Everyone expects Mrs May to romp home in the polls on the back of a landslide victory, the like of which has not been seen since the defeat of Labour in 1983. However, the polls have been wrong before. Excuse me while I exercise my inner Cassandra.
The election has been called to secure a mandate for the Conservative Government to negotiate Brexit. The current majority of a dozen or so seats is not seen as sufficient. It was also won under a different party leader whose policy on Europe was the polar opposite of the current government policy of Brexit.
This is not the first, but the second Brexit in the last 100 years. The last Brexit took place in 1940 on the beaches of Dunkirk.
That, of course, was a military Brexit, as seventy six years and one day before the 2016 referendum, a defeated France signed an armistice with Germany, despite faithfully promising this country never to do so.
1940 was also the year that Winston Churchill became Prime Minister, forming a government of national unity. Churchill’s prior position in a Conservative-dominated coalition had been as First Lord of the Admiralty, after years in the political wilderness. It is perhaps an indictment on the state of the Conservatives in 1940 that the only person in their party seen as fit for that job in a war was a man in his mid-sixties who had done exactly the same job twenty nine years previously.
Churchill’s ascent to the top job was due to his predecessor’s fall. Neville Chamberlain had led an unprepared country that was dominated by pacifists into a war with Germany after seeing the failure of his policy of appeasement of a belligerent fascist dictator.
The manner of Chamberlain’s fall was that the government he led came to Parliament to ask for a vote of confidence. It did so in the wake of the failure of the Norway campaign, Churchill’s brainchild. A preventive landing on Norwegian soil by the Royal Navy was defeated by a German airborne and naval invasion. The consolation was the depletion of Germany’s meagre naval forces, which was never fully made up. However a defeat was a defeat, and the government was held to account in Parliament.
The Norway Debate was historic. It was finally recognised that the people in charge of a war could not be the same as those who had only preserved peace by concession to dictators. Appeasers who had lost the peace could not lead the country in war. The confidence motion was put to the vote.
Neville Chamberlain won the vote. However, the government still fell. Why?
At the time, the majority of the Conservative-dominated National government over opposition parties was 213. In the debate, this fell to 81. Imagine that, the government had a majority of 81 in a major vote, that is a number that David Cameron might have killed for. However, it was not the number, but how much it had fallen from where it should have been that was significant.
Everyone is expecting Mrs May’s government to have a landslide victory in June and to end up with a three-digit majority. However, there are several challenges to this.
Scotland would appear to remain a lost cause. The rise of the Conservatives to the second party in Holyrood may be due to the structure of a voting system designed to prevent one party from dominating. Given that Scotland voted to Remain, those votes could transfer to the largest Remain party in Scotland, which is the SNP.
People also forget that in England in 2015, support for Labour rose compared to 2010 by 3.4 per cent. Support for the Conservatives rose by 1.4 per cent. The main victim was the Liberal Democrats. David Cameron’s majority largely came from devouring its erstwhile coalition partner in the polls, taking back all those Conservative seats that the Liberal Democrats had taken over the last two decades. Labour also took back Liberal Democrat seats, most notably Sir Simon Hughes’s in Bermondsey.
The Liberal Democrats are now the party of anti-Brexit. This is a rallying point that no other major party in England has. This may herald a Liberal Democrat revival at the expense of the Conservatives, which may let in Labour in a number of seats. Labour voters may once again vote tactically for the Liberal Democrats. It may have been their failure to do so that wiped them out in 2015.
Although Labour’s polling has been disastrous, this has only resulted in the loss of a single Labour seat in all the by-elections since Corbyn became leader, and that was directly due to his open hostility to the civil nuclear power industry, which dominates Copeland’s economy. Otherwise, Labour’s vote appears to be strong enough to be hold on to its existing seats. Will a vote that can change a government be different?
Also, since Labour is now run by Jeremy Corbyn, there could be no need for anyone to vote for the neo-communist Green Party. Had 500 Green party voters switched their allegiance to Labour in Morley and Outwood in 2015, Ed Balls would have been able to join his wife in anti-Corbyn exile on the back benches, perhaps chairing the Brexit select committee. Instead he is dancing Gangnam-style on Saturday evening television. 2017 may see the collapse of the Green Party vote as Labour’s policies entice voters who may have been alienated by Blair and Brown, but who are actually attracted by Corbyn. Labour may be betting on holding on to its traditional voters, who may not be lured away by the Conservatives, and attracting votes back from the Greens.
Labour has also positioned itself as the anti-American, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic party in mainstream British politics, which will attract those voters that hail from Third World cultures where such attitudes are normal forms of public discourse. George Galloway’s victory in a Bradford West by-election for the SWP-backed Respect indicates that such rhetoric resonates in some constituencies. Galloway has strong connections to the Labour leadership.
There is also the matter that this election will be run under the old, pro-Labour boundaries. The changes, making the constituencies fairer, but which favour the Conservatives at the expense of Labour, were due to be implemented in 2018.
The Liberal Democrats came second in 63 seats. UKIP came second in 120 seats. Do these second-placed parties represent a greater threat to Labour or the Conservatives? Leavers may flock to the Conservatives, Remainers to the Liberal Democrats. Wokingham is represented by arch-Leaver John Redwood, who has a thumping majority of 24,000 over Labour, with the Liberal Democrats a close third. However Wokingham voted to Remain by a majority of 13,000. Is Redwood in danger in 2017? Geographically, the district that voted Remain is not the same as the constituency. However, the fact is that there is a large Remain vote in an area represented by a strong Leave supporter. This may not be unique.
The level of impact of all of the above factors is a matter of speculation. However, the characteristic of the most recent general elections has to be the rise of parties outside the two-party system, such that they now receive votes that, if cast for the main parties, would swing the result. The consequence of this is that both Labour and Conservative now have to find ways of enticing defecting voters back to the fold. In the case of the Conservatives, this was done by promising an EU referendum to reduce inroads by UKIP. For Labour, this was done by electing a leader whose policies are little different from Respect and the Greens.
There is no doubt that Mrs May will win the general election. However, it is the size of the majority, as Neville Chamberlain knew, that counts. Given the expectations, anything less than a landslide may actually weaken the Conservatives, and thus Britain’s bargaining position in Europe. Expectations have been set sky-high for the Conservatives and the election might not be such a walkover given the fragmentation of the vote over the years.
Commentators foisting the expectation of a landslide on the public are setting up the Conservatives to fail. There are indicators of varying strength that, while Mrs May will no doubt increase her majority in the face of a failing opposition party, predictions of the size of the Conservative victory could themselves be a bit more conservative.
(Image: David Holt)