Gaming Out the British Election: What Happens If Nobody Wins?

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London. Photo: Waring Abbott/Getty Images

On the night of the U.S. election last November, I was in London flipping between cable channels and refreshing poll results with about a dozen journalist friends who stayed up too late to hear the bad news. The Welsh writer Dawn Foster was the one who passed me the laptop with the headline that read “New York Times Sees Trump Path to Victory.” I fell asleep before the race was called, so when I woke up for a few minutes I thought the world still hadn’t turned into a joke. Foster wasn’t surprised that night. She’s the author of Lean Out, a feminist tract for the 99 percent, writes a column for The Guardian, contributes to the London Review of Books and Dissent, and is working on a history of the dole in the U.K. In 2015 she was the person I knew who won the most money betting on the U.K. election, when the Conservatives won an unexpected majority; and she won enough money betting on Jeremy Corbyn taking over Labour leadership she was able to fund a trip to New York. Yesterday I admitted I had next to no clue what’s going to happen, so I asked Foster about her predictions for tomorrow’s U.K. election.

Alright, let’s start with your gambling habit. How much did you win betting on the Tories in 2015 and how did you sense that the polls were off, and underestimating them?

I put a tenner on the Tories winning at 10/1. Everyone told me Labour were going to win, or there’d be a hung parliament, but I thought the Lib Dems would lose drastically, while the Tory vote increased. The polls said the opposite, but when I spoke to people in reporting, they tended to attribute every wrong in the coalition with the Lib Dems, meaning the Tories were getting away with little scrutiny, which bolstered them. And Ed Miliband was gaffe-prone and nervous about going against Cameron, so I thought that when it came to crunch, people would vote Tory over Labour. It had only been five years since they were in power, so they weren’t seen as having changed much.

Did you bet on the Brexit referendum?

I didn’t bet on the outcome, because it was too close for me to decide, but I bet that Wales would vote to leave, and they did. I also just won a load of cash in the French election too.

Simply by betting on a Macron landslide?

I bet the final two would be Macron/Le Pen, and that Macron would win. For some reason the bookies thought Macron wouldn’t reach the top two for a while?!

Labour has been surging in the past few weeks. How much do you attribute that to Theresa May’s weakness? How much to a Jeremy Corbyn renaissance?

I think it’s much more about Labour and Corbyn’s strength. There have been some big May gaps, but most of her weakness has come from the shock of the Corbyn surge, not vice versa. Labour have a very positive message — let us invest in schools, give your kids free school meals and free university, you higher wages, better hospitals, more houses. Those are very easy messages to sell, but also remind people of the importance of community. That’s why the rallies are mobbed too: People feel part of something bigger in terms of policy and the movement. Whereas May’s only done tiny stage-managed events where she refuses to meet the public, so looks as though she takes the public for granted. Corbyn cleverly trapped her with the TV debates: knowing he’d do them, but not confirming at the last minute, asking May to join him whilst knowing she wouldn’t. So all the headlines were about her refusal to show, and when the debate began, Corbyn could focus on selling Labour policies in questions, while all the other party leaders used their time to criticize May for refusing to debate. It was a complete strategic masterstroke on Labour’s part, and the footage of May trying to justify it made her look as if she was collapsing under the pressure.

Do you think these poll numbers are going to translate into Labour seats?

No. I think Labour will lose a few seats. But I do think it’s possible we see a similar scenario to the U.S.: in that Labour could get almost as many votes as the Conservatives, but the share of seats is disproportionately low. So more people complain that their votes aren’t counted in essence, which means more calls for proportional representation. So I think we could see a Labour government in 2022, and that Labour government would consider changing the voting system, and looking more seriously at a ‘progressive alliance,’ calls for which have been huge in this election.

So you think there’ll be another Conservative majority, just not as big as the one May presumably expected when she called the snap election in April?

Yes, I think she might increase her majority by about ten seats, but the Conservatives will have knives out for her as a result. I think she’ll quit maybe two years into the next term, as Brexit explodes, especially since there’s likely to be a referendum over whether to reunify Ireland.

Hypothetically, if you’re wrong, what are the possibilities if there’s a hung parliament? What coalition alliances are possible?

So if there’s a hung parliament, I don’t think the Tories can forge a coalition. Some polls say otherwise, but I think the Lib Dems will lose seats, so there simply aren’t enough numbers. The only Tory prospect in the event of a hung parliament is if the Lib Dems get 13 seats (no way) and Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland stay the same. Not going to happen. So theoretically, Labour could just make it work if they agreed to a rainbow coalition of Labour, Plaid Cymru [the nationalist party in Wales], Greens, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, and if the Scottish National Party decided they would join to keep the Tories out. But I’m not sure SNP would. So we’d end up with a Tory minority government, or a second election called. What’s interesting is we’ve essentially gone back to two-party politics, but neither party has quite enough to make it sustainable.

How often in the past has a second snap election resulted?

There’s not been a second one called since Wilson formed a minority government in 1974 after Heath failed to do a deal with the Liberals, and called the October election to try to get a majority (which he got, but a tiny one).

If the Conservatives retain a majority, what does that mean for Corbyn’s prospects for remaining leader? Will he fall on his sword like Miliband, Cameron, and Brown? Will his turn as leader mean a permanent move away from Blairism for Labour?

He won’t fall on his sword: He’ll point out that he came from 20 points behind to neck and neck by the end, and that Britain, particularly young Britons, really got behind him and the party. I think Labour will force a challenge — sources have told me Yvette Cooper has staff, a bus, and her plan in place for the leadership campaign, but I think Corbyn will win again and the party moves permanently as it did in 1994 with Blair, into a new socialist position. At that point, I think Labour will start winning Scotland back, if Corbyn stays. He’s done far better in terms of polling in Scotland than the party could have dreamt of after 2015.

How much has it hurt Theresa May to be friendly with Trump, or has it helped in some quarters?

It’s not been great, but I don’t think it’s been the biggest problem. Worse was the social care U-turn on the “dementia tax” and now the fact two terrorist attacks have left the police complaining at length about their fundings cuts, and the fact that the terrorists were all known to and reported to the authorities while she was in charge as Home Secretary. The Trump link looks worse now, when we’re leaving the EU, and our only ally, Donald, is blaming London’s Muslim mayor for terrorism.

Does UKIP remain a live force in British politics or has its Brexit victory rendered it inert?

Absolutely not, they’ve completely flopped. It’s incredible to watch. I think they lost all or nearly all their councillors in the local election. Even though the Tory candidate for Thanet South (where Farage stood last time) has been arrested for electoral fraud, they still don’t stand a chance: Labour or the arrested candidate are more likely to win. Their vote’s slumped incredibly, they’ll poll less than the Lib Dems.

After his nasty tweets at London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, is Trump ever likely to get an audience with the Queen?

Yes, unfortunately. They’ll still invite him, and there’ll be perfunctory meetings but the public reception to him will be even worse.

What Happens If Nobody Wins the British Election?