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Here we go again, right? Another snap election seems inevitable, even if most politicians aren’t too eager to go back to the country. But the nation’s government has lost its working majority in parliament – due to defections and sackings. No one can, however, be certain that another general election – the 5th major political event in the UK in just as many years – will offer the country a clear path out of the current political impasse.
#1: Scottish political landscape
No one wants a snap election more than the Scottish Nationalists. In fact, they’re in favour of holding a general election as soon as possible – and definitely ahead of the trial against their former leader, Alex Salmond, next year. The current situation couldn’t be more favourable to First Minister Sturgeon. The party offers a clear pro-EU position – which is only really challenged by the Liberal Democrats – in a nation that voted Remain by a margin of almost 2:1.
In 2015 the Nationalists, of course, swept all Westminster seats bar three north the border. Today, the Labour Party, once the leading force in Scotland, is still struggling to settle on a clear Brexit position. At a rather chaotic Labour conference in Brighton, party members eventually backed the leadership’s neutral motion on Brexit, ensuring the party will neither take a pro-Remain nor a pro-Brexit position ahead of any election. Polls conducted by trade unions showed the “constructive ambiguity” stance adopted by Corbyn ahead of the last general election is now hurting the party in Scotland more than anywhere else in the country. Figures suggest the centre-left party could see another electoral catastrophe in pro-Remain Scotland, reminiscent of its 2015 disaster, with the SNP and the Liberal Democrats set to wipe Labour out.
The Conservatives, whose share of the vote rose to an almost 35-year high in 2017, thus single-handedly ensuring Theresa May’s continued premiership, have lost their charismatic leader Ruth Davidson over the summer. However, even more problematic for the party in Scotland is the promise made by the Johnson leadership in Westminster to leave the EU on October 31st “deal or no deal.” As long as the Scottish Tories rule out a split with the Conservatives and Unionist Party – which could then lead to an electoral pact similar to the one formed by the Christian Democrats and Christian Socialists in Germany – the party might find it difficult to expand its current support north of the border. Last month, opinion polls suggested the SNP could attract 43 per cent – their highest share since June 2017. The Tories, meanwhile, had the support of “only” 30 per cent of Scots. Under a uniform swing, the largest unionist party north of the border would thus lose all of its 13 Westminster seats.
#2: The revival of the Liberal Democrats
“Cleggmania” in 2010 had the air of an American-style political campaign. With the party now marketing itself as a single-issue party in a highly polarized society, they might not need a “Swinson-mania” to gain seats across the country. The party, which under Clegg advocated for an In/Out referendum on the EU, now promises to simply revoke Article 50 if it were to win an overall majority at the polls. That seems very unlikely in the First-Past-The-Post system. But LibDems are the natural home for strong Remain voters, just like the Brexit Party is the natural home for strong Brexiteers. Both essentially hope for a no-deal outcome. The latter sees it as an end point to implement a “clean” break with Europe, while the former hopes such an outcome would lead to the revocation of Article 50 and thus continued EU membership.
The simple “revoke Article 50” position is likely to be extremely popular in pro-Remain places across the country, especially in London and major university towns. They don’t always need a huge swing to accomplish their goal. In Richmond Park (London), Swinson’s party needs only a swing of 0.04% to take the seat away from the Tories. The centrists could pose a real threat to their former coalition partners. They’re currently second in 38 seats – 28 of which are occupied by Conservative MPs. Over the summer, an analysis by the Conservatives themselves showed the party could lose over half of the key marginal seats to the Liberal Democrats. Hoping for a historic election night, the centrists are now even targeting seats like the one held by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.
#3: The underestimated electoral power of “Corbynomics”
A seat lost to the SNP north of the border or to the Liberal Democrats in London (or other Remain areas) is yet another, which Johnson’s Conservatives have to “steal” from Labour. So far, their strategy comes down to getting some of the Leave voters outside London, especially in the Midlands, the North of England, as well as in Wales, to ditch their long-held reluctance to back a Tory. If this sounds familiar to you, it’s because Theresa May already tried it in 2017… and failed miserably. A week is a long time in politics, so two-plus years are an eternity, right? Well, research suggests Labour leavers are first and foremost Labour voters. While they do not necessarily fully agree with the unofficial slogan of the past two Labour conferences, i.e., “Love Corbyn, Hate Brexit,” figures show they (and even many non-Labour voters) do love Corbynomics.
