The Twists and Turns of the UK General Election
November 15, 2019Campaigning for the United Kingdom’s December 12 general election is now well underway. All the traditional features of a British election campaign are there, but with some important twists:
- The main candidates for prime minister are unsuitable. Boris Johnson has been described as a “[c]ompulsive liar who has betrayed every single person who has ever had any dealings with him,” while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was called “unfit for office… I don’t think he’s a patriot. I don’t think he loves our country.” There is nothing unusual about such criticisms for candidates, except for their source: the charge against Johnson was made by his own former chief of staff, Nick Boles, while the criticism of Corbyn came from a former Labour member of parliament. Attacks of this sort—circular firing squad—are not normal four weeks before a major vote. One would expect parties to circle the wagons.
- Promises around government spending abound. The Conservatives have claimed that Labour’s plans would cost £1.2 trillion over five years even though Labour has not yet published its platform (although it has committed to nationalize British Telecom to provide free broadband internet for all). On the government side, the Tories have also promised increases in public investment, but the Chancellor of the Exchequer will not publish the government’s spending promises. Both parties are pledging a major fiscal spending frenzy with little concern about the United Kingdom’s growing budget deficit, debt profile, or fiscal situation in a post-Brexit scenario. These attacks are flying even before proper manifestos have been published, and the public still does not know how much will be spent under different plans.
- Political alliances may shift the election. Labour has accused the Conservatives of wanting to sell off the National Health Service, one of the United Kingdom’s most loved institutions, in order to secure a future trade deal with the United States. Corbyn has dubbed President Trump, Boris Johnson, and Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage an “unholy alliance” that will force the United Kingdom to lower its trade standards. In response, Johnson has derided a “dithering alliance” between Labour and the Scottish National Party over both parties’ desire to hold a second Brexit referendum and possibly another referendum on Scottish independence in the next two years. The constant chatter about alliances has some parties vowing not to support others in the case of a hung parliament (when no one party holds a majority). However, tactical alliances are being formed among “remain” and “leave” camps, which could impact election results in places where the incumbent only has a small or marginal lead.
Despite these turns, opinion polls have been remarkably stable. The Conservatives are holding steady at 38 percent, Labour at 26 percent, and LibDems at 16 percent, while the Brexit Party hovers around 10 percent. The latter’s decision not to contest all seats appears to have consolidated the “leave” vote in favor of the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats may find it harder to make additional gains as the party competes with Labour, especially in the south of England. A united “leave” vote may well have the upper hand on a divided “remain” constituency. But we will not know the impact of tactical voting (which can sometimes go very wrong with faulty math and internet-fueled miscalculation) until election night, and we do not know what voter turnout will be in the darkness of December. Importantly, voter fatigue has settled in and nearly half of the electorate seems to be tuning out the campaign for the moment.
The logistics of the campaign themselves have also suffered some twists and turns. Boris Johnson has cancelled events as he has been met by protestors. At the same time, there is a growing controversy over Russian financing of the Conservative party and an unreleased report over Russian interference in the 2016 and 2017 votes (Number 10 has held back the publication for unclear reasons). Jeremy Corbyn’s talking points on some issues continue to shift rapidly, whether it be a second Scottish independence referendum or Labour’s position on migration. Flooding in the north of the country and the government’s lagging response to it could yet affect the campaign. With a month left to go, the twists and turns of an election that will shape the UK’s future for a generation are only just beginning.