The decision by three remain backing parties to unite in a select 60 seats attracted headlines as the culmination of the often mentioned ‘remain alliance’. While pacts and electoral alliances have rarely arisen in British politics, such as the Liberal and Social Democratic Party in the 1970s and local alliances ever since 2017, they have often been the focus of Westminster gossip rather than serious prospects. In light of this, three parties coming together in the 2019 election, sacrificing their prospects in a constituency and endorsing another party, is both new and notable.
The Unite to Remain pact, which has brought the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Greens, is a shared endeavour to secure as many pro-remain MPs in the next Parliament as possible. In the 60 seats, which ranges from Bristol West, the Isle of Wight, Richmond Park and Ynys Mon, the electoral pact has endorsed one party which it thinks will best represent remain supporters and that voters should tactically back on polling day.
Political parties have always sought to encourage voters to vote tactically in elections, highlighting they are the best placed to beat the incumbent or challenger. However, with politics at its most volatile point it is hard to assess which party is truly ‘in the race’ to win a constituency and may make tactical voting messy or counterproductive. Unite to Remain has gone one step further and removed other true pro-remain candidates from the ballot paper in the 60 seats where it believes parties have chance of winning in the hopes of avoiding this happening.
At first glance, Unite to Remain is not a sea change but a drop in the ocean. The pact covers fewer than 10 per cent of constituencies and is made up of three minor parties that received less than 10 per cent of the vote in the last election. Hardly a route to a remain supporting government. Yet, with polls swinging between a small Conservative majority and a hung parliament, a pact which maximises the chance of pro-remain MPs winning and depriving either Labour of the Conservatives of a majority makes a People’s Vote more likely.
What remains to be seen is whether the pact can bring success. By defining it solely around Brexit it risks becoming less salient if the election moves beyond Brexit to domestic issues as the 2017 general election did. It is also unclear if voters, fearful of a Brexit government led by Boris Johnson, will hold their nose and decide that Labour and its reluctant support for a People’s Vote is good enough to rally remain supporters behind Corbyn. If this happens, Unite to Remain won’t be looking at winning in ambitious targets like Stroud and South Cambridgeshire, but instead securing small victories in ultra- marginals like Arfon and Richmond Park. Instead of defining the election, Unite to Remain’s candidates are likely to be at the mercy of the campaign.
While commentators focus on the pact in England and Wales, a potentially more significant electoral pact has taken shape across the Irish Sea in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein, the Social Democratic and Labour Party and the Alliance Party have agreed to stand aside for one another, and the Democratic Unionist Party and Ulster Unionist Party has made similar moves. In total, five of the 18 constituencies now have one or more party standing aside and supporting another. Unlike in England and Wales, Northern Ireland is seeing the dominant political forces unite for this election which may radically alter the results and weaken the commanding position of the DUP in parliament. By aligning on pro-remain/nationalist versus unionist lines, the Northern Irish election formalises two clear divisions in the region and will drive voters to make a choice between the two camps. The effectiveness of which is likely to be magnified when applied to an electorate staunchly divided along sectarian lines.
The slow emergence of pacts, alongside the resistance of Labour, the Conservatives and the SNP to engage in them, is notable in this election. Pacts have a rational motivation behind them, but they also reveal an acceptance that some parties are subject to a ceiling they find hard to break through. In contrast, the hesitance of Labour and the SNP to join the pact reveals their hope to eventually convince remainers in a Brexit election that they are their only chance for a People’s Vote.
By concentrating electoral pacts in a few seats, remain parties in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have increased their chances of success, but success is by no means a certainty. If it delivers electoral success, pacts may become a defining theme of future elections. Whether these marriages of convenience become a longer-term viable strategy remains contingent on whether smaller parties can find more that unites them than divides them beyond Brexit.