Snap to the Polls

Alex Mitchell
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It’s two years into the current Conservative government and Prime Minister Theresa May has announced a shock snap General Election for 8 June 2017. The news broke following speculation surrounding an unscheduled announcement. It was a shock because the PM has repeatedly said she would not call an early election and would stick to the 2020 timetable as outlined by the Fixed Term Parliament Act brought in by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010.

Prior to this Act, the Prime Minister was able to call a General Election at any point within the five-year term without consulting Parliament. The PM will now go to the House of Commons where she requires a two-thirds majority to call an early General Election – a majority that she will surely get as Labour, under leader Jeremy Corbyn, has previously stated and reaffirmed a commitment to back an early election.

So why has the PM “reluctantly come to this decision”? In her statement she said that as the UK is starting to unite after the Brexit vote, Westminster is still divided and this in her view will not get Britain the best deal from Brexit. No doubt this election will be fought on Brexit. A former remain voter, the PM is now a “champion” of Brexit. Unofficially, it could be and is being argued the polls are playing a part in this decision (over the weekend, multiple polls have given May’s Conservatives a 20-point lead over Labour). If this were to materialise in the election vote, then May could expect to gain a larger majority than the current 17, which contains backbench rebels who have proved to be difficult.

The hope for May is that if she increases her majority with new, fresh-faced MPs then she is likely to have a majority more willing to toe her party line. The timing is also a factor – the EU is set to start the Brexit negotiations in autumn and the PM will no doubt want to prove that she has a mandate of her own. The EU itself faces two, possibly three, national elections. France starts voting in their Presidential Election this Sunday, with a guaranteed change in President. Germany holds its general election in the autumn and Italy could well go to the polls in a snap election.

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What about the other parties? Labour, of course, has an uphill start with divisions in the party over the leadership and with consistently low poll ratings akin to that of Michael Foot or Neil Kinnock –
which saw larger Conservative majorities returned to Westminster. No doubt the party will unite and fight each seat on a local level, especially those Labour MPs who have not been supportive of their current leader. Shadow Home Secretary and Corbyn loyalist Diane Abbott has said back in December that Corbyn would turn around the poll ratings in 12 months. Unite union leader Len McCluskey said in March Corbyn needed 15 months. Corbyn now has six weeks. He will seek to counter the Brexit campaign from the Conservatives with an anti-austerity campaign and a focus on a fairer society. Recent polls show that Corbyn’s policies are popular but people are turned off by his leadership style.

The SNP took all but three Scottish Westminster seats in the 2015 General Election and overtook the Liberal Democrats to become the third party in Westminster. Since then they have lost their absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament and are facing tough competition from the Scottish Conservatives in the local elections to be held in May before the General Election. A strong win again for Nicola Sturgeon in Westminster will boost her calls for a second independence vote before Brexit. Scotland was traditionally a Labour stronghold, but with Labour becoming the third party in Scotland the SNP could expect to maintain their hold over Scotland. With only a maximum of three more seats to gain, however, their power is limited. This would become a problem for the Prime Minister – an SNP Scotland mixed with Northern Ireland’s lack of Conservative/Labour MPs means that a landslide majority is going to be tough.

The Liberal Democrats suffered a disaster two years ago, seeing all but eight of their 57 MPs lose their seats. Since then they gained a seat in a by-election off the Conservatives. In council elections the Lib Dems have been performing well, gaining in council by-elections off both Labour and the Conservatives. Leader Tim Farron has already hinted that they will campaign on a pro-EU, pro-single market stance. This could prove difficult in areas that previously were Lib Dem heartlands in the South West which voted for Brexit. They may gain seats off Labour, which is where we see a natural switch between the left-leaning swing voters – however, Farron falls behind Corbyn in the latest favourable poll ratings for the leaders.

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UKIP now goes into the General Election with no MPs, following the defection of their only MP Douglas Carswell (now an independent). However, there is speculation he will stand as a Conservative. UKIP have also lost the financial backing of Aaron Banks following his suspension from the party. Banks has also stated he would stand against Carswell in the election. UKIP has been losing council seats following the Brexit vote and the resignation of former leader Nigel Farage. Current Leader Paul Nuttall failed to win a by-election against Labour in Stoke. UKIP’s inability to win seats, often coming second in constituency votes, should be of concern and with it being a single policy party (a policy which was realised with the Brexit vote), some voters may question whether UKIP has any relevance going forward.

Residents of Northern Ireland will be going to the polls for the third time in a year following last year’s elections in Stormont. The power-sharing agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein collapsed, forcing a fresh election earlier this year. Since that election there has been no agreement and no regional government in Northern Ireland. Now they return to the polls to vote for their representatives in Westminster. Sinn Fein MPs don’t actually take their seats in Westminster as they decline to affirm their loyalty to the Queen, a requirement for all MPs prior to them taking their seats. This helps the Conservatives as the DUP are allies of the Tories in Westminster.

The Green Party, led by Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley, currently have one MP in Caroline Lucas. They gained a larger share of the national vote in 2015 but failed to increase the number of seats. They recently announced a policy of a three-day weekend to lure young voters to their party. They could gain on the left where people move away from Labour but don’t vote for the Lib Dems, however under the UK electoral system it is hard for smaller parties to win seats even with a strong showing in the national vote.

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Lastly, Plaid Cymru currently have three of the 40 Welsh MPs in Westminster and 10 Assembly members in Wales. Plaid Cymru will no doubt fight hard in areas where support for Labour has fallen. Their aim will be to retain and gain Welsh seats. If they were to gain massively they could team up with the SNP in Westminster to create a nationalist bloc. The issue there is that Wales voted for Brexit whereas Scotland voted strongly to remain, and with Scottish independence back on the table it would be difficult for these two parties to find common ground.

Of course, we can’t forget that the polls didn’t get the election of 2015 right. They didn’t predict a Conservative majority and, equally, they got the Brexit vote wrong. This is a gamble for the PM but a gamble she clearly thinks she can win in order to pursue her own agenda with her own mandate. No doubt we will be bombarded with polls over the next six weeks, with the first indication in vote terms to be shown in the local elections on 4 May. I personally hope that we will have a high turnout for this General Election. I hope the British public aren’t complacent or fed up of voting.

Since the turn of the century, general election turnout has not gone higher than 66.1%. No doubt we will hear that this election is one of the most important, just like the previous one and the one before that. In truth, every democratic election is as important as the other and no vote is a “wasted vote”. Registration has closed for the local elections in May, however I encourage you, if you are not registered, to get registered in time for the General Election at the Register To Vote website.

About Alex Mitchell

Political observer and current affairs addict. I observe - I analyse - I debate