- Marking minds about Brexit: the Queen’s Speech. Seven days after the general election on 12 December 2019, the state opening of parliament confirmed the power of television to mark the minds of viewers, when Queen Elizabeth II. arrived in a car at the Palace of Westminster, wearing a day dress and a pale green coat and a matching hat. She was accompanied by the Prince of Wales in a black cut-away. There was only one lady in waiting, also dressed in black with a matching hat. The contrast could not be greater to participants following centuries of tradition in historical costumes, beginning with the procession through the Royal Gallery to the House of Lords where the Queen commands the presence of the House of Commons and reads the government’s proposed legislation for the next five years.
The power of television to create instantly and worldwide visual memories requires viewers to be surprised in a positive or a negative manner. This requires first of all genuine news. This was certainly true for viewers who had expected the traditional royal splendour of the previous opening of parliament on 14 October 2019, when the Queen wore the crown, ceremonial jewellery and a ceremonial white dress with a purple train carried by four train-bearers and draped on the steps to the throne. Instead, the usual television close-up for reading the government’s programme showed the Queen in a pale green hat which might have been seen at Ascot, and for jewellery a pearl necklace and a small brooch.
The way Queen Elizabeth II. scaled down her 14th opening of parliament has created surprising images which will for ever be part of the collective memory, reinforced by repetition in the Internet and social Media. They mark the minds world wide.
The visual power of television has a drawback: Words are instantly forgotten. The government’s first three sentences were instantly forgotten – though they will change the lives of the people in the United Kingdom and in 27 European countries – when the Queen began reading: “My Lords and Members of the House of Commons. My government’s priority is to deliver the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union on the 31st of January. My ministers will bring forward legislation to ensure the United Kingdom’s exit on that date and to make the most of the opportunities this brings for all the people of the United Kingdom. Thereafter, my ministers will seek a future relationship with the European Union based on a free trade agreement that benefits the whole of the United Kingdom.” The government’s agenda turned to other matters. The entire text took ten minutes’ reading.
It would seem to be the responsibility of the printed and electronic media to inform readers of the text and to scrutinize contents, beginning with the first three sentences. There is no genuine news in the “departure from the European Union on the 31st of January”. It has been known since the general election. There is no information content in unknown “opportunities”. But the future relationship with the European Union “based on a free trade agreement” is genuine news, surprising probably in a negative manner, since agreements are necessary for regulatory standards, services, security, defence, fisheries, research and so on. The surprise has marked the minds of all those who have a personal or professional interest in the European Union and in Britain’s future relationships, the phenomenon of selective perception explains since the American presidential election of 1940.
For instance, readers will not read the Daily Mail from page 1 through to page 88 published on 19 December 2019, when the paper devoted one page to announce the Queen’s Speech and to mention some of the expected laws. Reporting the next day concentrated on four pages of its 88 pages, two of them head-lined “Queen’s Speech. Boris’s ten-year vision” with half a page for new laws, beginning with “Brexit” and “Post-Brexit”, the latter mentioning immigration, agriculture, fisheries and trade. But there seems to be little political interest.
Three sentences in a five year government programme denote little political interest, too. Leaving the European Union and negotiating future relationships with 27 European countries seems to be of minor importance. But then, imposing failure to evaluate realities recalls prime minister Boris Johnson’s authoritarian leadership style explaining his failed Brexit on 31 October 2019 and the failed leaving majority on 12 December 2019 (see: Christa Hategan, Boris Johnson: political leadership style and political future – How the Prime Minister failed his Brexit and general elections on 12 December 2019, The European, 5 December 2019).
The typology of leadership styles I suggested for explaining the Brexit process – the traditional authoritarian leadership style and the modern co-operative leadership style – applies to the management of election campaigns, too. Since British parties predominantly practice an authoritarian leadership style and expect voters to follow orders with consent and obedience on election day, they conduct campaigns often without, if not against voters. The latter instance concerns the majority of voters who wants to remain in the European Union.
- The majority of British voters wants to remain in the European Union. In spite of two withdrawal treaties with the European Council and two prime ministers, Theresa May and her successor Boris Johnson, trying to obtain parliamentary approval throughout the year, there is still a majority for remaining in the European Union. There are two indicators: the general election on 12 December 2019 and the European election on 26 May 2019.
In May 2019, the proportional voting system indicated the national will of British voters. Parties campaigning for remaining in the European Union obtained 60,5 % of the votes (European Parliament, 5 June 2019). The Brexit Party had 31,7 % of the votes and the Conservative party 8,7 %, though not every conservative voter may have been a “Leaver”. Besides, the two parties belong to different parliamentary groups. The Brexit Party had 29 seats in the EFDT. The Conservative party had four seats in the EKR. Turnout was a remarkable 36,9 % of the electorate, considering that prime minister Theresa May was on extension time for leaving.
