11 November 2019
After almost a week of General Election campaigning, the polls continue to show a solid Conservative lead of between seven and twelve points. So, is it game over for Labour already? DRD partner, Pete Bowyer, investigates…
I recently had lunch with a former Conservative MP (2010-17) who had gone on to work at Conservative Central Office and was in the process of applying for a safe Conservative seat this time around. I asked him what he thought about an early election. “One word,” he replied, “terrified.” He went on to give six reasons that were keeping Tory staffers awake at night and could swing the election Jeremy Corbyn’s way.
Our electoral system does not distribute seats evenly. At the last General Election in 2017, the Conservatives were beneficiaries of a system which helped them to gain 49% of the seats in the House of Commons on 42% of the popular vote. It was neutral for Labour who polled 40% of the popular vote and received approximately 40% of the seats, but acted against the Liberal Democrats who won less than 2% of seats on 7.5% of the popular vote.
This time could be a completely different story with the growth of tactical voting sites looking to maximise the impact of the ‘Remain vote’ locally. The Conservatives may continue to poll strongly across the country as a whole. But, if the Liberal Democrats can concentrate their vote in their target suburban seats, Labour do likewise in the big cities and the SNP sweeps the board in Scotland, it’s entirely possible that the Tories could be 8-12 percentage points ahead of Labour on 12 December, and yet still fail to secure an overall majority in the House of Commons.
Our electoral system may not be ‘fair’ but it is designed (albeit imperfectly in recent years) to produce a government. As we approach Election Day itself, it’s common to see the support for third (and fourth) parties wane as the electorate realises that they cannot form a government by themselves (despite Jo Swinson’s protestations), and conversely for the support of the ‘main’ two parties to rise. There is some evidence that this has already happened to the benefit of the Conservatives. Immediately before Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, the Conservatives were polling 27% and the Brexit Party 17%.
Now, the Tories are at 39% and Nigel Farage’s party is languishing at just 9%, meaning there is very little left for the Conservatives to squeeze further. The Liberal Democrats, however, remain on a relatively healthy 17% in the polls, but have seen their vote slip in the past few days whilst Labour’s has risen by 1.5% in one week alone. If Labour can continue to claw back votes from the Liberal Democrats in its target seats, they may well deprive the Conservatives of an overall majority.
For Boris Johnson to continue as Prime Minister and see his Brexit Deal carry swiftly through the Commons in the New Year, he must win a clear overall majority. That’s not necessarily true for the Opposition – all they need to do to ‘win’ is to have enough seats to deprive Boris Johnson of that overall majority. Having thrown the DUP under the bus with his new Withdrawal Agreement, he can no longer rely on their votes in the new Parliament to either support a Withdrawal Agreement Bill or vote Confidence in his Government.
The PM will also lose the support of some key independents such as Ian Austin and John Woodcock who had voted with him previously but are standing down, as well as anti-EU Labour MPs such as John Mann and Kate Hoey.
It’s also highly unlikely that the Brexit Party will win any MPs itself to support him. On the other hand, the Opposition (although possibly without Jeremy Corbyn at its helm) has many more options to form a government in a close contest: Labour, Lib Dems, SNP, Greens, Plaid Cymru, SDLP and possibly some ‘independent conservatives’ like Dominic Grieve and Anna Soubry. Providing they combined can muster more MPs than the Conservatives on their own, they are likely to find a PM from their own ranks.
Labour is desperate to make this election a referendum on austerity, rather than a referendum on Brexit, as the Tories want. It knows that its own position on Brexit – that Labour will renegotiate a new Withdrawal Agreement with the EU and within six months put this Agreement back to the people in a second referendum with Remain also on the ballot (but not necessarily support the very agreement that they will have spent months re-negotiating in that referendum) – is untenable.
However, its own private polling shows very strong support for its populist, anti-austerity platform, such as re-nationalising key utilities, taxing the wealthy more, enormous spending on schools and hospitals, massive infrastructure investment in a ‘Green New Deal’ and clamping down on private schools’ tax breaks. This is one reason the party was relatively relaxed at the Tories’ weekend attack on the apparent £1.2tn cost of Labour’s manifesto pledges as all the voters heard, the party believes, is that Labour would spend more on things that voters like. If they can make this an election on their wider policies, they may well ‘win.’
Whilst the Conservatives may well win the ‘air war’, the ‘ground game’ is equally important in any close election campaign – GOTV (“Getting Out The Vote”) as it’s known – can easily add 10% to overall vote tallies on the day of an election. But this requires bodies, and large numbers of them.
Since the announcement of the General Election, Labour has seen its membership surge once again to over 500,000 whilst the Conservatives languish at less than a quarter of that. But it’s not just a numbers game. Labour’s members are generally young, active and highly motivated in contrast to Conservative members who are described as “too posh to push” leaflets through peoples letterboxes, or knock on strangers’ doors or become active keyboard warriors on social media, all vital ingredients in any close election campaign.
Electoral registration numbers may already be bearing this out: 100,000 under 25s were added to the lists in the 48 hours since the election was called, 60% up on 2017, many of whom are ‘hard to reach’ voters who do not show up in opinion polling numbers. My Conservative dinner friend recoils in horror at the last-minute emergence of 7000 new electors onto the register who swung the 2017 election against him in his university seat. Worse could come this time.
A right-of-centre London think tank has dubbed this election the battle over ‘Workington Man,’ suggesting that the men of the Labour (& Leave) heartlands, such as the Cumbrian town of Workington, hold the key to this election. But are strapping, Rugby League-loving Northern men really likely to succumb to the smooth, southern charms of Eton-educated Alexander Boris De Pfeffel Johnson? It’s an open question.
At the last Election, the Conservatives did make some in-roads into previously hostile Labour territory, winning seats such as Derbyshire North East, Mansfield and Stoke-on-Trent South. But these were more than offset by the 28 seats Labour gained directly from the Conservatives.
The real question is, can the Conservatives win more of such seats than they are likely to lose to the SNP in Scotland, the Lib Dems in suburbia and Labour in the core cities? That’s a much more difficult question to answer, however they may be helped by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which is more attractive to such Labour Leave voters and could let the Conservatives come through the middle. But what all the fuss about ‘Workington Man’ has neglected is ‘Workington Woman’, and there is strong evidence, not least from YouGov, that Boris is failing to command the hearts of women voters who may prove to be his Achilles heel.
Six reasons why Labour won’t win
After that downcast assessment from my Conservative friend, I looked to lighten the mood and asked him if there were six similar reasons why Labour won’t win. “That’s easy,” he said with a wry smile, “Jeremy Corbyn, Jeremy Corbyn, Jeremy Corbyn, Jeremy Corbyn, Jeremy Corbyn and Jeremy Corbyn!”