By Russell Bruce
The last time there was a December General Election was in 1923 and that brought radical change to the British political system for the rest of the 20th century. For the Liberals, despite an increase in the number of their MPs in that election, it was to signal a long term decline that has continued into this century. More of that later. First it is worth examining the risks this election holds for the Conservatives, Labour, the SNP and, last and probably least, the Liberal Democrats.
The Tories have played the ‘Get Brexit Done’ card rather well but there are limits to what the wider public will accept when understanding of what Johnson’s plans actually entail begins to dawn on a weary electorate.
Tories on a shoogly peg
The Brexit fanatic press are outraged that Johnson’s fast track timetable was thwarted by parliament. Johnson has a clear lead in polls as the campaign starts in earnest. Boris Johnson though is a man that never has his troubles to seek. The Tories are prepared for losses in London to Labour and the Lib Dems, Losses to the Lib Dems in the South West, then we have those plaguesome Tory seats in Scotland, all looking more shoogly by the day although a few might escape the Humpty Dumpty smash up.
All this matters to us in Scotland because however well the SNP do there are only 59 seats up for grabs. With a strong pro-independence pro-Europe campaign the SNP can expect to reclaim at least some of the seats lost in 2017 when the party was caught napping and unprepared for Mrs May’s snap election.
We know what Dominic Cummings’ strategy is. It is leave again and again with more money for the NHS on offer. Might we see the £350 million for the NHS red bus back on the road? It worked during the EU referendum because people wanted to believe it. Although total nonsense and financially impossible to justify, everybody talked about it reinforcing the Leave message, just as Cummings envisaged. Forensically and expertly debunked, to many these were just figures passing by closed ears.
It played well in England with those left behind, worn down by austerity and only too anxious to give the smoothie Cameron a kicking in the 2016 EU referendum. If Mrs May got caught short in 2017 there is reason to think Johnson might just fall short on a risky strategy to make up for lost Tory seats in Scotland and the South of England by failing to pick up sufficient Labour seats in the Midlands and North to give him the majority he so desperately wants.
Until we leave UK, SNP must play the Westminster game
Whether we like it or not, until we get to the independence referendum we are part of the Westminster system and our ability to influence votes south of the border is limited. That said, down south Nicola Sturgeon and Ian Blackford are well considered astute pro-remain politicians. In the noise of the general election that influence will be limited, especially if debates in which only Johnson and Corbyn participate go ahead.
Johnson has other problems. All general elections result in an exodus. This time round Johnson loses experienced ministers and front benchers including his own brother. If they have not defected to become independents many, especially women like Amber Rudd and Nicky Morgan are packing it in and now Philip Hammond has joined them in the departure lounge. They have had enough and that says much for the atmosphere within the Tory party as well as unsavoury threats on social media from the far right embedded in Tory support.
This matters because even if Johnson finds a few newbies in the Midlands and the North, he has lost experienced candidate campaigners for this general election making his ministerial cabinet choices severely restricted. An open strategy that throws some present Conservative MPs under the bus in the hope of picking up Labour Leave constituencies is not one to win hearts and minds from those who have sat on the government benches during Johnson’s brief and tumultuous period in office. ‘Get it done’ is not a political career move for those leaving or certain to be ousted by the electorate.
Labour needs more clarity on Brexit to make it work for them
Johnson needs to pick up 40 to 50 seats to replace losses in Scotland and the South. As Robert Shrimsley in the FT writes: “Boris Johnson, the prime minister will be out if he does not claim a clear majority, Labour can lose ground and still put its leader in Downing Street”
The UK has a long history of minority governments going back to 1832. Most didn’t last long and with the third general election now since 2015 short-termism may be a continuing feature of politics in England. Whilst Scotland remains attached we have useful numbers to keep Johnson out of Downing Street if his strategy of replacing losses fails.
Labour has long been criticised by the political commentariat for a confusing message on Brexit. If Labour handle this well in Labour leave areas might this actually now come into play? As I understand their Brexit strategy, Labour plan to stay in the Customs Union which means no deal with Trump, to stay aligned with the Single Market and enshrine worker’s rights and environmental policy in the legally binding agreement. It is a much less dangerous Brexit outcome than what Johnson has in mind. Having negotiated Labour’s version of a withdrawal agreement it would then be put to a new referendum with Remain also an option on the ballot paper. What then you might ask?
Will former labour supporters in the North and Midlands really go for the dangerous Boris version with the clear threats to the NHS over a safer leave option that will save jobs although still economically damaging? Like the Tories, Labour are torn with others still calling for an outright Remain commitment. Corbyn’s dual strategy might just save some of the seats Johnson needs for a clear majority.
