Still all to play for in the General Election

By Virginia Moffatt
April 21, 2017

Many commentators have already called the 2017 General Election. But it may not be as simple as it looks on the surface.

After seven years of austerity, one would think that Labour should be in a strong position to fight the Conservatives, particularly as they have what many would consider a raft of good policies. But they are not.

This is due to a number of  different  factors. One is the media onslaught on Jeremy Corbyn from the beginning. This has led to him being widely perceived as a weak leader. In my view, this has not been helped by his reluctance to engage with the press. He has also had to deal with disloyalty and party in-fighting from the outset. The attempted coup in 2016 resulted in him winning the leadership on a strong popular vote of party members, with many MPs still opposed to him and the public left feeling that Labour is in disarray. In addition, Labour’s position on Brexit seems to have alienated many core supporters who would have wished them to oppose it strongly. Lastly, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the Conservatives appear to be thought of as strong on the economy by a majority of the public.

No wonder the polls are indicating that Theresa May could win with a majority of 100.  With her personal poll ratings high, and having snatched a by-election from Labour, she seems set to win. As a result, Corbyn would be likely to resign and a chance to stem austerity policies would be lost for another five years.

However, a thoughtful openDemocracy article from Anthony Barnett on why the election has been called opens up some different perspectives. What if the picture is more complicated on the ground than most commentators think?

What if Labour’s position on 'sensible Brexit, so off-putting to left-wing Remainers, actually resonates in Leave areas? Could that make the party more likely to win in Leave areas and less likely to win in Remain ones?

What about the strong Remain vote in some of those West Country seats that the Liberal Democrats lost in 2015? With a strong Remain position, will the Liberal Democrats win them back?

What if Theresa May’s calculation that the country is as strongly pro-Brexit as she thinks it is turns out to be wrong? How will that impact the election?

What if the current investigations into electoral fraud in 2015 lead to charges before the election takes place? Might that impact the Conservative vote?

Finally, what if national polling only tells us part of the picture? This was a factor during both the EU Referendum and the US elections, where the national picture failed to register local variations which were enough to swing the vote to Brexit and Trump, respectively.

Due to the nature of our first past the post electoral system, elections are won or lost in marginal areas. So I took a look at four English constituencies. (Apologies for a moment to those in Scotland and Wales,  I chose these constituencies because they were high on the list of marginals, and in any case the picture in Scotland is different). The results are interesting.

In North Warwickshire, the Conservatives have a majority of 2,973. This was up from a majority of 54 in 2010, but still leaves the seat very marginal. It was Labour from 1992 to 2010, with majorities ranging from 1,453 to 14,767 (the latter in 1997, the year of the New Labour landslide). The area voted strongly for Leave, and in 2015 UKIP pushed the Liberal Democrats into third place. It is not impossible that Labour tmight win here. They would need to gain votes from UKIP and Conservatives in order to do so, however.  A soft pro-Brexit approach might work, as Labour might appeal to the UKIP voters who otherwise prefer Labour policies to Conservative ones.  However, it is also possible that the Leave vote indicates that the area favours hard Brexit, and therefore the UKIP vote would transfer to the Conservatives and increase their majority. Alternatively, the  Liberal Democrat vote might have an impact. If their supporters voted Conservative in 2015 to punish the Liberal Democrats for breaking their promises on tuition fees, but are in the 30 per cent Remain camp, they might return to the Liberal Democrats, which might favour Labour too. That said, any strong Remainers who can’t stomach Labour’s position might also vote Liberal Democrat, which could tip things in the  direction of the Conservatives. There are many possibilities.

Chester, meanwhile, has a tiny Labour majority of 93, which makes it a top priority for the Conservatives.  It was Conservative from 1983 to 1997, Labour from 1997 to 2010, and Conservative from 2010-2015 before Labour snatched it back. The majorities have never been huge here, and it looks as if the decisive factor in 2010 was an increase in the Liberal Democrat vote. But in 2015, the collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote and the rise in UKIP vote was enough to edge out the Conservatives. In the referendum, the Leave majority was slight, and some commentators have suggested Remain was higher in Chester city itself. This means that Labour’s pro-Brexit position might work with people who voted UKIP last time, and they could win with that vote. However, a surge in the Liberal Democrat vote could favour the Conservatives, since many Labour voters might prefer the Liberal Democrats if they feel Europe is the issue of the election.

Southport is a currently a Liberal Democrat seat and has been so since since 1997. Before that it was Conservative.  The majority has been reducing and is now only just over 1,000, which makes it a Conservative target. Southport is part of Sefton, which voted Remain, although the majority was a slender 51.9 per cent. If the UKIP vote goes to the Conservatives in favour of a hard Brexit, and the Labour vote holds, the seat could easily go to the  Conservatives. However, if the Remain vote is strong in the area, Labour supporters might back the Liberal Democrats and the seat could go with the Liberal Democrats.

Finally, Bath is a seat won by the Conservatives at the last election. Like Southport it was strongly Liberal Democrat between 1997 and 2015. The area also voted strongly to Remain. The votes gained by the Conservatives could easily fall away among constituents who feel strongly pro-EU. This is particularly likely if Labour voters vote Liberal Democrat, as they did in the Richmond by-election.

This is just a sample of four different marginal seats, all of which hint that there could be some wildly unexpected results on 8 June. This in turn suggests that in this election there is still everything to play for, and our personal voting choices could be very important.

At the last election, Ekklesia's non-partisan theme was 'vote for what you believe in', buttressed by some strong propsals of social justice and other issues. I still think this is very important, and I am lucky to live in a constituency where I have options that fit with my beliefs. However, I am looking at the state of the UK and thinking that whatever happens we need a massive shift in direction. As far as I can see, that means moving away from policies which have given us years of damaging austerity and the threat of a dangerous hard Brexit. So it is important take a look at the possible impact of our vote, asking how, for example, it might best be used to thwart a massive victory for the current propsectus.

So when we are making up our minds, it will be important to look at the local constituency and see what the interpretable patterns are suggesting.  This may help guide our vote and may mean this election is more or less predictable than most commentators currently believe.

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© Virginia Moffatt is an Ekklesia associate, writing in a personal capacity. She is also the editor of an important forthcoming book from Darton, Longman and Todd, Reclaiming the Common Good (July 2017), which will feature chapters by other Ekklesia contributors. 

Ekklesia's General Election theme for 2017 is #Vote4CommonGood. This will be explored by writers and researchers from different perspectives and backgrounds, as well as analysis of the different party manifestos in relation to the principles and policies we have advocated for many years. 

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.