So we’re faced with a second general election in two years, the bread wrapped around last year’s Brexit referendum making perhaps the least appetising sandwich in memory. And it looks like being the strangest general election in memory, too.
This is a general election that nobody – beyond Liberal Democrats, 24 hour news channels and freaks like me who have an unusually geeky interest in politics – even remotely wanted right now.
The general public didn’t want it now (the public rarely gets enthused over an election – 1997 being the only time I can remember even the faintest general anticipation). The Labour Party don’t want it now (whatever they protest to the contrary). The SNP don’t want it now (they are protecting a high watermark in votes). The Greens don’t want it now (they simply don’t have the funds to fight a second general election in two years, weeks after a local council election in which they’ve already invested heavily). Even many Conservatives would rather it didn’t happen now, though they will of course recognise that their party stands to gain more than any from the vote.
So what can we look forward to (or hide from, depending on your point of view) in the coming fifty days which will form the longest campaign in memory?
Theresa May and the Conservatives have almost everything to gain…except for unexpectedly large gains!
Whatever the contorted reasons Theresa May has given for calling this election in the first place, she has in reality done so for two perfectly clear (and in truth perfectly reasonable) reasons. First, because she recognises that her negotiating position on Brexit is weak. She talks strong but in calling the election she recognises the weakness of her position as Brexit negotiations proceed. Second, because she knows that the current political climate gives her an unprecedented open goal to significantly increase her majority which would boost her negotiating hand, boost her authority and boost her wiggle-room with Brussels all at the same time. She has a 21 point lead in the polls – she’d be mad not to, frankly!
But one thing they need to do – and doubtless will do under the brilliant-but-destructive direction of Lynton Crosby – is to manage expectations and play up the fear of a Corbyn-led “coalition of chaos” with the SNP, Greens and the like. Expect a Tory campaign which majors on the dangers of Corbyn and quotes Labour MP’s criticisms of their own leader right back at them. It should be child’s play to get a significant increase in their majority, though I would be surprised if that majority was bigger than Blair’s smallest in 2005.
Theresa May will be largely absent from anything beyond very carefully stage-managed events, which could make this fifty day campaign incredibly dull. But they should beware one thing at least: a chasing media pack that is not being fed stories and images can easily grow restless.
For Labour, I genuinely believe that things can only get better, though in a very different way to 1997. Jeremy Corbyn arrives at the beginning of an unexpected campaign with an unexpected opportunity precisely because expectations are low. Incredibly low, in fact! He has been talked down to such an extent in popular discourse over the past two years that the bar is set low. That could potentially pose a risk to the expectations of the Conservatives (and the Labour modernisers who must allow Corbyn to own the likely defeat).
The likelihood however is that while it will help him to some extent, he will remain hamstrung by his abilities, the ineffective team which surrounds him, and the difficulty he will face in getting a reasonable hearing from the print media in particular. The extent of that hostile media, by the way, is very much the fault of Corbyn and his team. Because while it was ever difficult for Labour to get a fair hearing, the approach of Team Corbyn has been kamikaze.
What is more, on the key issue of our times – Brexit, it goes without saying – Labour are strategically all over the place. It’s been hard to come to any conclusion other than that they’ve been making it up as they go along, trying to make sense of a leader historically antagonistic towards Europe, a parliamentary party very much in favour, and a traditional working class vote which was largely responsible for the Brexit result last year. They have not found an answer and it shows. Between the certainty of the Conservative position and the confident stance of the Lib Dems resolutely in favour of the EU, Labour find themselves as the uncomfortable gristle in an increasingly strained Brexit sandwich metaphor!
One thing to look out for is the extent to which labour candidates stand on their own manifesto and against that laid down by the party centrally. At best expect many to ignore central command and spend a lot of time talking about their local hospital and potholes. This is not to mention the hoops that will need to be jumped through in order to get a manifesto which is vanilla enough to be signed off by the NEC in the first place. These may just be the most dull manifestos in history (in a genre not particularly renowned for producing page-turners).
Where and how they go on the attack (beyond the obvious Tory-baiting which is of questionable effectiveness) is not easy to determine, to be fair. Polling shows that Theresa May is popular with large sections of the public, including sections which are traditionally Labour-leaning and difficult for the Tories to reach. She does however have a track-record of U-Turns (including on the calling of the election itself) and fence-sitting (including most tellingly on Brexit last year). Theresa May…Or May Not would be as good a jumping-off point for an attack strategy as any, particularly as the Tories go big again on their claim that voting Conservative equals stability (something which has to be challenged after Cameron took the same promise to the country last time out, only to lead us as close to a constitutional crisis as it’s comfortable to get).
Given the nature of the Labour Leader however, what we are likely to see is a campaign heavy on ethical arguments and attempts to win people over by the fairness and equitable nature of his platform. Which is hardly likely to cut through very strongly. That low bar may mean that in truth the losses labour suffer are far lower than the armageddon scenarios that have been predicted. But that’s probably the best they can hope far.
In all truth, this is an election even the SNP would have chosen not to fight. Their high-watermark return of 56 MP’s (from a possible 59) will take some beating. It’s a badge of honour they hold dear in their claim to be the voice of the people of Scotland, and they have rightly viewed this Parliament (which they would have hoped to last the full five years) as their prime opportunity to achieve the ultimate goal of independence. Any slippage from that magical number of 56 therefore, and indeed in their share of the vote (an incredible 50% last time out) will be jumped upon by opponents of independence as evidence that the time for that debate really has passed for a generation.
All of this will doubtless have been part of Theresa May’s calculations, but it’s by no means certain that the SNP vote will fall significantly. Nicola Sturgeon is a first-rate politician and she will use facts such as those presented above to make sure that even wavering Scots are alert to the narrative they risk should the SNP vote fall.
