoid any doubt about the mandate for it. But May has already triggered Article 50 and insists that Brexit is going to happen regardless of the election outcome. Perhaps people should be able to choose between different Brexit programmes - a strong democratic socialist vision and a 'Singapore-style' liberal one - but May is planning to participate in no debates or extended interviews, and few press conferences.

The stated reason for holding this election is that divisions in Parliament are weakening the government's Brexit negotiating hand. There is not even a grain of truth in this. What's happening is that Theresa May is opportunistically piling in on English nationalism, Labour infighting and Scottish secessionism in the hope of winning a huge parliamentary majority. Nothing in her record gives any real indication of what she wants to do with that majority - on becoming PM she gave a speech that got some people on the left excited; the unpopular elements of her first budget were promptly scrapped; she's built her political message around the idea of families who are "just about managing", a phrase which could refer to anyone and which she refuses to define. And her debate plans suggest she doesn't have any intention of telling us more. All she'll say is that she is a strong leader, and Jeremy Corbyn is not, and she needs to be entrusted with a large majority for the sake of the country. People will probably go for it, and fair enough. But it's not really democracy.