The Great British PR Gamble
The upcoming UK general election is offering a tantalising opportunity for rebellious Conservative voters
It has been just over a year since Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was appointed prime minister by King Charles on 25 October 2022.
Installed as the candidate favoured by Conservative MPs after the disastrous short tenure of Liz Truss as PM, Sunak’s popularity then plummeted in the months that followed.
According to YouGov, after one year in the position, 50% of UK voters polled by the organisation agreed that Sunak had been a poor or terrible PM (50%), while just 11% thought that he had been good or great. Meanwhile, 33% considered him average (which is also the prevailing opinion among Conservative voters, at 48%).
In addition, three in ten Tory voters (29%) rated Sunak’s first year in office badly, while only 20% thought that his performance had been positive.
The argument put forward by Sunak’s supporters at the time of his political coronation was that the former chancellor would be a steadying force as leader of the country, as well as (and here comes the important bit) a good political manager.
Sunak’s critics attacked the prospective leader for essentially the same reasons; that he would be a (middle) manager and a technocratic globalist at a time when voters were increasingly returning to the conviction politics of the Right after a troublesome globalist decade (or two).
Witnessing Sunak’s popularity sinking month on month, and with a general election approaching, the parliamentary Conservative Party is now showing the first signs of panic.
Then Deputy Chairman of the party, Lee Anderson, on 2 January, became the latest vocal advocate of this sense of impending doom when he voiced the opinion on GB News (increasingly the channel of choice for Conservatives) that a vote for the Reform UK Party would, in effect, be a vote for the Labour Party.
Dashed party expectations
This may or may not be the case, though Reform’s support amongst voters has climbed over the past year, ending 2023 at 11% according to YouGov.
Fast becoming the choice of disaffected conservatives, Reform and its leader, Richard Tice, together with its honorary president, Nigel Farage (pictured), appear to offer voters the kind of policies that the increasingly liberalised Tories do not.
A split conservative vote now also seems likely as the general election approaches, as does Labour benefitting from this division.
Whether this might be enough to give Labour the kind of majority it needs to form a strong government is less certain. If some of the polling and speculation are to be believed, the party may instead be on course for the sort of victory that Harold Wilson achieved in 1964 under circumstances not dissimilar to today’s.
In 1964, facing an exhausted and drifting Conservative administration under the leadership of Alec Douglas-Home, Labour was expected by many to win the election with a solid landslide. That year Wilson fought a campaign on a modernisation platform; all that “white heat of technology” rhetoric as a succour to those voters weary (as the party leadership also was) of a potentially socialist incoming Labour government.
As it turned out, Labour limped over the line in in 1964 with a majority of four seats and then stumbled through to 1966 only to face the electorate again, this time emerging with a majority of 97 (before lurching straight into a devaluation crisis in 1967).
Like 1964 all over again?
If Labour underperforms in the upcoming election it may, as a result, have no choice but to look to a coalition arrangement to take power and avoid the gamble of immediately going to the polls again.
In 2010 David Cameron’s Conservatives found themselves in a similar position after the general election that year and turned to the Liberal Democrats to form such a coalition government.
Will Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party face the same conundrum come the election in 2024 (or possibly 2025)? If so, and a similar deal is done, which could theoretically happen as both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are increasingly aligned on environmental and social issues, then the price for doing so may be a change in the British voting system to replace first-past-the-post with proportional representation.
A central pillar of the Liberal Democrats’ agenda, in 2010 this issue was compromised in negotiations with the Conservatives; the Liberal Democrats ultimately trading a commitment to proportional representation for a 2011 referendum on whether to replace first-past-the-post with an alternative vote electoral system.
Starmer may find himself unable to offer such a compromise on electoral reform this time round and the Liberal Democrats may also not be as interested anyway (if they have the number of MPs Starmer needs), particularly taking into account the party’s bruising experience whilst in the 2010–2015 government.
Proportion representation may thus be the price of doing business for Labour, and one which it would be more willing to gamble on rather than forcing voters to vote at another general election.
For conservative voters, historically the great defenders of first-past-the-post, this may actually be the outcome they most desire.
Over the years, first-past-the-post has been a partial guarantor of a grip on power by the Conservative Party. It has also proved to be how the parliamentary party has ignored the opinions of party members once in power, much to the frustration of grassroots activists.
In 1975, this frustration encouraged Margaret Thatcher (the ultimate conviction politician) to challenge ex-Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath for leadership of the party. This then led, following the British general election of 1979, almost to two decades of Right Wing British government.
Fitting in with a much wider shift away from the post-war political consensus on the part of the public, this era also saw Ronald Reagan installed by U.S. voters in the White House and free market capitalism rolled out across the West.
Today, at a time of social and political division similar to that experienced in the 1970s, are British voters about to roll the dice on a Labour government to unlock a fundamental change in the electoral system?
If so, they will be pulling the country in line with the European PR-dominated electoral systems as these countries also move increasingly rightward and U.S. electors consider rolling their own dice on ex-President Donald Trump returning to the White House.
Time will tell, but it may be that 2024 proves to be the year when voters on each side of the Atlantic start the clock on each of these high-stake political gambles.