Making social science accessible

05 Nov 2019

Politics and Society

upcoming general election

The difficulty in predicting the outcome of the upcoming general election demonstrates the reticence of both main political parties to face the electorate.

Brexit has created difficulties for MPs of all parties: some may feel they are safe because their views on Brexit align with the referendum vote in their area, while others might feel particularly vulnerable because their views do not.

But it’s more complicated than this: each party’s line on Brexit will match the views of some of their supporters, but not all, and what about those who are not party members or supporters, or didn’t vote in the referendum, but whose votes now are crucial to winning seats?

This dilemma has been approached differently by the two main political parties.

The Conservatives have concluded that the majority of their supporters are in favour of leaving the EU and have adopted a policy which they feel will appeal to the majority of their voters, while also bringing in some Leave-supporting Labour voters and some Brexit Party supporters.

Labour have taken a more nuanced approach, changing their policy from supporting the triggering of Article 50 to now pledging a second referendum.

By doing this they, like the Conservatives, are trying to appeal to the maximum number of their own supporters, and also to recruit newcomers.

Importantly, the aim for both is not simply to retain their existing seats.

In order to achieve a Commons majority – the real prize, remember – each party has to win some seats from their rivals. And in this mix, there some parties for whom Brexit is the key policy, and others with different priorities.

The Liberal Democrats, with their history of being proudly and loudly pro-European, have marketed themselves as the ‘party of Remain’, with the aim of gathering up disillusioned Conservatives and Labour supporters who feel cast out from their traditional political homes over Brexit.

While this is a threat for both the main parties, it might be felt more keenly by Labour, which seems to have most to lose if its Remainers jump ship.

Any coalition among the parties, or even a looser voting alliance, would have to be framed around common goal of a second referendum, which would be hugely problematic for the Conservatives, and might be tricky for Labour, even if that is their official policy line.

The devil is always in the detail.

The SNP, currently the third largest party in the House of Commons, is also threatening the two main parties.

If the Conservatives intend to win a majority, they will have to keep hold of their Scottish constituency seats and add to them if they can; but the SNP took 37.8% of the vote in the European Parliament elections in May, and are currently near that level in polls of voting intention.

This threat also extends to Labour, who have seen their traditional strength in Scotland wiped out by the SNP –  but they may hope that their proposed second referendum on Brexit, and a potential second referendum on Scottish independence, may win them back some of their support.

The SNP have been clear that they will not work with a Conservative government, but they might be more open to an alliance with Labour, providing a second independence referendum was granted.

The Brexit Party have no MPs but are looking to turn their European election success into a presence in Westminster, and they are a big threat for the Conservatives.

If, as Nigel Farage has suggested, the Brexit Party fields a large number of candidates – over 500 for example – this could easily split the pro-Brexit vote in numerous constituencies, both those the Conservatives currently hold and those they need to win for a majority.

While both the Conservatives and the Brexit Party are officially supporters of Brexit, their desired outcomes are different and the former will be deeply concerned that the latter will eat into their potential majority.

Perhaps the biggest threat to Brexit is the parties who support it, not those who fight against it.

Beyond those parties vying to be in government, or hoping to be kingmakers, there are a number of other smaller parties who could be crucial in creating a coalition government, either formally or as part of a voting alliance.

Each has a price that would have to be paid for their co-operation, although not all are related to Brexit.

For the Green Party, any MPs in parliament would be committed to a second referendum or to the revoking of Article 50.

For Plaid Cymru, the price would likely be more power for the Welsh Assembly or even a referendum on independence.

For the Northern Irish parties, the price may well relate to their Brexit positions, the measures required to reopen Stormont, or to the revoking of legislation extending abortion rights to Northern Ireland.

With all these variables, all this risk, all these unknowns, why call a general election? Why would the parliamentary parties agree to such an option? The answer is they had very little choice.

The parties cannot agree on Brexit, and the public cannot seem to agree either.

For the pro-Brexit parties, a second referendum is unthinkable, as it could potentially deliver a result that would hamper their plans.

Meanwhile, for Remain-leaning parties a second referendum is not necessarily a magic bullet either, as they fear being accused of undermining the democratic will of the people and perhaps being punished at the ballot box.

With no majority for a second referendum, no majority in government and no settled consensus on a way forward, there is very little choice but to have another general election.

However, there are no guarantees that an election will provide clear answers or a settled consensus view, so all this could be for nothing.

The 2017 election demonstrated how an overly-confident party can so easily unravel under the glare of the media during election time, and both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn need to win, not just to pursue their Brexit agendas, but to avoid receiving their P45s before the Christmas parties.

By Dr Victoria Honeyman, Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Leeds


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