Of course the Tories are the perfect enemy for the SNP. They will take the bull by the horns and fight an effective guerilla campaign fronted by the brilliant Sturgeon. I would expect them to hold onto most, if not all, of their existing seats. The wild card being Ruth Davidson (another effective communicator in a rich period of leaders north of the border) and her Tories after their relative success in last year’s Scottish Parliament elections.
Tim Farron is in some way fortunate in that the only way is up (surely) for the traditional “other party” of British politics. With only nine MP’s and small swings required to reclaim some of their many losses from two years ago we can expect to see the Lib Dems, with their effective campaigning machinery boosted by an ever-increasing membership, climb back towards being more of a force in national politics after the 8th of June.
Their presentation is slick, and they were quick out of the blocks when the election was announced yesterday with ready-prepped graphics. Unlike Labour, they looked prepared and they looked hungry.
Though they should make gains, their way ahead is not entirely plain-sailing. Early focus on Tim Farron’s faith and its impact on his views on homosexuality in particular has made for a few awkward moments. They shouldn’t overthink this and need to get hold of the story fast before other parties are able to make a narrative of it. [UPDATE: Farron has done exactly that]
What could prove more disabling for their prospects of major gains is the failure to rule out another coalition with the Tories, while seeming (in the rejuvenated Sir Vince Cable) to absolutely rule out a coalition with Labour. While this is a difficult position for progressives to stomach, however, it might in fact be a shrewd move strategically given that a lot of their likely gains would be in close marginals with…you guessed it: Tories.
The Lib Dems have been performing well in local by-elections for months now, not to mention their epic win in Richmond recently. Their membership is buoyant and they present their anti-Brexit message confidently and without apology. It could add up to some significant gains come June the 8th.
This is a difficult election for the Greens. With minimal budget available their first act yesterday was to announce a funding effort to help them fight the election more effectively.
In 2015 they made big increases on their membership with the Green Surge as the last election approached and quadrupled their national vote to over one million. Despite this, they returned a single MP thanks to the peculiarities of our First Past The Post voting system for Westminster elections (which was even more harsh on UKIP who gained only one MP from almost four million votes). Much of that increase was thanks to funds from the Green Surge which enabled them to field more candidates than ever (573, almost twice as many as in 2010). Many of these were effectively paper candidates, helping to reveal a background “noise” of around 3% vote share nationally wherever Greens were on the ballot.
It’s unlikely that funds will allow so many candidates this time around, as Greens have already invested their limited funds on the upcoming local council election on May 4th. As a result, vote share may very well fall, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing so long as the party can target their efforts effectively.
Priority for the party has to be first geared to retaining their single seat in Brighton, where Caroline Lucas holds a large but not impenetrable majority on the south coast. Second is a handful of seats where they are a primary challenger, most important of which is Bristol West where they came second two years ago and require just over a 4% swing to claim the seat from a Labour party in trouble. Expect the Lib Dems to also be stronger there too, however. Crucially this is a seat where the Tories are 4th, so the gloves can come off in a fight between Labour, the Greens and the Lib Dems in a very important contest.
Success for the Greens would be a second MP at Westminster. Maintaining Caroline Lucas as their single MP is their most important baseline however.
What to say of UKIP? They’re in a true mess, divided and unable to determine their reason for existence in a post-referendum world.
Paul Nuttall’s by-election campaign in Stoke-on-Trent Central back in February was a mess, but despite that UKIP did increase their share of the vote and Nuttall’s actual vote fell by far less than the massively reduced turnout would have suggested.
My feeling is that the UKIP vote may well hold up a little better than expected, though expect the Tory squeeze to be a tight one. They will say that only the Conservatives are in a position to deliver Brexit, and a vote for any other party puts Brexit at risk, and that will be a strong appeal to many.
The joker in the pack, as always, will be Nigel Farage. Should he choose to stand again then it would most likely be in South Thanet, where he ran the Tories a close second in 2015. Only a 4% swing would be needed to take the seat this time around, but would he really be in a position to increase his vote now that the entire raison d’être of UKIP (Brexit) is being managed by the sitting Tories anyway?
What is certain is that should he run, then with a constituency platform he will be the de facto leader of UKIP in much of their media coverage…simply because he’s a natural political animal who creates sellable stories by the boatload. As a result, love him or hate him, he would likely have a positive impact on the national UKIP vote should he stand in South Thanet.
Without him (though he will be a nosy presence regardess) UKIP look rudderless and aimless.
Perhaps one of the most important questions will revolve around turnout. There is bound to be significant voter fatigue after a Scottish referendum on 2014, a general election in 2015, European referendum and Scottish Parliament elections in 2016 and then local elections across much of the country only weeks before the coming general election. Most people really prefer life without politicians and politics getting in their way, and politics has been anything but out of the way for a long time now (spoiler alert: that’s not going to get better any time soon).
If turnout falls significantly on 2015 (when one in every three already didn’t vote) then the people who choose not to vote may be the most important factor of all. Conservatives and the elderly (often with a lot of overlap) can most reliably be expected to vote, so low turnout can generally be expected to favour the incumbent Tories. Fostering greater disenchantment with politics therefore will be no bad thing so far as they are concerned…again increasing the profitability of the very negative campaign they are certain to wage.
Though many will deny it, this election (like everything in politics right now) will be played out not only in the shadow of Brexit, but on an entire Brexit playing field. Brexit will be the context for everything that happens, and my general expectation is that the parties who best recognise that (i.e. the Tories, Lib Dems and SNP) will benefit most from a position of strategic strength.
Of course in a campaign anything can happen, not least things that we haven’t even thought of yet. It’ll be an interesting fifty days ahead.
Pass me the sandwiches…