The general election has been called and Britain is in for another six weeks of politicking before polling stations open on 8th June. When Theresa May made public her intentions, it did catch all the experts and pundits on the hop – me included. Yet when you sit back and think about it, you have to ask why no one saw it coming. The Conservatives have a slender majority, making the Prime Minister vulnerable to backbench rebellions. There are the investigations into alleged electoral fraud, which have the potential for by-elections in around two dozen seats. The Labour Party remains divided, and the Conservatives have a massive lead in the polls. Under this set of circumstances, any Prime Minister would want a general election. And so we have one – not even the 2011 Fixed Term Parliament Act stood in the way.
How then can the political parties expect to perform? The polls are unanimous about the outcome of an overwhelming Conservative win, but this also has its dangers. The 2001 general election, for example, was widely perceived as a foregone conclusion for Tony Blair’s Labour, and as a result large numbers of voters remained at home. Turnout was 59.4%, a post-war low. For Theresa May, who called the election ostensibly to strengthen her hand in the Brexit negotiations, an endorsement from the British electorate significantly below the EU referendum turnout (72.2%) would do nothing of the sort. Hence one strand of Conservative Party strategy centres on turning out its support, which is why they have pushed stories about the inaccuracy of polling, how the election might be closer than the polls suggest, and that there’s a chance a “coalition of chaos” between Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Greens, and nationalist parties could be victorious.
The Conservative Party are also running a very tight campaign. The Prime Minister has faced criticisms from journalists for refusing to take questions during public meetings, to even go out to meet the public and, of course, her point blank dismissal of television debates. This speaks to a belief that the party is beginning from a position where they have everything to lose. A misstep here, an unguarded comment there, this could ripple out with consequences for electoral performance. Labour in the lead up to the 1997 election also adopted a very cautious approach, particularly with regard to policy announcements, though not to the point of actively fighting shy of the public.
If they believe they have everything to lose, in many ways you could assume Labour has nothing to lose, and is campaigning accordingly. Unlike the management from the centre of key constituencies, local parties are enjoying – if that is the right word – autonomy to determine the scope and emphases of their own campaigns. This has led to a twin track approach. Conscious that Jeremy Corbyn’s polling is much worse than his opponent’s, many sitting MPs and candidates are drawing on their campaigning record and are effectively trying to turn a general election into a local election. Expect to see plenty of literature along the lines of ‘who do you trust to stand up for you? The local MP of XX years or a Tory Prime Minister?’ The second thrust of Labour’s strategy is a populism-heavy barrage of simple but hard-to-disagree-with policies. Who, for example, can dispute four extra bank holidays to commemorate the patron saints of the UK’s four nations would be welcome, especially when we have fewer holidays than the rest of the EU? Who doesn’t want to see the rich pay more tax? Who can disagree with more funding for hospitals and schools? Labour know it has a good hand here as polling on Labour policies finds consistent support, and so if there is hope, it lies in the issues. And, in contrast to the Conservative campaign, Jeremy Corbyn is visibly out campaigning, engaging with the public, taking questions (sometimes hostile) from the media, and generally following the same tactics his team employed to great effect during the last two leadership contests. Compare and contrast: a leader comfortable with the people versus a leader who hides away from them.
Will this be enough to shift the polls and snatch an unexpected victory? Generally speaking, British electorates very quickly make their minds up about leading politicians. Unless a major event impinges or scandal erupts, it’s very difficult to envisage the distance being made up before polling day. However, as recent developments in politics remind us the unexpected can happen.
What about the smaller parties? The Liberal Democrats are set to have a good election, despite the campaign getting bogged down in questions over leader Tim Farron’s commitment to gay equality. They recruited heavily in the days following Theresa May’s announcement, and now lay claim to over 100,000 members. The party also has an excellent local campaigning record in the local authority by-elections over the course of the last year, winning seats from all parties and pulling off stunning victories in areas that heavily voted to leave the European Union. They are confident of winning back some seats lost to the Conservatives and Labour in 2015, and with some evidence that people who voted remain in the referendum are motivated to register their displeasure over Brexit in their party choices, this is a reasonable expectation.
The Liberal Democrats’ boon has been UKIP’s wake. Although their support had been declining before the referendum, it accelerated once their overarching policy objective was achieved. With a summer of leadership chaos and resignations behind them, their new leader, Paul Nuttall, was put to the test of the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election and was found wanting. Without that breakthrough, the party’s support has spiralled down further. The latest IpsosMORI poll puts UKIP on as low as four per cent, for example. To avoid a rout, they desperately need to carve out new niches for themselves. Previously, they made a great deal of the running on immigration, arguably pushing all the parties’ policies toward more restrictive positions. Hence this week, in an attempt to generate headlines and create new space for themselves, UKIP announced that it was in favour of banning burqas and subjecting “at risk” young girls to routine medical examination to check for genital mutilation. While most people would find these positions objectionable, it reflects the fact that the Conservatives now “own” the Brexit issue, and the party’s previous support is draining back to them on this basis.
Away from England and Wales, Scotland operates with a different party system, one in which the supremacy of the Scottish National Party is unchallenged. However, two polls last weekend suggest the Conservatives could win between eight and 12 seats. Some of this can be put down to the youthful and mercurial figure of Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader whose tenure has, at least until very recently, avoided embroiling her in controversial political issues beyond Scottish independence. SNP incumbency also must have a bearing – they have been the Scottish government since 2007 and a number of long standing social problems remain unresolved. And lastly, Nicola Sturgeon has identified the clear remain vote Scotland cast last year to justify renewed plans for a second Scottish independence referendum. This has meant leaving remain-voting unionists and Brexit-voting yes’ers without a political home. Because Scottish Labour remain very badly damaged after the 2015 elections, and with the Conservatives as the official opposition at Holyrood, they effectively have a new constituency that didn’t exist until recently on which to build their support.
By way of a summary then, the general election is the Conservatives’ to lose. Apart from an unexpected crisis, there are only two other circumstances I can see them returned with a narrow margin of victory. One is where their new support resides. It’s all very well returning polling figures in the high 40s if the switchers are in seats the party already holds. For instance, going through the constituency-by-constituency scores from 2015, support for UKIP was much higher here, on balance, than their tallies in Labour-held seats. If that goes to the Conservatives, the expected flood of seats may dwindle to a trickle. Secondly, there are potential local deals between anti-Conservative parties. In places where the Green Party vote, for example, scored more than the Tory margin of victory in 2015, or that a renewed candidacy might subtract votes from Labour as the tide swings to the Conservatives, local Greens have been standing down their challenges. In Brighton Kemptown and Ealing Central and Acton this has already happened. We might see it in Derby North too. In addition to this, there are various tactical voting initiatives that have received varying publicity. Gina Miller’s anti-hard Brexit campaign, Best for Britain, has raised £300,000 and will seek to persuade voters to support pro-EU/pro-2nd referendum candidates. While such campaigns haven’t had much traction historically, they certainly did in Canada’s 2015 federal elections. With politics in a state of flux, could this thwart an overwhelming Conservative majority?
All the questions raised here will be definitely answered on 8th June.