On Thursday 8th June the British electorate go to the polls to vote for their next Prime Minister. Incumbent Conservative candidate Theresa May called the election less than 2 months ago (so we certainly have considerably shorter campaigns than our friends across the pond), shortly after triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, formally starting the process of leaving the European Union.
May started the campaign with a large lead in the polls over her closest rival: Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. I know polls don’t get a great reception these days after failing to predict Donald Trump’s presidency, the Brexit vote and several other elections, but May consistently had a 20-30 point lead, with no poll putting the gap under double digits. With such a massive lead and lots of uncertainty ahead it seemed a no brainer to call the election to increase her majority in the House of Commons (Britain has a parliamentary system, I’ll get on to how it works later) and give herself a mandate to negotiate an exit deal with the EU how she wanted.
Less than 50 days later her decision now looks like a huge gamble that might not pay off. After a series of campaign mishaps and an increase in popularity for the far left policies of Labour, May’s lead is now hovering between 5-12 points, a dramatic drop since the start of the race. With less than a week to go the Conservatives, who thought this would be a walk in the park, are increasingly concerned. If not because they think they will lose (let’s not forget they’re still overwhelmingly likely to win), then because of the incompetence and failures of their candidate. May repeatedly promises ‘strong & stable leadership’, yet has point blank lied to the public on multiple occasions, refuses to participate in TV debates against other candidates and has performed various u-turns on major policies as soon as their unpopularity with the public and members or her own party are instantly revealed. All these features ooze incompetence and a frustrating inability to make up her mind, the antithesis of the ‘strong and stable’ mantra that she alleges her government would provide. Maybe I’m being too harsh, but nevertheless the underlying point is true: May is definitely not having a good campaign.
Now Corbyn is not having a perfect campaign either; he is struggling to convince the public that Labour can raise all the funds necessary for their popular yet expensive policies. That said, at least Labour have attempted to cost their policies, whereas the Conservatives have made little attempt to and remain largely unchallenged by the British press on this oversight. Corbyn though has negative personal approval rates in comparison to May, and is still way behind on poll questions like “Who would be the best Prime Minister?” and “Who do you trust on the economy and security?” Despite this, Corbyn is beating Labour’s 2015 result when they had more moderate Ed Milliband as leader. Corbyn appears incredibly popular with young people, with his counter slogan to May’s ‘strong and stable’ being that he and Labour would form a government that stood ‘For the many, not the few.’ However, in previous elections Labour has struggled to mobilise the youth vote with turnout amongst under 24s being the lowest, whilst over 65s (who vote overwhelmingly for the Conservatives) having the highest turnout. This is a serious problem for Labour who must deploy a big get-out-the-vote campaign on polling day if they want to increase turnout among young people.
Corbyn, who started his campaign to become Labour leader in 2015 a 200/1 outsider, has been compared to both Trump and Vermont Senator and 2016 Democratic primary contender Bernie Sanders. His ideology as a left-wing populist and his anti-establishment mentality have led many journalists to compare Corbyn’s rise to Sanders’. Whilst, Corbyn’s hostile relationship with the British press (which has a right leaning bias, particularly in the newspapers) is similar to President Trump. However, Trump and Corbyn are at the opposite ends of the spectrum ideologically and personality wise. Some have drawn parallels between them both facing establishment women who seem certain of victory even if Corbyn is still highly unlikely to end up victorious.
As I mentioned earlier, Britain has a parliamentary system that means the country will not be voting directly for May or Corbyn. Instead they will be selecting members of parliament (MPs) for 650 constituencies across the country. Each voter will vote for a candidate representing a party who wishes to become an MP in a particular area. For example a city the size of London will be split into dozens of constituencies with approximately 70,000 people voting in each. The candidate with the most votes in a particular constituency will win their party a seat in parliament. The last election was held in 2015 when the Conservative party won 330 seats, Labour 232, the Scottish National Party (SNP) 56, Liberal Democrats 8 and various smaller parties securing 24 seats in total. David Cameron’s Conservatives won a surprise majority and thus Cameron became prime minister.
Since Brexit Cameron has resigned and May was chosen by her party (not the British electorate) to become prime minister. This time around the Conservatives are heavy favourites to win another majority. However, the size of a majority is crucial in analysing who had a good campaign and who didn’t. When May called the election pundits believed she could get anywhere between 370-450 seats: a whopping majority. But with polls narrowing and May having a wobble anything over 350 seats would be seen as a solid night for the Conservatives. A recent seat-by-seat projection by polling company YouGov put May’s party at 310 seats, which wouldn’t be enough for a majority and would cause a ‘hung parliament’. This is an outcome where no party has a majority and so parties must try and form a coalition government with parties that have similar views. The only time this has happened in the last century was in 2010 when Cameron’s Conservatives and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats formed a coalition that spread across the left and the right. Both parties had to make several compromises during the coalition years. The most notable compromise being the Lib Dems’ backtracking on its key election pledge to abolish University tuition fees.
