Seven Days to UK Elections: A Choice of None of the Above

Contributor: Heather A. Conley

With the conclusion of the NATO Leaders’ Meeting and President Trump’s self-restraint on weighing in the upcoming UK election, it is time to refocus on a general election that has massive implications for the future integrity of the United Kingdom and its economic future. 
Seven days ahead of the election, the Conservatives are sustaining their substantial lead over the Labour Party, currently with a margin of about 9 points. The Labour party has slowly risen in the polls, much of it at the expense of the Liberal Democrats, which continue to sink. But if there is one thing that many UK voters agree on, it is their unhappiness with party leaders.  
Boris Johnson went into this early election—which he eagerly sought—with unusually low approval ratings (49 percent approve of his performance) for a new-in-post prime minister and those ratings have risen only slightly during the campaign. Running on the slogan “get Brexit done” in the hope that voter fatigue with the subject will increase Conservative support, the Conservatives also want to pivot from Brexit and put the party’s past policies of fiscal austerity away from voters’ minds. Indeed, Tories are promising important increases in funding for health care, transportation, and policing and campaigning on significant tax cuts (while their election manifesto shows tax increases). Lack of trust and honesty is a constant theme as voters have openly laughed at suggestions that Prime Minister Johnson could be trusted.
The Conservatives, however, may be most vulnerable on health care as it relates to the hugely popular National Health Service (NHS), which is why Prime Minister Johnson has spent a good deal of time on the campaign being photographed visiting hospitals and expressing his affection for the NHS. But those visits have not been popular everywhere, as usual NHS winter shortages and a nursing strike have combined with public backlash over reports that UK trade negotiators are considering opening up the drugs market (and NHS rules related to this) to U.S. drug companies in a future trade agreement—something that would push up drug prices. Johnson has been told to ‘get out of my town’ on several of his constituency visits, especially in the north of England, where the Conservatives are historically disliked but Brexit is popular. Despite Johnson’s mediocre campaign performance, Conservatives may gain additional seats in the Midlands and the North. The Conservatives’ campaign coffers are much fuller than the other parties’ and they are getting ready to launch a massive social media campaign for the last week of campaigning, similar to the one that tipped the Brexit referendum in the days before June 23, 2016.
Yet Boris Johnson’s unpopularity pales in comparison with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s. At the beginning of the election, Jeremy Corbyn’s favorability ratings were a net minus 48 points; they have barely moved since (now at minus 43) as Corbyn has confirmed voters’ impressions. He has repeatedly failed to combat anti-Semitism in the Labour party and has had no credible answer when asked about the issue. His position on Brexit has never been clear, always seeking to remain neutral on one of the most significant issues for the country in a generation. Labour MPs describe him as unfit to lead, and a few are even telling people to vote Conservative. But he is not without support: Corbyn has received the backing of a slew of cultural and civil society figures for the party’s plans on economic and climate issues, which may resonate with the younger electorate Labour seeks to convince—should they vote in the election. Corbyn has so far failed to achieve a surge of support like the one that occurred prior to 2017 election and robbed the Conservatives of their majority—barring a significant breakthrough during a televised debate with Boris Johnson on December 6.
Perhaps the most significant change in electoral fortunes has been the fate of the Liberal Democrats and their leader Jo Swinson, who has underperformed against expectations. Her party’s pledge to revoke Brexit (in the increasingly unlikely event that it achieves a majority in its own right) has fallen flat as many voters see this as an undemocratic dismissal of the 2016 referendum result. Voters also blame the LibDems for painful austerity imposed by the 2010-2015 coalition government (with the Conservatives), for which Swinson offered a belated apology. She also has been excluded from the main televised leaders’ debate, further reducing an opportunity to promote her party’s message.
Uncertainty also has a voice in this election. A full 30 percent of voters now say they no longer plan to vote for their top choice party, but to ensure that the party they most dislike does not win—so-called ‘tactical voting’. In 2017, 24 percent of voters voted tactically. But tactical voting has its flaws (not least that the math can be complicated and unreliable) and it adds more uncertainty to polling models. Other factors will play a role next Thursday: a record spike in voter registrations in November may favor the anti-Brexit parties (based on the profile of people who registered); and the miserable weather predicted for polling day could affect turnout (though this is more speculative) as December 12 is expected to be a cold, dark, and wet day, which could put off older voters who have traditionally been Conservative-leaning. Although the size of the Conservative lead over Labour has varied from poll to poll, as one commentator put it, “we are a normal-size polling error away from a Labour government.”
This election campaign has been as unusual as it has been significant. Never before, in the history of British elections, has so much rested on a choice between so many political leaders, with so little public support. Polling models have to reckon with many potentially decisive factors and have to account for some lackluster estimates in previous elections. It seems the (un)popularity contest is almost drowning party platforms and voters are left to choose, as the French saying goes, between the plague and cholera.
Donatienne Ruy
Director, Executive Education and Abshire-Inamori Leadership Academy, and Fellow, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program