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Opinion

4D Chess

07 Jul 2024 6 minute read
4D Chess by Sarah Morgan Jones (Reflected Chess pieces by Adrian Askew CC BY 2.0. /Claudia Greco/PA Wire)

Ben Wildsmith

Amongst those sucking deeply on the post-electoral copium pipe, are people who ascribe Reform UK’s 17% share of the vote in Wales to English immigrants.

Leaving aside the rich irony of this position –– to defeat Farage, you must become Farage – a less alarming rationale is available. The Tories have spent fourteen years making themselves unelectable, and right-wing voters still exist. There you go, cleared that one up.

The outright unpleasantness of politics on the right recently has led many to view it as something to be excised from the culture. I joined in with the ‘Tory-free Wales’ jubilation on Friday morning myself.

The banishment of Conservative MPs in Wales and much of the UK, however, doesn’t indicate a shift leftwards in the electorate, so Labour’s vast majority has left a huge contingent of people unrepresented in parliament and that could lead us to some dark political scenarios.

The case against first-past-the-post is conclusive after this election. Try to fit the following facts about UK elections into your head simultaneously without reaching for the ibuprofen.

1) Labour’s 2024 majority is the largest since 1997 and the third largest since universal suffrage.
2) In 2019 Labour recorded its worst result since 1935.
3) More people voted Labour in 2019 than in 2024.

Played the game

There is no doubt that Labour has played the game as it is constituted with consummate skill. On a positive note, it suggests that there are people in the party who absolutely know how to deliver an objective.

The strategy required to achieve such a result, however, is removing governance yet further from voters.

When Keir Starmer admitted the right-wing Conservative MP Natalie Elphicke to the Labour Party in May, there was outrage amongst traditional supporters who saw it as a betrayal.

Soon, however, the narrative emerged that this move was evidence of Starmer’s political genius.

He was ‘playing 4D chess’ we were told. Welcoming Elphicke gave traditionally Conservative voters ‘permission’ to switch allegiance to his ‘changed party’.

By astutely targeting seats in which this process could occur, Labour could become the natural party of government for a generation.

Override reality

Press narratives have a tendency to override reality as their authors’ reputations rest on their validity.

The idea that Starmer has steered Labour towards an electoral sweet spot in the centre of UK politics, convincing Tory voters of a progressive course, has persisted beyond an election that painted a very different picture.

Labour’s share of the vote remained static, whilst opposing voters reorganised themselves to the detriment of incumbent Conservatives.

The turnout of under 60%, driven by stay-at-home Tory voters, further skewed the result in Labour’s favour.

The defence of this is that the electorate is sophisticated enough to participate in the first-past-the-post system intelligently and tactical voting is the reason for Labour’s disappointing share of the vote as contrasted with its parliamentary majority.

Well, maybe, but in itself that is problematic.

You may have noticed that nobody has the slightest idea what Labour is going to do. Labour has managed to arrive in office without disclosing detailed policy on anything.

We are yet even to find out if it will close the spending deficit by raising tax or cutting services. That is a fundamental binary choice that the government will face immediately, about which it has stated no position.

Nothing has changed’

Theresa May’s ‘nothing has changed’ policy reversal on social care during the 2017 election has written a new rule into the 4D chess playbook.

When voters are studying their tactical voting maps, you don’t want them distracted by policy. Their motivation must be that your candidate is ‘decent’, so to vote against his/her interests is a moral failure. The nature of his/her decency need only be revealed after victory.

This removes the final defence for the system. First-past-the-post is traditionally criticized for producing elected dictatorships. In response, supporters point to the governments of 1945, 1983, and 1997 to demonstrate their transformative vigour.

The point here is that the intentions of those governments were obvious when they were voted in.

This election has delivered a thumping mandate for an unknown agenda.

Whilst proportional representation produces compromise governments, voters can indicate their priorities in the election that precedes the negotiations, mandating single-issue candidates if necessary.

Governments are understandably fond of thumping majorities, so a change in the Westminster voting system isn’t on the agenda.

Here in Wales, though, we have proportional representation and that is going to be a very big story in 2026 when we see if Reform UK’s support and an uptick for Plaid Cymru translates into votes in the Senedd.

In that election, we will see a far clearer illustration of where opinion sits than we have now.

Consequently, the next couple of years in Welsh politics will take on a UK-wide significance.

Political integrity

The introduction of Adam Price and Lee Waters’ legislation on political integrity is groundbreaking on a global scale and could, potentially, put Wales at the forefront of democratic process.