Swinson way behind the high point of the SDP Liberal Alliance
If Swinson was really in the running as a possible PM this might draw strong Remain Labour votes but she is falling in the polls and does not have the numbers to close the gap in the number of seats that would make her fantasy possible. Poll ratings in the mid teens are no basis for a claim to government. Back in 1981 the much stronger SDP- Liberal Alliance was winning by-elections and late in 1981 achieved a poll rating of just over 50%. The stuff of dreams. The dream did not last although it gave David Steel reason to tell his conference “Go back to your constituencies, and prepare for government”.
Alliance, ratings slipped and slipped until Thatcher’s Falkland War raised Tory poll ratings from third to first place. In the 1983 election Thatcher stormed to victory with 44% of the vote. The SDP-Liberal Alliance came third with 25% to Labour’s 28%. The SDP-Liberal Alliance lost 7 of their 30 seats, reduced to a rump of 23 MPs due to the vagaries of First Past the Post and few areas of significant political strength.
The Lib Dems, with defections from other parties, have increased their numbers in the present parliament from 12 to 20. Some of these defectors will not make it through the coming GE leaving Swinson needing whatever she can realistically gain when her poll ratings are around 10% below what Steel achieved in 1983. Jo Swinson’s fantasies of power look well and truly shafted on the anvil of 4th party continuing slippage.
In an almost childlike and unconvincing manifesto launch Swinson claimed she would be a better PM that Johnson or Corbyn. She also pledged not to put Corbyn into No 10, raising the possibility she might back Johnson in the event of a hung parliament. The Lib Dems have form on this and the electorate has not forgotten – forgiveness has come in small doses as her poll ratings clearly demonstrate.
Elections won on constant campaigning
Only back in the 1920’s and 30’s did the Labour Party finally begin to break the stranglehold of Whigs and Tories, due largely to deep splits within both those parties. Through devolution, the SNP has broken Labour dominance in Scotland. It is unique in UK politics and offers Scotland the future we aspire to as a self-governing European nation, but I doubt the SNP will take all those Tory seats this time.
Those with the best chance of winning are the constituencies who have been working since 2017 to win back losses, have worked steadily on voter identification and like Joanna Cherry, who did hold her seat last time, writing to undecideds now. With the vagaries of December weather those working hard on signing up supporters for postal votes will also gain as 80% of postal voters actually do vote.
Elections are not won in those last weeks when minds are made up and postal votes already returned. Those free Post Office election mailings, this time round mixed up with early Christmas post, end up getting bundled in recycling ready handfuls. See Breaking news below on postal disruption!
Lord Leverhulme famously said: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted but I don’t know which half”. So it is with election campaigns when crucial work starts too late. Nobody was taken by surprise that there would be a general election, it was just a question of the date. Chicago politics in the early 20th century was associated with the call – Vote Early, Vote Often. The democratic phrase for our times is – Campaign Always, Campaign Early.
History in England might repeat the 1923 6th December general election result when Ramsay MacDonald formed the first of his two minority governments – 98 seats short of a majority – possible due to the tacit support of Asquith’s Liberals. The Conservatives under Stanley Baldwin returned 258 MPs with 38% of the vote, MacDonald raised Labour representation from 142 seats to 191 with 30.7% of the vote. The Liberals also managed to increase the number of seats from 115 to 158 MPs with a vote share of 29.7%. For Jo Swinson 158 MPs is the stuff of wet dreams and she has ruled out supporting a Corbyn government.
Making comparison with a general election nearly 100 years ago perhaps has some merit because it changed UK politics for the next 100 years. Whatever the result in the small hours of 13th December, UK politics will never be the same again.
This table showing vote shares for the then 3 main parties in the elections of 1922 and 1923 is particularly interesting due to the very small change in party vote share resulting in a significant change in the number of seats each party gained.
Share of the vote is less important than how it is distributed to areas of natural strength. Parties with widespread support do better than those whose strength is focused on fewer areas. That was the issue for the SDP Liberal Alliance and is today even more of an issue for Swinson’s Lib Dems who are nowhere near where David Steel took the Alliance back in the early 80s.
The odds at this point in time might appear to signal a majority Johnson government. That is the worst possible outcome for Scotland as he will push through his Withdrawal Bill taking powers away from the Scottish Government over fishing, farming and the environment. He has already threatened to take over control of Scotland’s NHS as a preamble to a trade deal with Trump.
There is much nervousness in Tory ranks with an unheard of exodus that might just be his Achilles heel. Then there is the very odd Brexit Party without an actual political party structure. More when their No Deal plan become a little clearer and the nominations get lodged, or not.
Breaking News: Post Office strike to disrupt party election mailings and postal votes.