In December 2019, prime minister Boris Johnson was on extension time for leaving, too, when 53 % of the votes went to parties campaigning for remaining in the European Union: the Conservative Party had 44,0 % of the votes and the Brexit Party almost 3,0 %. The majority of “Remainers” was confirmed. Turnout was 67,3 % of the electorate of 46 million voters and in keeping with general elections in 2015 and 2017 (bbc.com/news/election-2019-50774061). There seems to be a consistent third of the electorate which is not interested in politics, does not know there is an election coming up and does not notice election campaigns.
But the majority of “Remainers” indicates political interest and a considerable change of minds since the referendum in June 2016 which resulted in 48 % for remaining and 52 % for leaving. It is normal for politically interested people to change their minds in the course of three years, not least because of the Brexit process. A simple opinion poll would have been helpful.
This said, it may be part of Britain’s political culture that the majority of the “Remainers” accepts being politically ignored. There are only “opposition peers” in the House of Lords willing to take note of them, Michael White writes in The New European on 16 January 2020. “But unelected lords always know they must respect election results and will move very warily, aware that Team Boris has threatened their very existence.” There is talk about abolishing the House of Lords, the second chamber of Parliament.
In 2020, Great Britain would remain in the European Union but for its voting system. The proportional vote does not have any bearing on who wins the election.
- Voting system and crumbling party blocs. The House of Commons does not represent the national voters’ will but the will of 650 constituencies. A simple majority vote brings the local candidate into parliament; coming a good second does not help a party win any more seats. The candidate may represent a party or may stand as Independent. Some candidates may be sure to be elected and their constituencies have a predictable election outcome while other candidates may be sure to lose and constituencies have a diversity of voting intentions. In any case, predicting national election results from expected voting in constituencies has always been a problem.
There is no longer a “uniform national swing”, Anthony King wrote in The Daily Telegraph of 21 April 1997. “Individual constituencies – and types of constituencies – are increasingly going their own way.” This development was supposed to explain why the Conservative party was about to lose its parliamentary majority to the Labour party lead by Tony Blair. The election on the 1st of May 1997 marked the begin of his 13 years as prime minister. Since then, party blocs crumble.
A positive innovation has marked the general election in 2019, when candidates of the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru stood down for each other in 60 seats under the banner ”Unite to Remain”. Candidates of the Labour party did not participate.
Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn did not want a coalition government. He abandoned the “Remainers” and invented a third exit treaty with the European Council, when asked about leaving or remaining on the Andrew Marr television show: “We’re going to put that choice to the British people and they will make that decision. We will negotiate within three months a credible, sensible option of leave and put that alongside remain in a referendum.” Jeremy Corbin repeated several versions of the same answer which the Daily Mail printed on 18 November 2019 with the comment: “Why Labour voters are backing Boris.”
There may be a number of different reasons why Labour voters changed their minds. But before the election campaign the opposition parties, including the Scottish National Party, had the majority in the House of Commons and supported “Remainers”. There was a moment of co-operation for a second referendum. Giving up on co-operation and “Remainers” has no doubt contributed to the Labour party’s failure and to the Conservative party’s success.
A similar comment had Stephen Kinnock, Labour MP, saying that the election was “not a Tory victory” but “a damning indictment of Labour’s failure” (bbc.com/news/election-2019-50784811). The Labour party has 203 seats, 59 seats less than in 2017, and is still the largest of the opposition parties. The second largest is the Scottish National Party with 48 seats while the “Unite to Remain” parties have 16 seats – the Liberal Democrats 11, the Plaid Cymru 4 and the Green Party one seat. There are 18 seats for “Others” (bbc.com/news/election-2019-50770798).
Finally, there was the Brexit Party’s decision not to contest the 318 seats the Conservatives had in 2017, no doubt contributing to the Conservative party’s success, too.
- The Conservative Party’s election results: 44 % of the votes and 365 seats in the House of Commons. There is no correlation between less than half the votes and having 40 seats more than the majority in the House of Commons respectively 80 seats more than the opposition parties. The simple majority voting system means that after election campaigns in 650 constituencies, the Conservative party had 365 candidates with the most votes. The party with the most winning candidates forms the government and nominates the prime minister.
Traditional comments on election results flatter the prime minister: “Boris Johnson … won a whopping 80-seat majority” (economist.com/UK-elections/2019/general-election-results). The commentator of the Queen’s Speech on BBC World News on 19 December 2019 agreed: “Boris Johnson’s strategy paid off because he has a majority of 80 and can do what he likes, really.” There are legitimate commercial interests, too, for maintaining that the prime minister turned a parliamentary minority into a parliamentary majority. “Mr. Johnson won on the basis of a slogan rather than on a programme”, Gideon Rachman wrote in the Financial Times on 14 December 2019. He may have referred to the slogan “Get Brexit Done” and to effects of the election campaign.
