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Britain Goes Back to the Polls

Chelsea pensioners are ushered into a polling station to cast their ballot papers at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, west London on June 23, 2016, as Britain holds a referendum to vote on whether to remain in, or to leave the European Union (EU).
(Photo by LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)

Following Her Predecessor’s Career-Ending Referendum, Theresa May Takes A High-Risk Gamble of Her Own

by James Denselow*

Less than a year after the Brexit referendum vote that set the United Kingdom on the road to exiting the European Union comes yet another exercise in British democracy as the country prepares for a General Election on June 8th.

The vote itself came as a bit of a surprise. The ‘Fixed-term Parliament Act’ was passed in 2011 and was designed to ensure a more regular electoral cycle and temper a Prime Minister’s temptation to call an election out of the blue. However, Prime Minister May made the decision to have an earlier vote for a number of reasons. Firstly, whilst the UK’s unwritten constitution allows the largest party in Parliament to select the Prime Minister, she has no personal mandate beyond a relatively uncontested internal battle in the Conservative Party. Secondly, with Article 50 ‘triggered’ and the negotiations about Britain’s exit from the EU about to begin, it appeared that the Prime Minister wanted a bigger majority in Parliament to give her a comfort zone ahead of difficult decisions ahead.

The third reason – which many would argue is the most important – is the state of the public polling. In the middle of April, when Theresa May called the snap election, her Conservative Party had a twenty point lead and her personal poll ratings were even higher. When the media and the body politic recovered from the shock of the announcement, which was a closely guarded secret, the question being asked was not if she could win, but rather how big her majority would be.

Her opponent, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, has consistently polled behind the Conservatives and has been engaged in bitter internal struggles since originally being elected leader of the party including having to face a second leadership contest following last June’s referendum vote. 

Political science is a far from perfect and precise means to predict the future and over the past month of campaigning in the general election the mode, narrative and state of the polls has changed considerably. As we enter the final days ahead of the vote the gap has been reduced from 20 points to 5 and suddenly there is even talk of Theresa May’s majority being even smaller than before.

Yet the polls have been wrong before, famously on the Brexit referendum itself when they predicted a Remain vote and in the last general election in 2015 where Labour seemed to be heading to a position to lead a coalition when in reality the Conservatives secured their own majority. 

Britain’s first past the post system of voting means that across the 650 constituencies in the country in ‘safe’ Conservative or Labour seats an individual’s vote may not count for much and any poll lead will have to be filtered through the system to see what is reflected in the numbers of members of parliament. 

Conservative party supporters (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

But why have the polls swung so considerably away from the Conservatives to Labour?

Interestingly, it could appear that the lead the Conservatives had at the start of the campaign meant that they felt they didn’t need to offer a host of policy ideas or detail as to what they planned to do in Government. Instead, Theresa May framed the narrative as a choice between her ‘strong and stable’ leadership against the perceived unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn all ahead of the crunch Brexit negotiations with Brussels.

Labour, by contrast, has outlined a huge array of proposals that have made the election appear more of a choice than ever before. Their manifesto promises to scrap tuition fees, nationalise several parts of the British economy including the Royal Mail and the railways, and invest significantly more money in the country’s health and education systems. This will be paid for by increasing corporation tax and individual income tax on top earners – what Labour claims will only impact on the top 5% of earners.

The Conservatives have consistently polled ahead of Labour on who would run the economy better and they slammed Labour’s proposals as threatening to see huge rises to the national debt as well as more tax for more people. The Conservative’s confidence in their credibility when it comes to the economy was reflected in their manifesto that didn’t offer much in the way of costings but was more fundamentally based on the notion that all public services will need a strong economy to function and that is their area of strength.

The contrasting style of the two opponents has defined much of the campaign to date. Corbyn is far happier outside of the formal processes of Westminster giving speeches to large crowds of his supporters. His team have frequently cited Bernie Sanders as their template for success (despite him failing) but such was the initial polling that much of Corbyn’s focus has been on holding the line in Labour held seats rather than targeting marginal areas, whereas Theresa May has frequently focused resources on her opponent’s territory. 

May by contrast has enjoyed a far more managed campaign and her refusal to debate Corbyn on television has been criticised as has her robotic style of giving interviews. That said, she has suffered no major gaffes so far beyond a policy decision around a new means of funding social care. The UK has an aging population and the Conservatives suggested people use their house as an asset to fund care costs in later life. This was latched onto by their opponents as a ‘Dementia tax’ and appeared to cause a wobble in the Conservative core vote. It was quickly rolled back on with a cap being introduced but the damage was done and the ‘strong and stable leadership’ didn’t seem so rock solid.

Following this slip up the Conservatives have repeatedly targeted Corbyn. It would appear that he may be on more Conservative leaflets than Labour ones. A particular focus has been on his record in Parliament and engagement with issues such as the Northern Ireland peace process and the politics of the Middle East. Corbyn’s long term view on nuclear disarmament has not sat easily with the Labour party’s official position on renewing the Trident system.

Corbyn’s foreign policy positions were prominently debated following the Manchester attacks. The Labour leader has promised to stop UK airstrikes on ISIS in Syria and Iraq and rather pursue diplomatic means of bringing peace to the region. He went a step further following the suicide bombing of the Ariana Grande concert by linking the UK’s involvement in the ‘war on terror’ to increasing numbers of failed states that provide an incubator for extremist movements. Whether this plays well on the doorstep or with the electorate is hard to predict.

Whilst a Conservative victory is still by far the most likely outcome, the narrowing of the polls suggests that commentators and politicians alike will be in for a fascinating and long night of analysis come June the 8th. 

*James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a Director of the ‘New Diplomacy Platform’ (NDP). He has worked extensively in the Middle East, including research for foreign policy think tank Chatham House and has advised the British Government on its policy towards the Arab Spring. He is a Research Associate at the ‘Foreign Policy Centre’ (FPC) and a Fellow at the ‘Centre for Syrian Studies'(CSS).

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