This all but destroyed the Lib Dems whose vote share and number of seats collapsed in 2015. Under new leader Tim Farron they have become the pro-European party and are the only party calling for a second referendum on Brexit. They hope this stance will help them pick up disillusioned Tories (nickname for the Conservatives that stems from 18th and 19th century party that was ideologically similar to the modern day Conservatives) and Labour voters who voted remain in the referendum. However, so far they have stagnated in the polls at 8-10 points. In terms of seats the Lib Dems are targeting urban areas that voted remain in large numbers as well as aiming to regain their traditional heartlands in the South-West of England.
Similarly to the Republicans and Democrats, British parties dominate seats in different parts of the country. Most of the Conservatives’ ‘safe seats’ are in Southern England and the rural counties, whilst Labour’s are in Northern England and major cities like London and Manchester. Certain seats resemble the electoral college in terms of being toss-up marginal states which can decide elections. This time the marginal seats are likely to be current Labour seats that voted leave in the referendum, as well as typical Tory-Labour marginals in the Midlands and Wales.
In Scotland the SNP (who won 56 of the 59 Scottish seats in 2015) will be attempting to defend their seats from a resurgent Scottish Conservative Party, under popular centrist leader Ruth Davidson. Since the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014, the tories have become the main unionist party, overtaking Labour, who used to dominate Scotland, into 2nd place behind the SNP. Unionist is a term used to describe people who want Scotland to remain part of the U.K. The Labour Party will look to bounce back in Scotland after winning a dismal one seat in 2015 compared to over 40 seats five years earlier.
Although when May called the election she tried to frame it as ‘The Brexit election’, the question of our exit from the European Union has certainly not been the centre of attention in the campaign. With the exception of May’s constant sound bites such as ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’, there has been no substantive debate over Brexit. Labour and the Conservatives both agree that we will leave and since Article 50 was triggered most remainers have come to the conclusion that the referendum result is irreversible and are seeking a ‘soft Brexit’, in which we keep as many ties as possible with the EU. May claims that if the British electorate gives her a big majority she will use it as a mandate to take a stronger position at the negotiation table and get the best deal possible for Britain.
However, in practise this is unlikely as even with her tiny majority she easily passed the Article 50 bill in parliament. May’s rivals like to point out that she campaigned for remain in the referendum. They say her apparent change of heart is another example of how she flip-flops on policy and lies to the public. Another example of her inconstancy is that after being elected leader of the Conservatives (and hence Prime Minister) last year she insisted that there would not be a snap election multiple times, only to then call one. Additionally, she u-turned on her flagship policies at both the Conservative manifesto launch and the Spring 2017 budget. These policy changes and u-turns have earned May a reputation as a politician who can’t make up her mind, and who backtracks when she can feel the tide of public opinion turning against her. It is ironic that the Tories are trying to brand her as being ‘strong and stable’ when she crumbles under pressure from any sort of negative reaction to her policies.
Corbyn has struggled to satisfy both leave voters in Labour’s heartlands and liberal, metropolitan remain voters. During the referendum he was ridiculed for not campaigning hard enough for remain. Many senior Labour figures say he was at best uninterested and worst that he actively tried to sabotage the LabourIn campaign. Previously, Corbyn has described himself as a ‘eurosceptic’ and voted to leave the then European Economic Community (EEC) in the 1975 referendum. In spite of his past, Corbyn chose to campaign for remain in 2016, although the chairman of the LabourIn campaign, Alan Johnson, said Corbyn rarely turned up to meetings and even if he did was unhelpful and didn’t contribute to discussions. Johnson blamed Corbyn’s advisors Andrew Fisher and Seumas Milne who he suspected wanted to leave the EU. After the referendum most Labour MPs turned on Corbyn and attempted to oust him as leader. After a vote of no confidence in the veteran Islington MP was passed by the PLP (Parliamentary Labour Party) a leadership contest was triggered. To the frustration of the PLP, Labour’s members voted Corbyn back in a landslide. During this election campaign Corbyn has attempted to shift the attention to issues such as our National Health Service and education where Labour are seen as more reliable than the tories.
With just over a week to go the British election is hotting up; the Conservatives’ once unassailable lead is narrowing and the campaign is getting personal with Theresa May using the strange insult of ‘Jeremy Corbyn would be naked and alone in negotiations with the European Union’. She is clearly concerned and news that her campaign chiefs are having a civil war behind closed doors will not reassure Tory supporters. On the other hand, their lead is still large and consistent across the polls. Will a rejuvenated Corbyn be able to catch up or will the Conservatives cruise to a massive majority? Find out on 9th June when the British political landscape will change whatever the result.