Ten Things We’ve Learned From the U.K. Election Campaign So FarBy
We’re past the halfway mark in Britain’s snap election, we’ve got the manifestos, and we’ve had a look at what the parties are offering. So what have we learned so far?
1. No one wants to talk about Brexit in The ‘Brexit Election’
Prime Minister Theresa May keeps telling voters that she needs them to back her position to send a message to the rest of the EU that as strengthened prime minister she will be a tough negotiator fighting Britain’s corner. So you might think there’d be a lot of discussion about Brexit. But there hasn’t been.
“May doesn’t want to get in Brexit specifics, and Labour don’t want to remind everybody that their position is confused,” said Rob Ford, professor of politics at Manchester University. “So they’ve both ended up talking about the same domestic policies.”
2. But Brexit still matters in this election
The 2016 referendum has led to a realignment in British politics. The U.K. Independence Party’s support has collapsed, going en-masse to the Conservatives and giving May an apparently unassailable lead. And Brexit is a proxy for the leadership question.
“Brexit is a magnifier for the competence issue,” said Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. “Which of these people do you want as a negotiator?”
3. The Liberal Democrats aren’t going to save you from Brexit
At the start of the campaign, there was an idea that the Liberal Democrats, the one national party with a clear position opposing Brexit, might become the voice of the 48 percent of the country who wanted to stay in the European Union. Well, not so much. The party, which got 8 percent of the vote in 2015, is struggling to get above 10 percent in opinion polls. Far from gaining seats, it looks possible that the party could even go backwards.
4. Labour’s polling is improving
This is one of the big surprises of the campaign. A majority of Labour’s lawmakers last year passed a vote of no confidence in their leader Jeremy Corbyn. Few candidates feature him on their leaflets. And yet the party’s polling trend is upwards, and is now regularly above the 30 percent mark it scored in 2015 under leader Ed Miliband.
“The consensus of everyone who follows politics is that Jeremy Corbyn is a worse leader than Ed Miliband in almost every way,” said Ford. “But he’s still apparently able to put together a coalition of voters as large as Ed Miliband did.”
5. That’s got polling companies nervous
Aside from Miliband, the other big losers of 2015 were the polling companies, which had suggested Labour might be on course to win. A year-long inquiry concluded that it had been speaking to the wrong voters, with too many Labour supporters in the mix. The problem looked hard to fix, and they’ve had less time to address it than they hoped. Might they be overstating Labour again? “If you talk to anyone who’s been on the doorsteps, anywhere in the country, you get a different narrative from the polls,” said Cowley.
6. Theresa May is feeling confident
One of the rules of British politics is that old people vote and young people don’t. That’s why May’s predecessor, David Cameron, was careful never to alienate the pensioner vote, promising them state-funded goodies even as the rest of the country weathered austerity. One of May’s biggest announcements this week was that wealthier pensioners will lose some of their benefits, and could have to use the value of their homes to pay for their own care.
“Her willingness to alienate her core vote is really interesting,” said Cowley. “It requires a high amount of confidence to upset the pensioner vote.”
7. Labour think they can win pensioners
The party’s Treasury spokesman John McDonnell on Friday unveiled a poster attacking the cuts on pensioners, which he labelled “sick and sneaky.” It could help the party pull wavering voters back into their column. “She’s handed Labour some easy weapons,” said Cowley. “It’s good doorstep stuff.”
8. No more Theresa Maybe
May’s nickname in her early months came from her inscrutability—no one knew what she thought about anything. We’re now getting a pretty good picture: She sees herself as the champion of Britain’s working classes, and she’s prepared to take on traditional Tory supporters if necessary. “The image of May as ultra-cautious is wrong,” said Ford. “She’s actually taking some really big risks.”
9. Two-party politics is back
In 2015, Labour and the Tories between them won 67 percent of the vote, close to a post-war low. They’re now polling around 80 percent. Which brings us to…
10. Nobody knows anything
“Before the 2015 election, we were told that single-party government was finished in this country,” said Cowley. “And here we are wondering if the Conservatives could win a majority of 200.”