Election Briefing #1: Much to be Uncertain About

October 30, 2019

So… here we are again. After several historic defeats in the House of Commons and a failure to break the Brexit deadlock, Boris Johnson has finally persuaded opposition MPs to give him the general election that he has desired since becoming prime minister. Britain will be going to the polls on 12th December in the first December election since 1923. As things stand, Johnson’s Tories enter the campaign as favourites to win an overall majority in the House of Commons and almost certain to remain the largest the single parliamentary party. The Tories currently hold a lead of around 10 percentage-points over the Labour Party, enough to produce a Conservative overall majority to the order of 58 seats. Things may look very good for the Tories at the moment, and Johnson’s team certainly has reason for optimism. They should also be very cautious as there are reasons to suggest that an outright Conservative victory is far from certain and a few marginal seats could be critical in deciding the outcome of this election. 

The first, and most obvious reason to be cautious is 2017. Theresa May’s Conservatives entered the 2017 general election campaign with a lead of 17.2 percentage-points, with some polls showing leads of up to 20-points. By polling day, that lead had all but evaporated and the Conservatives squeaked out a 2.4-point popular victory over Labour and lost their parliamentary majority in the process. The election designed to produce a thumping overall majority ended up producing the hung parliament that paralysed the last administration and led to the deadlock that the House of Commons has been locked into over the last two years. 2017 proved that nothing is certain, and it broke the conventional wisdom that campaigns have very little impact on the eventual result of a general election. When Theresa May called the 2017 election, her party was flying high in the polls and her personal ratings were on par with landslide winners Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher. A poor campaign from Theresa May and a resurgent Labour Party put paid that and against all expectations, the British electorate delivered a hung parliament. Whilst it is unlikely that the Tories will make the mistake of running such an awful campaign in 2019, Jeremy Corbyn is doubtlessly a good campaigner and will be hoping that he can make up some of Labour’s position in the polls. 2017 saw Labour climb 11-points during the campaign and a similar climb would almost certainly see Labour tip the Tories out of office. The Tories hope that this time, Jeremy Corbyn will struggle pull off such a surge. The Labour Party is languishing in a similar poll position to that of 2017, with around 25 percent. It is difficult to tell at this stage whether Labour will pull off a recovery, but for Jeremy Corbyn’s team, everything is very much in play. According to findings by the British Election Study, some 40 percent of voters have switched parties in the two most recent elections. Given this volatility, the campaign period is going to be vital in deciding the outcome of this election. Boris Johnson will want to keep voters occupied on Brexit, which is almost certainly his strong point, whilst Labour will try to move the campaign onto other issues such as the NHS, education and cuts to public services. Basically, the discourse of the campaign and the issues that drive the narrative of the election will have a major impact on the result. 

Another reason for caution on the part of the Conservatives is the fact that their path to an overall majority is potentially rather complicated. In 2015, the Conservative overall majority was produced by an exceptional Conservative performance in seats held by their coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats. The once powerful third party was reduced to a mere rump and although there was some talk of a Liberal Democrat hindering the Tories in 2017, that never really materialised and the party went down to a second smashing, finishing with a smaller share of the vote and further behind in most constituencies than in 2015. Current opinion polling, however, suggests that the party is undergoing somewhat of a renaissance. Since the European Parliamentary elections, where they beat the Labour Party into second place, the Liberal Democrats have been polling around 18 percent of the vote. Several YouGov surveys have put them ahead of Labour in second place and two polls have even had them in the lead. Given Britain’s First Past the Post electoral system, it is very unlikely that this kind of vote share will be particularly efficient, but it does imply that the party has a reasonable chance of regaining some off its 2015 losses from the Tories. Whilst this is also true of the Labour Party, there are simply far less Liberal-Labour battlegrounds. The Scottish Conservatives came to the rescue of the English and Welsh party in 2017, winning an impressive 13 Scottish seats. These seats were enough to leave the Conservatives in minority control of the House of Commons. Without these Scottish MPs, the Conservatives would almost certainly have moved into opposition at the hands of a Labour and ‘the rest’ coalition. Current Scottish polling suggests that most of the 13 Scottish Conservative seats are at risk from a challenge by the Scottish National Party. If the Tories lose 10 to 15 seats to the Liberal Democrats and 7 or 8 seats to the Scottish National Party, which is looking likely at present, then they need to compensate by making gains elsewhere. 

