Dublin: The voters of the United Kingdom head to the polls in a general election less than two weeks before Christmas. Will they be too interested in shopping for the festive season? Will Santa Claus give Prime Minister Boris Johnson the sack? Or will Christmas come early for Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn. Here’s the lowdown in the festive election.
Who:Anyone aged 18 or over who is registered to vote can cast a ballot on polling day. They must be a British, Irish or qualifying Commonwealth citizen, and be resident at an address in the UK. British citizens living abroad who had been registered to vote in the UK within the past 15 years, can also cast a ballot.
What:The general election is to elect 650 Members of Parliament who sit in the House of Commons, the lower chamber in the British parliament that sits at Westminster. The 650 electoral districts – constituencies – roughly equate to one for every 68,000 voters.
When:The vote is to be held on Thursday, December 12. The polling stations open at 7am and close at 10pm. The sealed ballot boxes are then taken under police escort to a central counting location in each constituency – usually a town hall – when counting begins. The first results begin to trickle in before midnight.
Where:Polling stations can range from meeting halls to schools, community centres, village halls, pubs, portacabins, lighthouses, country manors – anywhere that allows every eligible voter to be able to cast their ballot. The smallest constituency by size is Islington North in London, held by Jeremy Corbyn, the largest is Ross, Skye and Lochaber in north west Scotland.
Why:Under the UK’s Fixed-term Parliament Act, general elections are supposed to be held every four years. Because Boris Johnson is the new leader of the Conservative party and became Prime Minister on July 24 and subsequently negotiated a new deal for the UK to leave the European Union, he argued during most of October that it was time the UK to hold a general election.
How: Johnson tried on several occasions to call a general election, but combined opposition forces refused to support it, meaning the necessary two-thirds majority required under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act to call the vote couldn’t be reached. Only when the European Union agreed to a three-month extension of Brexit did opposition parties agree to overturn the Act, and call the election for December 12.
The election on December 12 will be Britain’s 22nd general election since 1945. But it will also be the fifth nationwide election to be held in only four years. After the 2015 general election, 2016 referendum, 2017 general election and 2019 European elections, the British people would perhaps be forgiven for boycotting this one altogether, notes Professor Matthew Goodwin, is a British academic who is currently Professor of Politics in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent, and Associate Fellow at Chatham House.
What the polls say:According to the latest average of polls, the Conservatives have 38 per cent support, Labour stands at 24 per cent, the Lib-Dems on 17, the Brexit Party on 12 per cent, and the Greens on 6 per cent.
What the polls mean:As things stand now, no single party has enough national support from voters to win an overall majority in the House of Commons. Yes, the first-past-the-post voting system does skew results, but the outcome is still far from clear.
What the analysts say:“Let’s not rely too heavily on polls – almost anything could happen in this election,” Professor Goodwin says.
Boris Johnson is in the role as Prime Minister based on his ability to win voters over with his lovable-rogue style of politics and bizarre speeches; and Jeremy Corbyn finally has the election he’s been calling for, and another chance to prove the pollsters wrong – as well as some sections of the British media,” Professor Goodwin notes.
“Meanwhile, the Lib-Dems’ Jo Swinson is targeting the 16 million people who voted to remain in the EU as her potential electoral base; and former Ukipper Nigel Farage is heading up his new Brexit Party into its first general election, having won 35 per of votes in the European election.”
Boris Johnson:Referred to by some as the “British Trump”, his career as a journalist before entering politics. After serving as mayor of London, Johnson quickly became a leading advocate of leaving the EU, while his boss, then Prime Minister David Cameron, led the campaign to remain.
After the Vote Leave campaign’s 2016 referendum victory, the new prime minister, Theresa May, appointed Johnson as foreign minister. He lasted in the cabinet for two years, resigning over May’s Brexit plan.
He later voted against May’s doomed deal twice as a member of Parliament, before changing his mind and voting in favour of it once May promised to step down and his leadership chances increased.
When May resigned in June, Johnson easily succeeded her as prime minister and leader of the Conservative party.
As prime minister, he made headlines for firing half of the British cabinet, kicking well-known MPs out of his party after rebelling against him and moving to prorogue or suspend Parliament, a move deemed illegal by the Supreme Court for avoiding scrutiny of his plan for a no-deal Brexit.
He has negotiated a new Brexit deal with the EU but has yet to get it passed through parliament. He has apologies to Conservative voters for having been forced by Parliament to seek an extension to Brexit until January 31.
Jeremy Corbyn:Before his shock 2015 election as leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn operated at the left-wing fringes of his party. A socialist through-and-through, Corbyn reportedly divorced his wife over a disagreement on whether to send their children to a state school.
In his tenure as the largest opposition party’s leader, Corbyn has moved Labour decisively to the left, calling for a nationalisation programme and appointing a once self-described Marxist to lead his economic policy. Corbyn has also faced cross-party backlash over allegations of anti-Semitism and a failure to create a coherent Brexit strategy.
Corbyn has been hesitant on staying in the EU, pledging to support a second referendum on membership in the EU only this July.
His party forged an ad-hoc political alliance in the House of Commons to prevent a no-deal Brexit and forcing Johnson to ask the EU for a three-month extension to Brexit beyond October 31.