I am not a supporter of the closed-list system. Personal accountability is important, and the system will obstruct voters’ connection to their candidates. It could, however, produce an emphasis on content over personality, provided the media doesn’t over-emphasise party leaders.

Last Friday, on the BBC, David Blunkett looked horrified at the suggestion of PR for Westminster. His objection was that it would allow for the representation of the far-right. UK-wide, the Reform UK vote was 14%.

You can be sure that grievance over lack of representation will be key to Farage’s appeal in trying to increase that figure. Blunkett fails to see the danger in unrepresented views being left unchallenged in the echo chambers of the internet.

A few more underprepared Reform MPs being exposed in parliament for all to see is less dangerous than millions of voters becoming convinced that they are being silenced.

Gaming the system

Labour’s success in gaming the voting system may not represent the return to stability that so many crave.

In his post-election speech, Nigel Farage vowed to ‘professionalise’ and ‘democratise’ his party over the next five years. The danger is that he learns to play 4D chess too.

After the 2026 Senedd election, Reform Members of the Senedd will be elected in proportion to their actual popularity and their ideas tested in a debating chamber.

The delusional, online confidence of its supporters will flourish in England but meet reality on the floor of the Senedd.

Wales must show the UK electorate what a functioning democracy looks like.


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Rob
Rob
6 days ago

Has David Blunkett lived under a rock over the last decade or so? The far right have taken over the tory party. Braverman, Anderson Rees-Mogg, etc should have been in UKIP/Reform from the start. Same thing across the Atlantic, the Republicans have been infiltrated by the Trump/MAGA fanatics so no FPTP does not silence extremists. It encourages them to take control over mainstream parties where they are capable of holding 100% of the power over our lives. I deteste Reform UK, but if they represent 14% of the population then they should have 14% of the seats, thats democracy. Look… Read more »

Fi yn unig
Fi yn unig
6 days ago
Reply to  Rob

The voice and words of Farij make me sick but yes, we must hear him banging on publicly a great deal over the next few years. With his new position in Parliament, his full range of hatreds will be heard by many more ears. He will demonstrate these by proving non recognition of nations and nationalities around these islands, intolerance of non English languages, intolerance of ‘wrong’ religions and ‘wrong’ skin colour etc Throw in his life destroying insane economic policies and this is the rope he will work with. Anyone voting for his sick movement needs to ask themselves… Read more »

Crwtyn Cemais
Crwtyn Cemais
6 days ago
Reply to  Fi yn unig

[ please scroll down for English] Ofnaf bod unrhywun neu unrhyw grwp o bobl sydd ddim yn uniaethu a ‘gwerthoedd’ Reform UK – ta beth yw’r rheiny – yn mynd i fod mewn ‘target group’. Dyna natur y bwystfil hwn. Mae dywediad saesneg yn dod i’m feddwl: ‘If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem’… ~ I fear that anyone or any group of people who don’t identify with Reform UK’s ”values’ – whatever they may be – will be in a ‘target group’. That is the nature of this beast. A saying comes to mind:… Read more »

Simon Hobson
Simon Hobson
6 days ago
Reply to  Rob

Hard agree.

Fi yn unig
Fi yn unig
6 days ago

Fabulous insight and foresight Ben and most valid but I’m going to stay behind the curve and enjoy the honeymoon for now because i’m impressed that our country is being recognised and when Cardiff calls London, someone is going to answer the bloody phone for a change. Small steps, catch you up soon.

Annibendod
Annibendod
6 days ago

Here is my question to the Labour Party:

Do you know which question you are trying to answer, which problem you are trying to solve?

Because if you don’t know, or you are trying to write the question yourselves in order to mark your own homework, we are all faced with an enormous dilemma. The UK State is constitutionally, politically and economically dysfunctional. Since you are in power with a mere minority of eligible votes cast, you will need to solve that particular problem. Fail … and Reform get in. Then we will be up cilfach c***u without a paddle.

Linda Jones
Linda Jones
6 days ago
Reply to  Annibendod

The gain could be for Plaid if they start to move to control the narrative from now until the Senedd elections.

Linda Jones
Linda Jones
6 days ago

On the other side the demise of Labour in Wales could be a gift for Plaid as long as they start campaigning for the Senedd elections from now. Labour in Wales with Gething in charge is seriously damaged goods hence them getting such a small share of eligible votes but winning lots of seats in a skewed electoral system. That cannot be repeated in the Senedd elections. Roll on, Plaid here we come.

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