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UK election watch: Never mind the Brexit

  • Published at 01:56 am November 23rd, 2019
Houses of Parliament in London Bigstock

The week’s highlight was advertized to be Tuesday’s Johnson vs Corbyn head-to-head TV debate

During a week in which Prince Andrew dominated the headlines, all parties can claim to be aggrieved about media attention being distracted. 

The week’s highlight was advertized to be Tuesday’s Johnson vs Corbyn head-to-head TV debate. Despite being the first ever “one on one” between a prime minister and leader of the opposition during a UK election, its format failed to win friends and neither leader scored a knockout blow.

Corbyn did fare better than anticipated, though, and certainly seemed to win over more of the audience in the room, but not by enough to overcome the perception that the debate was a no-score draw. He can take comfort from several surveys giving him a win and the most reported negative poll (YouGov) which gave the debate 51:49 in Johnson’s favour, also indicating that three out of five undecided respondents thought Corbyn had performed better.

Labour’s main hope now lies with their “It’s time for real change” manifesto set out by Jeremy Corbyn in Birmingham on Thursday, and their “ground game” in target seats, away from the endless chatter and spin of TV airwaves and social media.

It will take at least a week to gauge which of its wide range of promises gains the most traction. By owning the adjective “radical” in describing the document, Corbyn hopes to rebuff “tax and borrowing” type criticisms and persuade voters to grab a “once in a generation” chance for change.

With under three weeks of campaigning left, he has to hope it works fast; midweek the Conservatives were confidently hitting above 40% across a range of opinion polls, with Labour seemingly unable to hop above 29%.

Much worse for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats, however, is more news of splits in the leading second referendum organization, adding to confusion for people planning to vote tactically as to which website’s tactical vote recommendations to follow.

With Boris Johnson framing the election as “Get Brexit Done” and consolidating appeal among Leave voters, divisions among Remain voters and opposition parties can only help him and the Conservative party.  

Five questions to ask in the next two weeks

1.    Is this a Brexit election or not? 

•    The Tory strategy of “Get Brexit Done” above all else has worked well so far. Nigel Farage still does protest much, but Boris Johnson is making up with Brexit party supporters votes lost from Conservative voters driven away by his own hard Brexit stance.

•    If Labour’s “Real Change” is to alter this, it needs to convince floating voters that change matters more than Brexit. Corbyn needs to become the tortoise to Boris Johnson’s hare.

2.    How radical do voters perceive Labour’s manifesto? And does this matter?

•    Content counts, and a positive vision appeals. Whether it attracts voters or not will depend on how effectively Labour communicates its plans over the next couple of weeks.

•    In 2017, Theresa May was seen as a weak communicator, but despite losing her party’s majority, she actually piled up a larger number of votes and bigger vote share than David Cameron in 2015.  Boris Johnson, for all his obvious weaknesses, is crucially seen by many as a popular and clear communicator. Throw in Corbyn’s much weaker popularity ratings, and Labour’s task is that much harder.

•    Taken piece by piece, much of Labour’s manifesto is arguably not that radical. Apart from the major Green Transformation Fund, there is little that has not been done before in the UK. Even the seemingly radical windfall tax on fossil fuel companies is not all that different from Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s windfall tax on “the excess profits of privatized utilities” in 1997.

•    Its biggest risk was increasing the range and number of pledges to an extent that makes them harder to concisely list and explain.

3.     Will the Liberal Democrats underperform again?

•    Jo Swinson is a confident presenter. The Liberal Democrats manifesto attractively contained simple to remember illustrations of promises (e.g. free childcare for two-year-olds up; recruit 20,000 more teachers; 1p on income tax for the NHS), but the party shows little sign of surging beyond 15% 

•    One explanation is that Nick Clegg’s coalition deal with the Conservatives decimated the party’s appeal among Labour leaning voters, and Swinson’s own part in the coalition and anti-Corbyn stance neither assuages this, nor attracts enough disgruntled Tory voters.

4.    Which party will find it the hardest to recover from a bad election?

•    Among the big two, it is hard to tell. Both Corbyn and Johnson have alienated many of their own MPs and traditional supporters. 

•    Overall, though, the Brexit and UKIP parties have made themselves the most irrelevant, and at a regional Northern Irish level, the DUP is likely to follow suit in the longer term.


5.    Can the Green party ever become bigger?

•    Not in a First Past the Post system. (Foreseeably, a future minority government may one day allow proportional representation to change the landscape.) 

•    The influence of green ideas in other parties’ policies is continuing to grow, however, and forms a key plank of Labour’s manifesto. How much of this is down to the Green party itself and how much to public concern about climate change more generally, not to mention David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg, is another question entirely. 

•    In the long run, it matters more that the ideas can be put into practice and help, than who wins one election. Or Brexit.

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