We saw Johnson already going after these voters over the summer with major spending promises. How far Johnson’s Conservatives are willing to go on Corbynomics is the key question in a snap election. The story on election night might thus not necessarily be the fragmentation of the pro-EU/Remain side but rather how many Labour Leavers, which did vote Ukip in previous elections before coming “home” in 2017, were willing to vote for a Tory – or stay at home.
If these figures are correct, then Johnson should hope that many Labour Leavers simply stay at home.
#4: People can’t remember who they voted for 2 years ago
It isn’t all good news for the opposition, though. Far from it. When asked by YouGov last July who they voted for in the 2017 snap election, 45% of respondents said Conservative (actual share of the vote: 44%); 9% now claimed to have voted LibDem (actual: 7%). These are rather minor faulty shifts in perception. There’s really not much to worry about for both parties. The picture looks far more complicated for the largest opposition party. Only 33% told pollsters they voted for Labour in the spring of 2017 when actually 41% of them did.
An eight percentage point gap is such a large “false recall” that it poses a direct threat to the accuracy of opinion polls. If pollsters believe it’s only a matter of false recall, and therefore take no further action, they might not have enough Labour supporters in their sample. If they try to correct it and thus include more centre-left respondents in their poll, they obviously run the risk of oversampling Labour. In either case, polls could potentially be way off the mark and we could be in for another 2015 mistake.
For a political party, it highlights a different kind of problem. A large portion of your voters no longer feel comfortable telling pollsters who they really voted for. That doesn’t sound like they still strongly stand behind what you’re proposing for the future of the country, does it? Whether these people are Remainers, who moved to (or contemplate a move to) the LibDems or Greens, or whether they’re Leavers, who moved to the Tories or the Brexit Party, is one of the two key questions for Labour strategists. The other, of course, is where exactly these voters live. Is Labour losing support in safe seats, where the party already holds a large majority? Or, is the party’s support evaporating in marginal seats?
#5: The newbies
Using past voting behaviour, as many pollsters do, is also particularly challenging in this election due to the Brexit Party – and, to a lesser degree, Change UK. It’ll be the first time both parties are on a ballot in a national UK-wide election. In 2017, supporters of Nigel Farage and his no-deal Brexit policy might have voted UKIP, the Conservatives or even Labour. That poses another risk to pollsters. If you specifically name the “new” party, people are more likely to offer their support and you thus might oversample the new party. If you don’t remind respondents, and let them name a party of their own, pollsters could very well underestimate a new party’s support in the country.
To offset losses in Scotland, London, and other Remain areas, Johnson needs to keep the support of the Brexit Party in England and Wales down. The Prime Minister rejected forming a formal pact with Nigel Farage and reassured “One Nation” Conservative MPs this week that there won’t be a no-deal Brexit pledge in the manifesto. That makes his task to win a majority more difficult. But a closer look at last month’s polling suggests problem number 4 might just help him out here. Pay extra attention to Labour’s numbers and the gap between both major parties. (Also, as a reference, UKIP won 12.6% in 2015, when Cameron just about managed to win an overall majority thanks to taking England seats away from the LibDems.)
#6: Country remains deeply divided
This week, the London Evening Standard did a large (i.e., 300) poll of polls on the EU question. It found that Britain had turned against Brexit. This is in line with Professor Curtice’s poll of polls, showing 53% now support Remain. (Note: On 23 June 2016, the same poll of polls believed Remain to be at 52% support.)
While 48% – thus the exact number of people who voted Remain in 2016 – told YouGov this week they believe it was wrong for Britain to vote to leave the European Union, 4 in 5 Conservative voters and a stunning 98% of Brexit Party voters believe it was the right decision. 90% of Remainers think it’s wrong and 86% of Leavers think it’s right. Nearly 7 in 10 young people believe Brexit was the wrong answer in June 2016, while 64% of seniors still believe it was the right call.
Even on the seemingly basic question of what should happen if the government can’t agree on a new Brexit deal with European leaders by the end of this month, the public finds it difficult to pick a side.
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