The obvious place for the Tories is the much fabled ‘Labour leave’ seat. In 2017, the story went that in these predominantly Northern and West Midlands Labour heartlands, the UKIP vote would collapse and deliver the Tories the constituency. In the event, the distribution was roughly even and as a result, Labour managed to hold on in all but six cases. This time, Boris Johnson will be hoping that he will be able to appeal to Labour-leave voters in a way that Theresa May failed. Indeed, 61 of the 100 most vulnerable Labour seats are in the West midlands and the North of England. A swing of less than three percentage-points from Labour could deliver as many as 21 of these 61 seats to the Conservatives. After that, the floodgates really start to open, and the Tories are motoring towards a parliamentary majority well in excess of 100 seats. In this situation, many long-standing Labour heartlands would be trampled on as the Tories advance into former industrial and mining communities in the West Midlands and the North. Another route to this, could paradoxically be a strong performance from the Liberal Democrats amongst Labour-Remainers. In those circumstances, a split emerging in the Labour vote, could result in the Tories making big gains in these traditional Labour seats, and the Tories could do it without taking more votes than in 2017. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats running up 10-15 percent of the vote in seats in the West Midlands and north of England and taking most of them from Labour could be catastrophic for Labour MPs and potentially lead to a string of historic seats going blue for the first time in a generation. There is, however, much speculation about whether either of these scenarios will occur come polling day. Theresa May, with a much higher personal rating than Boris Johnson, failed to capitalise on the Labour-Leave vote, and only managed to pick up six of this type of seat in 2017. Furthermore, the Liberal Democrats are still toxic in some parts of the UK, stunting any kind if impressive performance from them and historic Labour voters may simply hold their nose and vote Labour once more. Further to this, the Brexit Party may well choose to stand in these seats, and it is anyone’s guess who this will benefit. In 2015, UKIP seemed to hurt the Tories in some areas and hurt Labour in others. In these kinds of seats, there is good reason to expect an equal amount of damage to both main parties’ vote but with the Tories suffering slightly more and enough to keep Labour in control of these seats. Whist it looks likely that the Tories could theoretically win Labour-leave seats to counteract any losses to the Liberal Democrats or the SNP, a lot of factors could result in Labour holding on or even making gains in similar types of seats across the country. 

There has also been a lot of conversation and discourse about turnout and the fact that this election is going to be held on a dark December day. The argument is generally that Labour is likely to suffer more heavily from a depressed turnout and whilst that may be true, solid Labour constituencies have previously generally suffered from a lower turnout. This implies that Labour voters are less likely to vote and whilst that may be the case, it would appear unlikely that the timing of the election will not make much difference. There have been several studies conducted that have concluded that the weather has virtually no effect on turnout and it is worth remembering that no issue has ever enthused British politics in quite the same way as Brexit. As a result, it would seem highly unlikely that the weather would put them off putting their cross in the box on 12th December. It looks likely that turnout will be roughly stable compared to 2017, with parties likely to seek to maximise their postal vote. One area that may be of interest is whether the students are in residence or at home. Many universities finish their terms around the election and given that students were a major driving force behind the Labour surge in 2017, there is some question as to whether Labour can pull it out of the bag in places like Warwick and Leamington and Canterbury. Of course, students could still vote by post in their university constituency and it is likely that Labour may try to persuade them to do so. 

The other and final area to be cautious for the Tories is Remain voters. In 2017, it was Remainers that delivered Jeremy Corbyn 40 percent of the popular vote and helped him to gain a string of Tory seats, enough to stop Theresa May winning overall control of the House of Commons on her own. Whilst that vote is currently fragmented across Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, there is a fairly good chance that many of them may return to Labour in Conservative-Labour marginals when push comes to shove. Given the collapse of the two-parties’ vote share in the opinion polls, this election is really about which of the two main parties can hold onto their 2017 coalition of voters. That currently looks like it’s the Tories, but any campaign movement towards the Labour Party may change that. 

