It has been a week since the Prime Minister called for a general election and since then MPs have passed the motion through the House of Commons and the old party machines have rallied into action.
Much has been said for what prompted Mrs May to call the election and all have an element of truth. She needs a mandate from the public to legitimise the trajectory of her strategy to leave the European Union; the Conservatives are dominating in the polls and the opposition parties are relatively weak; 30 Conservative MPs are facing investigations for breaking spending rules in 2015 and she’d rather not stomach this during tumultuous EU negotiations or an economic downturn – returning a stronger majority should allow the Conservatives to weather criminal charges. This and more will have persuaded the Prime Minister that an early election was a wise decision, a shrewd political calculation.
As for the upcoming election campaign, I will detail what to expect, aside from a more prudent management of election expenses, and how the country will look on 9 June.
This election may very well be the last attempt to splash the country with a bit of purple. Having forced and then won a referendum to leave the European Union, their raison d’être, the impact UKIP and Nigel Farage have had on British politics is immense. However, the trouble of building a party around a single issue is when that issue is removed, little remains to bind the party together. Holdover Thatcherites, classical liberals and protectionists have all found sanctuary in UKIP, but the crucial thread that held them together was uncompromising Euroscepticism and the charismatic and controversial leadership of Nigel Farage. Since the Tories have now taken up the reins of leaving the EU, UKIP’s appeal has significantly reduced and I do not foresee them building on their 12.7% (3.8 million) share of the vote, let alone returning a Member of Parliament.
The Liberal Democrats
The Lib Dems can hardly do worse than they did in 2015 so it is safe to say they will increase their share of the vote and number of seats. Since the decision to leave the EU, which will undoubtedly subordinate domestic issues during this election campaign, the Liberal Democrats have cleverly reached out to the 48% of Remain voters. By tapping into the reservoir of pro-EU sentiment they will certainly increase their share of raw votes across the country and their victory in Richmond Park perhaps demonstrates their ability to pick up a seats in southern Remain constituencies. But raw votes is not enough in our electoral system as UKIP discovered in 2015, and the Lib Dems may suffer the same fate this election. Moreover, they may be exchanging long-term recovery for short-term success; their stringent focus on being the champions of the 48%, on holding a second referendum, echoes the single-issue drive of UKIP. This has the potential of eclipsing other policies, leaving them high and dry once we have left the European Union. However, if they manage to convey a broader political base covering their typically strong position on mental health through Norman Lamb and progressive social policies, the Liberal Democrats could find surer footing for the years to come.
The Green Party
Without a progressive alliance I fail to see the Greens making any inroads to the electoral map. The Lib Dems will soak up much of the floating pro-EU votes and, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour has moved to the left, covering what may once have been the sole political refuge of the Green Party. Splitting the leadership between Caroline Lucas, who has became synonymous with her party, and Jonathon Bartley, has further consigned them to an environmental pressure group.
Through Corbyn, Labour has rightly retreated from the absurd obsession with centre-centre politics that has dominated the 21st century. But, in doing so, the old socialist thread as unwound the binds that held radicals, Blairites and northern Labour together. In essence, the party is openly split between these three factions. If the socialists under Corbyn had similar representation in the parliamentary Labour Party as they have amongst their ordinary members, we would have a stronger and more presentable opposition during this campaign. However the “centre-left” and Blairites, who have come in to the House of Commons on the coattails of dreary and inseparable politicians, retain a majority in the parliamentary Party and the northern Labour constituencies present a further frustration to unity. The latter represent the old mining and industrial towns which typify the stalwart British working class who have increasingly less in common with the surge of pro-EU socialism in the city-dwelling youth.
The result of this conglomerate is a fairly weak political parcel that has little chance of achieving an outright majority. I expect they will lose 30-40 seats and largely to the Conservatives. Where Labour may find unifying strength is in their attacks on Tory oversight of the NHS, particularly given the supposed “humanitarian crisis” and slow progression in mental health. Opposing the Conservative approach to leaving the European Union should also allow Labour to straddle pro- and anti-EU sentiment, giving them some potential to withstand this election without too much loss. The possibility of a coalition with other left-wing and national parties may offer a way into government but it is a slim possibility from the view we are granted at the start of this campaign.
With a 23 point lead on Labour according to the latest Yougov poll from 20/21 April, it is fairly uncontroversial to predict another Tory majority. With a relatively weak parliamentary opposition from the left, and the last gasps of UKIP as an influential force in British politics from the right, the Conservative Party has a very strong starting position. They now appear as a unified party committed to taking Britain out of the EU, and are likely to sweep up the raw votes UKIP will lose. They will also secure Leave voters who fear that Labour will undermine the Prime Minister’s negotiating position and that the Liberal Democrats will overturn their decision altogether. I suspect many reluctant, indifferent and unsure voters will lean towards the incumbent government, as tends to happen, in the interest of stability, which Theresa May represents. She embodies the caretaker Prime Minister that lacks flair and charisma yet is seen as capable, someone who will get the job done. I expect leaving the EU will dominate their campaign procession, drawing attention away from domestic affairs and into a patriotic and hopeful realm in which they are more comfortable. Scotland, welfare and the NHS will be subordinated by the EU and global politics, almost certainly one of the reasons why the Prime Minister has announced she will not appear on the televised debates.
On this point, it is a great tradition in Britain that we have an adversarial press and adversarial politics where we subject our political representatives to the upmost scrutiny. It is disappointing to see Mrs May elide this tradition. She will, of course, still be subjected to Prime Minister’s Questions, interviews, press conferences and newspaper coverage, as will many from her party, but the televised debates are the symbolic end to this campaign process. She is perhaps hoping, as Diane James successfully did in the UKIP leadership elections, to appear like a respectable premier by avoiding public squabbles and shouting matches and instead focus on the campaign trail. This certainly suits her character and, like the election itself, is a political calculation; she has little to gain from televised debates which allow the smaller parties to eat away at the incumbent and opposition parties. However, the trade-off will be her tangible absence from our television sets on those debate nights which the opposition parties will undoubtedly exploit.
Regardless of the success or failure of the Conservative Party’s election campaign, I would be surprised if they did not return an even greater majority with over 42% of the votes and 360-390 seats.