Politics in Practice

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British General Election 2019: Taking Stock

Dominic Wring is Professor of Political Communication at Loughborough University, UK, and lead editor of the series of books on Political Communication in Britain, a volume of which has appeared after every British General Election since 1979. 

Read a free chapter, “The Polls in 2017” until January 7.

The 2019 General Election is underway and there have already been several highly dramatic and unforeseen events including the departure of a Cabinet minister and the Opposition’s deputy leader. Further speculation and intrigue have also surrounded the Brexit Party and whether it can capitalize on its impressive debut in the EU elections earlier this year. It remains to be seen whether and how Nigel Farage can continue to influence the agenda in his party’s first (and potentially last) general election. The Brexit Party’s decision to contest only half of the seats may yet still have a decisive impact on the outcome of the campaign even if it is not necessarily clear whether this will be to the detriment of their partial allies on the Conservative side or their primary target in the shape of Labour. 

The Tories with Boris Johnson as leader and Prime Minister have experienced a revival in the polls but their path to potential victory on 12th December is not certain, although there is a clear trend in the polls indicating the party looks capable of victory. An obvious factor in determining the eventual electoral outcome will the Conservatives’ ability to win votes in the places where they will give them a working majority government in the House of Commons. The dynamics of the First Past the Post electoral system have thrown up two hung parliaments in the last three elections and there is speculation that the current campaign might end with a similar uncertain result. Such a situation would likely put Brexit on hold, assuming the Conservatives were unable to reignite their relationship with the Democratic Unionist Party (which in any case faces a challenge to maintain its position as Northern Ireland’s main political representative at Westminster). 

Labour lost the 2017 election but in many ways won that campaign having been able to thwart the then Tory premier Theresa May’s plan to make the race about giving her the necessary mandate to negotiate Brexit. The principal Opposition experienced a change in its fortunes, and leader Jeremy Corbyn secured his place at the helm having previously looked vulnerable to challenges from his many critics inside the party. But the tumultuous politics of Brexit and the Corbyn leadership’s attempts to offer their party as honest brokers in another future round of talks with the EU have renewed criticism of him and his strategy. This has impacted on Labour’s ability to present the kinds of radical changes the party deems essential for the renewal of the country. The party will be hoping its ambitious programme for office will help it close the gap in the polls as happened last time.

The Brexit Party might have stepped back from contesting the majority of seats where they intended to stand but others have been keen to use the election as an opportunity to remind the public of the alternatives to the major parties’ duopoly. It is worth remembering an unprecedented six different parties gained at least a million votes apiece as recently as in the 2015 General Election. One of those, the SNP, achieved an extraordinary breakthrough in that year winning all but three of the seats north of the border. 2017 proved something of a disappointing step back for the party, but this time they will be looking to win as large a share of the vote to maximize pressure on whatever shade of government is elected.

The nature of the electoral system has helped ensure previous elections, especially in 2015, did not provide a significant breakthrough for the Brexit Party’s forerunners UKIP as well as the Greens. UKIP is now a shadow of its former self, but the Greens will be looking to try to add to their one seat in parliament. Like the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru - with whom they have formed a partial Remain pact – the Greens will be seeking to concentrate their efforts on constituencies where they could conceivably win. The LibDems approach this election at something of a crossroads. Their anti-Brexit message has rejuvenated their party morale but it is still some way behind in seats it held prior to 2015. But few predicted their meltdown in that campaign, nor the Conservatives’ triumph albeit by the tightest of margins. And if nothing else recent UK elections have taught us to expect the unexpected. 

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