The 2001 general election, in which merely 59.4% of voters cast ballots, was the most predictable to date. New Labour soared ahead in the opinion polls and, having achieved extensive reforms, were a firm favourite of the electorate. With the rise of partisanship and apathy, as well as the heavy emphasis on the the failures of the Conservative government, it must be seriously considered if the next general election will be a competition at all. Therefore we must ask ourselves, is history repeating itself?
This article argues that in spite of the widespread anti-Tory sentiment, Rishi Sunak still has the chance to protect his Westminster throne at the next general election. However, this is dependent on key factors: the popularity of party leaders, the public’s reception to policy pledges, and the electoral system. While it may not be a foregone conclusion for the two main parties, it is safe to assume that minority parties continue to fade out of existence and stand no chance against the big blues and reds.
What do the recent by-elections tell us? 3 by-elections have occurred in October, and while they may not be of any significance to the average voter, their results are very telling. In all 3, there was over a 20% swing to the Labour Party, effectively breaking down a roughly 25k Conservative majority in Mid Bedfordshire. It is therefore undeniable that these by-elections are being utilised as a protest vote; they are a manifestation of the growing hostility towards Rishi Sunak’s government. So, should he be concerned? Yes… and no.
While by-elections are an invaluable insight into public opinion, they are not necessarily a signal of voting intention. More than expressing their actual political opinions, voters use their vote recklessly in these elections to show their contempt. Notably, it is the valence of a party – its perceived economic competency – and the reputation of its leaders which appear to have a greater influence on voting behaviour than the results of by-elections. One can all too remember how a bacon sandwich potentially derailed the entirety of Ed Miliband’s political career, where Labour in the 2015 election suffered a net loss of -26. Rishi Sunak’s public image is similarly negative: just 11% of Britons believe he has been good or great, compared to 50% who feel he has been a poor or terrible prime minister. Therefore, in spite of the limited expectations set by his lettuce-losing predecessor, Rishi Sunak still fails to win over the electorate. Even Boris Johnson, the supposed party goer, initially won over voters with his charismatic personality. Furthermore, the Prime Minister and his government have been accused of racism over their stance on immigration, which has seen to violate the ECHR and decrease his reputation as a respectable politician. The very fact that the Prime Minister is a millionaire presiding over a cost of living crisis is a cause for scandal. So surely this controversy guarantees a win for Labour? Not necessarily. Labour has themselves faced controversy, with the claims of antisemitism still staining their party image. In addition, Kier Starmer disappoints young people and progressives by being perceived as an old, dull man who doesn’t offer anything fresh or radical to the party, with 47% of voters viewing him as a bad leader. Therefore, neither of the two main party leaders attract much love from the electorate. While 45% of the electorate intend to vote for Labour, with just 27% supporting Conservatives, this is more of a reflection of the anti-tory effect and the weariness of the Conservative government that has been in power for 13 years and presided over soaring inflation, a pandemic and war. Therefore, in terms of party leaders, there is no clear winner in the era of personalised politics.
Therefore, policy is utilised to set one leader apart from the other and give voters a clear choice and alternative objectives if both leaders are unpopular. However, when both parties are shifting to the right of the political spectrum in order to appeal to wider groups of the electorate, such as the middle class, moderate and progressive voters go ignored. In contrast to Corbyn’s “For the many not the few” platform, Starmer is far more centrist and wants to emulate Blair in order to remove the Conservatives from office. In an attempt to broaden Labour’s base of support beyond the working class and win over the middle class, Starmer has been extremely evasive about his views on immigration and tax increases. In addition to his ambiguity, he has also be known to “flip-flop” on key policy pledges. When Starmer ran for leadership, he promised to bring key industries under common ownership but has since retracted his commitment to nationalisation. Moreover, he will no longer fully endorse trade unions or completely stop outsourcing in the NHS, a far cry from Corbyn’s left wing agenda. Indeed, Starmer has been successful in distancing himself from the Corbynites, but at what cost? With all these u-turns, it has led 50% of the public to state that they don’t know what Keir Starmer stands for. Similarly, Sunak also pledges to not increase tax, to reduce debt and inflation, and restore law and order. As a result, Sunak adopts a more conventional Thatcherite stance, while Starmer adopts a New Labour stance, leading to few policy differences between them—with the exception of social policy.
To conclude, both party leaders are unpopular and fail to suggest any new ground-breaking policy that sets them apart from each other. In a political system dominated by a two-party system and tactical voting, voters’ belief that they have no other realistic option and their hatred of Conservatives would be the main reasons for Labour’s victory in the next general election. This next general election will not be driven by healthy competition, but by deep division and discontent. The argument that this next election will be a foregone conclusion is therefore unsubstantial, as neither party have any major success factors, other than their ability to ride on the hate directed towards the opposing party. We can only hope that a new government restores trust and energy back into the political process, so the UK can distance itself from “Punch and Judy politics”.
Featured Image: The Bubble portfolio