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Deadlocked democracies

What if Britain’s general election ends in a tie?

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, left, and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn take part in a vigil at Guildhall Yard in London Monday to remember the victims of the London terrorist attack victims.Matt Dunham/Associated Press

In elections, we expect there to be a winner. At some point in the early hours on Dec. 13, we assume that either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn will hoarsely address a crowd of exhausted but exhilarated supporters, declaring victory in Britain’s general election and promising — depending on which one wins — either to get Brexit done or to do in the bourgeoisie.

But what if it’s a tie?

Yes, I know, according to the Poll of Polls, the Conservatives are 10 points ahead of Labor. Conservative’s Johnson may be a bluffer, but Labor’s Corbyn is irreparably tainted by association with anti-Semitism. This should all end with a nice fat double-digit Tory majority.


But here are a few reasons why Tories should curb their optimism, aside from the well-known unreliability of British opinion polls. First, history. If you count the general elections of 2010 and 2017 as wins — in the sense that the Tory leader became prime minister after them, despite lacking a majority in the House of Commons — the Conservatives have won the last three British general elections. The last time the Conservatives won a fourth election in a row was in 1992, when John Major only just scraped home with a majority of 21 (a result not predicted by the polls). Oh, and Major just declined to endorse Johnson.

There is no other example of four consecutive election victories in British political history.

Here’s another reason for Conservative concern. Across social media platforms, Corbyn leads all other political figures in terms of both followers and engagement. On Facebook, Corbyn has 1.55 million followers compared with Johnson’s 771,000. Across Facebook and Twitter, Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage has more followers than Johnson. Indeed, Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, has nearly as many followers as the prime minister.


What’s more, Corbyn posts to Facebook more often than Johnson, and his page’s posts — especially his videos — are far more widely shared. The Labor leader’s following on Instagram has increased dramatically during the election campaign. From Nov. 11 to Dec. 5, his follower count rose 28 percent. In the same period, Johnson’s followers grew by just 9 percent.

In short, this ain’t over, despite what financial markets think (the pound is up to $1.31), and despite what prediction markets imply.

So what if we don’t get a decisive result on Friday? What if the Tories come up just short of a majority? If you want to know what a deadlocked democracy looks like, visit the Netherlands, where it took 208 days of negotiation after the March 2017 general election to cobble together a coalition.

Or take a trip to Israel. After last April’s election was effectively a draw, they had to have another election in September. Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party emerged slightly ahead of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, but neither leader was able to form a government. Last month, Netanyahu was indicted on charges of breach of trust, bribery, and fraud. He’s still clinging on as prime minister, but it looks increasingly likely that there will need to be . . . another election.

Now ask yourself what the consequences might be if something similar happens next year in the United States?

What if the result in next November’s presidential election is as close as it was in 2000? Remember those nail-biting days? George W. Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore. Everything hinged on who won Florida, with its 25 Electoral College votes. On the night of the election, the networks called it — first for Gore, then for Bush, then for neither. The returns showed that Bush had won the state, but by such a slender margin (just 537 votes) that state law required a recount. A 36-day legal battle culminated in the Supreme Court, which decided by five votes to four to end the recount.


Despite the strength of an economy juiced by tax cuts and easy money, Donald Trump is not a popular president. Recent polling by The New York Times gave Joe Biden a tiny edge over Trump in the key swing states — Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — but gave Trump an equally slim advantage over Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Meanwhile, independent voters seem more displeased by the president’s Ukrainian skullduggery than they were by the Mueller Report. In short, this could be another close one.

In 2000, Gore ultimately accepted defeat with a modicum of grace, grew a beard, and went off to save the planet. But two decades have changed American political culture for the worse. I find it hard to imagine Trump and the MAGA-hat-wearing faithful being so stoical if he is denied a second term by hanging chads or their equivalent in Michigan — especially as there is every reason to fear more foreign meddling in 2020, including direct interference with the far-from-secure voting systems in the various states. Conversely, many Democrats would lose their minds if this Supreme Court, with its two Trump appointees, voted to give Trump four more years.


“I’ve never played for a draw in my life,” my fellow Ferguson, Sir Alex, once said. Wise words. May Boris Johnson — and all voters who care for the United Kingdom — heed them on Thursday. It’s not just Britain that needs a win. Democracy does.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.