Two years ago, we were in the final weeks of the 2015 general election, with manifesto launches, ‘Ed-stone’ pledges, and sparring between Miliband and Cameron in the live television debates.
To the ‘politically-interested bubble’ the last general election is an alternate universe, as the political shake-up has been so profound in the last two years. The endless list began with the general election decimating the Lib Dem vote and stalwarts of the Labour party; a resignation of Labour leadership and a drawn-out summer leadership contest. The Liberal Democrats then had a scrum about who should lead the other survivors; Cameron set a referendum date; and then the whole politically toxic campaign. In London, a Mayoral Election resulted in a rare gain for Labour. The seismic Brexit vote led to a Prime Minister’s resignation and a Conservative leadership contest with sexting, backstabbing and eleventh hour decisions. However, Labour didn’t want to be left behind so had their own leadership challenge with embarrassing stalking horses, whilst their Shadow Cabinet has seen too many changes to remember. UKIP meanwhile had 16-days ‘Nigel-free’ with the subsequent leadership contests and punch-ups and now a defection. Elsewhere the Green party elected their ‘Mum and Dad’ leaders; there was problems with wood-chips in Northern Ireland; further unwanted independence irritation from the SNP; and overall anthropomorphised challengers in Woolfe, Eagle, Fox and Crabb. In the past few months the Government has gone to court; triggered Article 50; fought several by-elections; realised their new local Mayors; and now set the General Election for 8 June 2017.
As a nation, I believe we are politically fatigued.
Yet Theresa May hopes the nation will come to vote again to buttress the Conservative Party’s majority in the House of Commons. She claims the current small majority may weaken the Conservatives Party’s Brexit position against domestic and foreign opposition.
Perhaps more ‘pragmatically’, May has called the election hoping that the result reflects that suggested by recent polling figures; a twenty-point lead for the Conservatives and the potential annihilation of the Labour party under Corbyn.
As soon as polling figures diverge this much, there is always chatter about potential elections. It appears, however, that Downing Street managed to surprise the press which is demonstrably better than the limpness of an expected election not being called. The last case of ‘potential election fever’ was for Gordon Brown in 2007 and this was primarily based on his honeymoon polling figures.
The polling for the Conservative Party and for May’s leadership cannot be construed as ‘honeymoon figures’, but this election does raise the question of how much the numbers are in May’s favour for her competence rather than Corbyn’s incompetence. Although Tim Farron is not resonating with voters currently, the Liberal Democrats are whole-heartedly supporting this election as a potential resurgence, and perhaps the third anti-Brexit option could skew the value of the leader to voters.
Who will the election be centred around? This depends on the policy focus, if it is in fact Brexit then the initial statements from each leader point to May as the leading figure. Pitting the Conservatives as the only party able to win a majority, consigning any other vote to an ineffective coalition, May said a Conservative majority is “strong and stable leadership in the national interest, with me as your prime minister, or weak and unstable coalition government”. Yet Corbyn’s statement does not mention Brexit. Corbyn seems unsure of himself in the most recent interviews and it is not surprising as Labour MPs have been leaving the benches over his leadership (Jamie Reed and Tristram Hunt) and are now leaving before even battling an election (Tom Blenkinsop and Alan Johnson).
There are some difficulties with party candidates, not just that each association and HQ must organise all candidates in seven weeks (perhaps on controversial parachuting by-election rules), but MPs such as Ken Clarke are stepping down three years prematurely, some MPs will be running again with the 2015 election expenses scandal still hanging over them, the UKIP fight-back may be seen with Arron Banks in Clacton and even a second chance for Farage in South Thanet, and other MPs such as John Redwood and Liam Fox are Leavers running in Remain seats.
A snap election and the difficulties with party candidates seems to favour the Lib Dems, who have been building up their strategy after the 2015 humiliation – and unveiled online posters soon after the election was announced. They have target seats in London and Devon/Cornwall which they know are winnable, if forgiven by voters who left them in 2015, and returning figures such as Vince Cable may help. The local elections may show a move towards Lib Dems, but this momentum will probably not be reflected in general election due to the weakness of the Parliamentary Party and leadership.
However, the Lib Dems’ Parliamentary Party could be seen in a more favourable light than the Labour opposition. The House may have returned yesterday, but it will be in recess for the election and over summer, and it’s difficult for the opposition to pinpoint parliamentary successes in a year where time in the House has been blighted by leadership contests and Brexit debates.
Each party can set the record straight in their manifestos, but organisationally even this could be difficult. One redeeming second chance for the Lib Dems is that the tuition fee debacle was six years ago, so students starting university in September were twelve years old at the time (other than some NUS figurehead hangovers), this means Lib Dems do not immediately repel the youth vote who overwhelmingly voted to Remain. But the Remain youth vote does include young families who were persuaded by Conservative pledges in 2015.
There are issues which each party can own and it seems Corbyn is continuing the ‘NHS Armageddon countdown’. However, May has been polling better as a stateswoman overseas, which could be at the forefront of voters’ minds with Brexit and recent Trump actions. An election is patently a difficult time for matters of international security as South Korea has seen the difficulty of attempting to work with Japan, US and China during an election. Each South Korean candidate is attempting to show resolve for the country’s individual strength rather than cooperating against North Korea. If UK party leaders were pushed on their views of Trump’s actions, it could provide a premise for future escalation.
What does this all mean for Brexit? Technically the two-year clock is already ticking since the Article 50 triggering, but due to European elections, not much progress could have been made till June anyway. If May is returned with a majority, this could fare well for the UK’s Brexit, as with the Fixed Term Parliament Act being reset this extends the leadership term until 2022. If May had faced difficulties in 2019 at the end of the two-year period, this would have coloured 2020 voting intentions.
Opposition MPs may feel disappointed by the reneging of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act for this election (as well as A-Level politics students annoyed by the cycle changing from quinary years), but it still does require a two-thirds majority when the Prime Minister presents the motion to the House on 19 April.
Political predictions are notoriously hard to make and, as the 2015 General Election and Trump’s success demonstrated, there are few better ways of ensuring public humiliation. Yet there’s one thing that I am ready to assert with near total confidence. This election matters, and will be remembered. Two major constitutional issues, Brexit and Scotland’s place within the UK, will be profoundly affected by the outcome. Real socialism, or something close to it, is on the ballot paper thanks to Corbyn’s leadership of Labour. The British people have a profound choice, and the results of this election will echo for years to come.
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