The Battle Ahead 

To win an outright overall majority, a new Conservative leader would need to net an additional eight seats, requiring a swing of just 0.3-percentage points from Labour. This is by no means as easy as it sounds. It would mean bucking the historic trend that once a governing party has started losing seats, it continues losing them until it has moved into opposition. For the Conservatives though, there is a very small lifeline in the form of ten (currently) members of parliament from the Democratic Unionist Party. Since the 2017 election, they have propped up the Conservatives via a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement and are very unlikely to install a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn. Given that Sinn Fein don’t take their seats in parliament and that the speaker does not vote, this currently leaves the magic number for an overall majority at 322 and means that the Conservatives can afford to lose a further five seats and probably remain the governing party, albeit they really would be clinging on. 

Once below that figure (312), then things begin to get difficult. The Democratic Unionist Party would no longer be enough to nudge them over the winning line and they would be running out of options. Lady Sylvia Hermon could possibly be persuaded to support the Tories, but probably not and the Liberal Democrats are unlikely to want to enter any kind of agreement with them given what happened the last time that they installed a Conservative Prime Minister. Beyond that, the Conservatives are friendless. Labour, on the other hand would not need to make a spectacular number of net gains and could theoretically eject the Conservatives from power. Assuming that there are no changes amongst the ‘others’, if Labour were to pick off eight seats from the Conservatives, then a combination of 270 Labour, 35 Scottish Nationalists, 12 Liberal Democrats, four Plaid Cymru and one Green would have a total of 322 members of parliament, enough for Jeremy Corbyn to form a very wobbly minority government. Wobbly as it may be, the point is that the Tories would have lost power. Certainly, they would be the largest party and relatively comfortably, but they would be on the opposition benches and not governing. If there were any larger swing to Labour, of 1.63-percentage points or more, then Labour would become the largest party and it would be game over for the Tories.  

What do the polls say? 

No polls have been released since the election bill passed through the House of Commons. It will be very interesting to see what changes occur now the election is on and voters become aware, will we see a squeeze of the smaller parties and a return to the big two? Or will things remain roughly the same as the current picture? In our poll tracker, the Conservatives are currently sitting at 35.4 percent, 10-points ahead of Labour who are on 25.4 percent. This represents a collapse in the two-party vote from 83.4 percent in 2017 to 60.8 percent. It would also represent a swing from Labour to the Tories of 3.65 percentage points. The Liberal Democrats are polling 17.9 percent, up 10.3 percentage-points, whilst new kids on the block, the Brexit Party, are polling 11.4 percent. The Greens are up 2.2 percentage-points, on 3.9 percent, whilst UKIP are all but wiped out on 0.6 percent. This would result in a narrow overall Conservative victory, with an overall majority of about 20 seats. The house of commons would look something like: CON 335 (+17), LAB 217 (-45), SNP 45 (+10), LD 30 (+18), PLC 4 (-) and GRN 1 (-). 

To conclude, nothing is certain. The Conservatives are currently heavy favourites to win an overall majority in the House of Commons and whilst there is a lot of chatter about 2017, it must be remembered that just because something happened two- and a-bit years ago, it isn’t forced to happen again. There is every reason for Labour to be hopeful and there is a chance that voters may even deliver a Labour plurality, but there are a lot of factors in play to consider and the range of outcomes is currently very wide. With seven weeks to go before a single ballot is cast, a colossal Tory majority is just as likely as a Labour-led hung parliament. As things stand, the outcome probably sits somewhere in the middle of that, flitting between a multi-party Labour led administration and a very small Tory overall majority. There will be lots of discussion over the next few weeks about ‘Workington Man’ and whether Labour can see of the Tories in the West Midlands and the North, the conventional wisdom says they are potentially in trouble, but it would be safe to say, a week is a long time in politics.

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