But the negative wear out effect of the constantly repeated “Get Brexit Done” can be proven and the diversity of campaign measures and their effects cannot be traced to an election result. For instance, the impact of television, mentioned for the Queen’s Speech, is reinforced when combined with print and electronic media and multiplied by the Internet and the social Media. But the impact is limited to those who have a personal or professional interest, the phenomenon of selective perception explains. On the other hand, meeting with voters on the doorstep and giving them leaflets has a different complexity of effects. Above all, voting decisions need not occur during an election campaign at all.
Summarizing decades of research, Steven E. Finkel considers the time before an American presidential election campaign just as important for individual voting behaviour as the campaign itself, which begins sometime in July or August, when presidential candidates are nominated, and ends on the first Tuesday in November. Finkel’s ”minimal-effects-model” explained in 1993, within limits of regression analysis, that an election campaign will confirm rather than change voters’ decisions. Everyone makes up his own mind, anyway.
Voters make up their own minds since the American presidential election of 1940, at least, when Paul F. Lazarsfeld, Bernard R. Berelson and Hazel Gaudet asked how they had arrived at their voting decision and how they had used the media – at that time newspapers and radio. Simplifying subsequent research, readers and listeners preferably notice information which agrees with their opinions and beliefs and skip items which contradict them. At present, selective perception characterizes viewers of television and users of the Internet and social Media, too.
Again, simplifying subsequent research, there is an understanding of voting as a group experience and an understanding of voting as individual behaviour, each category requiring different interactions and communication processes.
The group experience means essentially the voter’s social environment. Talking about the up-coming election with family and friends, with neighbours or colleagues at the workplace is necessary for making up one’s mind as well as for changing it. Discussions with family and friends are particularly important for undecided voters to come to a decision. Quite often, first voters will vote with their parents and like-minded friends. There may also be neighbours or colleagues at the workplace who share personal concerns, individual expectations and demands on society’s developments – three important factors for voting decisions.
It would seem that dedicated candidates, party members and helpers are best qualified to establish personal relationships and have informal discussions with voters – the most effective way of contributing to the party’s success, Scott D. McClurg found out in 2004. He followed up a snow-ball system of social party contacts and quantified its influence on election results, but personnel and costs were a problem. This was also true for the British general election, Liz MacInnes, former Labour MP, confirmed: “Most mornings I would have a team of half a dozen fantastic local activists. In the afternoon, I’d get two or three people and then a few more in the evening … I was eventually sent an organiser for the last few days but it was too late” (the guardian.com/politics/2019/dec/17/corbyn-antisemitism-and-brexit-labour-mps).
A five week election campaign, more or less improvised, for the general election on 12 December 2019 cannot change voters’ minds (see: The European, 5 December 2019).
- Marking minds about democracy: examples from the BBC. The typology of the prime minister’s authoritarian leadership style could structure a complete analysis of his election campaign, beginning with his institutional authority and continuing with voters morally obliged to serve his interests with consent and obedience. They may not criticize his person and his campaign. This goes for the media, too.
Considering this background, the BBC marked the minds of those with a personal or professional interest in the general election with genuine news, surprising in a positive or a negative manner. One instance has particularly marked the minds on election night, when Ros Atkins on BBC World Outside Source compared prime minister Boris Johnson with the American president Donald Trump, not only regarding his election campaign in 2016: “What we have seen with Donald Trump is that he repeatedly said things which we know aren’t true, which have been proven to be not true, and he keeps saying them.” This also refers to the example Chris Morris, BBC’s fact checker, mentioned: Prime minister Boris Johnson told voters there will be no checks on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland after Brexit “even though that is precisely what internal government documents and his own Brexit withdrawal agreement say there will be”. British democracy may well be endangered if politicians no longer care whether their statements are true or not.
Another danger seems to be a prime minister who takes revenge on those who have criticized him during the election campaign. When Boris Johnson refused to be interviewed by Andrew Neil of the BBC, a traditional interview the leaders of the other parties had already submitted to, it was genuine news. It marked the minds of those interested with a negative surprise. Andrew Neil commented on it showing an empty chair. “That met with rage among many Conservatives”, wrote Amoll Rajan on 16 December 2019 (@amolrajan). Now the BBC’s licence fee is threatened. “I am certainly looking at it”, said the prime minister to the BBC. There is no law to protect free speech and the freedom of the press.
There is no written constitution either. Prime minister Boris Johnson used his parliamentary majority to pass a modified Withdrawal Agreement Bill. It bans by law an extension of the transition period beyond December 2020, meaning that a free trade agreement with the European Union has to be negotiated and ratified by the end of the year. Also, two important provisions have been deleted. The first one concerns workers’ rights; they will be dealt with in a separate bill later on. The second one concerns parliament. Members of the House of Commons and members of the House of Lords have no longer a role in scrutinizing and voting on future deals with the European Union. This is meant to avoid problems encountered with parliamentary approval of two exit treaties with the European Council. Parliament is excluded from whatever free trade agreement the prime minister and his government may have negotiated with the European Commission by December 2020.