MPs have finally found a way they can agree upon to circumvent the Fixed Term Parliaments Act and barring any shenanigans in the House of Lords in the next few days, the UK will be having a December general election for the first time since 1923. Before that, the previous December election had been in 1910, and both of these contests were called by Prime Ministers seeking to secure a majority for their policies in the face of ongoing economic and political difficulties. Where Asquith and Baldwin failed, Boris Johnson is hoping to succeed and finally deliver on his promise to “get Brexit done” (where “Brexit” refers solely to getting Parliamentary approval for a Withdrawal Agreement, not the lengthy process of agreeing new trade terms and the future relationship between the UK and the EU).
Despite it feeling like the parties have been preparing for this contest ever since the exit poll for 2017’s election was announced, this will be the closest the UK gets to a snap election under modern rules. There’ll be a few days for Parliament to deal with essential business before it’s dissolved sometime next week, which will then give us five weeks of campaigning before the vote on Thursday 12th December. To carry on with a tradition that runs back to 2005, I will be doing daily election blogs throughout the campaign, with some combination of analysis, snark, links and an ongoing attempt to find the worst election leaflets getting shoved through letterboxes. (And please do share the ones you receive to the Election Leaflets site for us all to see)
I’m going to try and avoid writing too much about polls, predictions, tactical voting recommendations and everything like that during the election for two main reasons. First, there’ll be lots of of people doing that, and I want to try and be vaguely different but secondly, because I think focusing on all that during the election means you’re not writing about the things that matter. during the campaign. Data is important after the election in helping us interpret what happened, but obsessing about it during the campaign means we miss the way in which most people see and process politics. People’s conversations about elections aren’t “ooh, I see YouGov’s reporting the Tory lead is down 3 points this week” but what moments and messages they’ve seen and heard. Obsessing over polls in 2015 meant we missed that Cameron was targeting Lib Dems and going for a majority, while in 2017 we were too busy discussing what the implications of a massive Tory majority would be to notice that they weren’t going to get one.
It would be a bit like a sports journalist pointing out that because Man City had 76% of possession in a recent game, while taking 18 shots compared to their opponents 7, they obviously had a great game while ignoring that they’d lost 2–0. Though I have no idea yet who the Adama Traore of this election will be.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the state of the parties as we head into the election.
Conservatives: The Tories have been most gung-ho for an election ever since Boris Johnson became leader in July and are confident they can get a majority. Their messaging is based on getting Brexit done, which will then enable them to deliver a range of other promises based on greater investment in public services. Their aim is to continue some of the progress made in 2017 by breaking into traditionally Labour areas in the Midlands and the North of England and winning over the bulk of the Leave vote in them to displace Labour.
Labour: Are Labour up for an election? It depends who you ask. Many on the left and in the party leadership are convinced that all the circumstances that led to their expectation-smashing performance in 2017 are still there, and the party will surge even more in this campaign to make them at least the largest party. Others fear that was a one-off in an election where Brexit was still distant and could be sidelined. The party’s campaign is based on pushing any decisions on Brexit to a second referendum that will happen after the election, and hope that cuts through enough to enable them to talk about how they’re going to spend more on public services and be a radically different and ambitious government.
One interesting parallel between the two parties is that both have leaders whose acolytes think they’re the party’s greatest asset and whose internal and external critics think could be their biggest potential weakness. Johnson fires up Tory audiences, but riles up others and his desire to avoid facing scrutiny and deflect tough questions will be tested to the limit as a party leader in a general election. Corbyn’s supporters think he can cut through to the population when he gets out of Westminster and can campaign freely, while others think his appeal has become narrower over the last two years and he loses Labour just as many votes from the centre as he gains from the left. One of the key tests in general elections is how much leaders can rise to the pressure of them, and how much they crumble under it.
Liberal Democrats: The Liberal Democrats have a new leader, a clear message and a desire to put the past behind them, just like they did in 2017. Unlike 2017, their campaign isn’t likely to be derailed by an ongoing row about the leader’s views on sex and sin. Jo Swinson’s message is that the Liberal Democrats are the clear choice for people to stop Brexit and the party is aiming to compete on a much wider front than it has for a decade, aiming to pick up both Tory-inclined Remain voters opposed to Johnson and Labour-inclined moderates opposed to Corbyn. It’s a high-risk, high-reward strategy for the party, but could cap off what’s been a very good year for the party.
Brexit Party: With the media focused on what’s been happening at Westminster for the last couple of months, Nigel Farage’s movement has somewhat fallen out of view, and with their hopes of an electoral pact with the Conservatives now seemingly dashed, they will be putting themselves forward as the only party advocating a no deal resolution to Brexit. The party will be desperate for media attention, and hopeful that their imminent announcement of which seats their big names will be standing in will put them back into the headlines. A lot may depend on how serious a threat they appear to the Tory vote and if they can look like winning in any constituency.
Scottish National Party: Still the third-largest party in Parliament, they’ll be hoping to hold onto that position and the role it brings them in UK politics. Their main aim will be to continue their recent hegemony in Scottish politics by taking back seats the Conservatives took in 2017 and holding back any Lib Dem or Labour revivals. The Scottish election campaign will be very different from the English one, and being several hundred miles from it, it’s hard for me to make too many statements about it.
Plaid Cymru: Plaid seem likely to be taking one of their biggest electoral risks yet, as they’re deep in talks to agree a formal electoral pact with the Liberal Democrats and Greens. It’s possible that those talks might turn into next to nothing, as they did in 2017, but if they do come to fruition as well as offering Plaid the chance of winning more seats than they ever have before, it could give them more influence and prominence in any future anti-Tory coalition.
Greens: After recoiling from the idea of electoral pacts after their decisions to stand down in a number of seats in 2017 got little in the way of return, the Greens are hopeful of finally winning somewhere other than Brighton Pavilion. Like Plaid, they’re taking a risk in negotiating a more formal pact but even one extra seat would be a massive victory for them, along with the increased influence they could have after the election.
I’m wary of writing about Northern Ireland because I feel like I know so little of its politics and wish there was more focus on it through the rest of the UK. The most important factor there is to see how strong the DUP and Sinn Fein’s grip on their seats is and if other parties can break through. Naomi Long winning a first European Parliament seat for the Alliance in May indicates that a big shake-up is possible in this election and a lot may depend on how much they, the UUP and the SDLP can make the election about the importance of practical politics and sending a diversity of Northern Irish voices to Westminster.
Overall, I think things are far too volatile to give predictions about what the result of the election might be, so I’m not going to even offer a hostage to fortune in terms of guessing numbers now. What I think is more interesting is to predict where the campaign will be won and lost, and the key to that is the two different fights the Conservatives will be facing in England: Conservative-Labour battles, mostly in the North and the Midlands; and Conservative-Liberal Democrat battles, mainly in the south and south-east. They key for the Tories is finding messaging that helps them advance in the first while holding the line in the second, while also hoping that Labour and the Liberal Democrats remain too concerned with sniping at each other to realise there are only a handful of seats where they’re in direct competition. Voters are shifting allegiances much more than they have in recent memory, and that’s going to make things hard to predict using the same old tools. It’s also going to mean some very interesting results on election night and, most likely, a very tense Christmas holiday for a lot of people.