Jo Swinson:The 39-year-old is MP for East Dunbartonshire and a former equalities minister in the Coalition Government between the Conservatives of David Cameron and the Lib-Dems under Nicholas Clegg. She’s the youngest Lib-Dem leader ever, and was elected in September. She was born in the west coast of Scotland and was educated at a comprehensive before studying at the London School of Economics. A member of the Liberal Democrats since the age of 17, Swinson unsuccessfully stood for Parliament at the 2001 General Election, but was elected in 2005.
At the time she was the youngest MP in the House of Commons and went on to become a junior employment minister in David Cameron’s Government. She lost her seat at the 2015 general election to the SNP but won it back in 2017.
Is this election all about Brexit?
Yes – and no.
Before the Brexit referendum, voters generally identified themselves at Conservative or Labour, by values that were mostly set on their outlook, swayed by class values or social outlook. In June 2016, a majority of Britons voted by 52 to 48 per cent to end more than four decades of membership of the European Union. It was a vote, however, that tore apart regional loyalties and ended the traditional Labour-Conservative divide. Now, many voters identify as Leavers or Remainers, cementing splits of class, age, geography and social values.
Will Jennings, a professor of politics and public policy at the University of Southampton says many post-industrial towns in the Midland and North – areas hard hit by the loss of traditional coaling mining, steel, shipbuilding or heavy industries in economic reforms under the governments of Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s and 1980s – have found it difficult to adapt after long-term economic and demographic decline. London’s domination too has exacerbated that decline.
“The major difference we see between core cities and smaller towns is the great divergence between the age of population,” Jennings says.
“Over the past 30 years English towns have aged, while cities, such as Bristol, have become younger and younger,” he says. “Brexit has crystallised England’s divide, fueling a politics of resentment, or cultural backlash, because the populations of different parts of the same country hold increasingly divergent views.”
So, Brexit has made the electorate more volatile?
Yes, according to Professor Goodwin.
“One irony is that ever since Britain voted to leave the European Union our politics have looked more and more European,” he says. “A once stable two-party system has basically imploded into a four-party race. Fragmentation and a resurgent populism are the specials of the day. But the parties have changed too. This election is interesting because it will most likely define the legacy of two recent political projects: Jeremy Corbyn’s more radical left-wing project and Boris Johnson’s attempt to revive and rewire one-nation conservatism. Only one of these can emerge victorious.”
Where the parties stand on Brexit
Conservatives:Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants the UK to leave the EU with the revised deal he agreed. He previously said the UK would leave on 31 October “do or die”. He was, however, forced to write a Brexit extension letter to the EU, after MPs failed to approve a revised deal. He secured changes to the deal previously negotiated by Theresa May, scrapping the so-called backstop on the Irish border, replacing it with a new customs arrangement. Brexit, however, has left the Conservatives deeply divided, with 21 MPs expelled recently for failing to follow the government’s line on Brexit. Ten have since been welcomed back.
Labour:If it wins an election, Labour wants to renegotiate Johnson’s Brexit deal and put it to another public vote. Labour says its referendum would be a choice between a “credible” Leave option versus Remain. Under its Leave option, Labour says it will negotiate for the UK to remain in an EU customs union, and retain a “close” single market relationship. This would allow the UK to continue trading with the EU without checks, but it would prevent it from striking its own trade deals with other countries. If a referendum was held, Corbyn has not said which way he would vote, although he has pledged “to carry out whatever the people decide”. It has also divided Labour ranks. More than 25 Labour MPs wrote to Corbyn in June, saying another public vote would be “toxic to our bedrock Labour voters”.
Scottish Nationalist Party: The SNP is pro-Remain and wants the UK to stay a member of the EU. It has been campaigning for another referendum on Brexit. The SNP’s ultimate objective is for an independent Scotland that is a full member of the EU.
Liberal Democrats:The Lib-Dems have pledged to cancel Brexit if they win power at the next general election. The policy was endorsed in September by party members at the Lib-Dem party conference. If the Lib Dems do not win a majority at the election, they would support another referendum.
Democratic Unionist Party:The Northern Ireland-based DUP had an agreement with the Conservatives whereby it lent it support in the House Commons in a confidence and supply arrangement. However, while the DUP wants the UK to leave the EU, it is unhappy with the revised deal negotiated by Johnson. It’s worried that the union between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK could be threatened because Northern Ireland would have to stick to some EU rules and there would be checks on goods coming from Great Britain. The DUP wanted to be given a veto, so that it had the option to reject the new customs arrangement in the future.
The Independent Group for Change: This party is made up of MPs who left the Conservatives and Labour, in part because of their positions on Brexit. They back another referendum – a ‘People’s Vote’ – and want the UK to remain in the EU.
Plaid Cymru: The Welsh nationalists backs remaining in the EU, despite Wales voting Leave in the referendum. It wants a further referendum and to Remain.
Green Party:The party’s one MP, Caroline Lucas, has been a vocal campaigner for another referendum, and believes the UK should stay in the EU.
Brexit Party:Led by Nigel Farage, the Brexit Party wants the UK to leave the EU without a deal, in what it calls a “clean-break Brexit”. It says Johnson’s revised Brexit plan is a bad deal because it would still involve paying the EU a £39 billion (Dh185 billion) settlement. It says it would be willing to form an electoral pact with the Conservatives to try to avoid splitting the leave vote.
Are Labour and Conservative voters still loyal?
Tribally loyal voters are not facing the threat of extinction, but they are increasingly rare.
“‘My father voted Labour and his father voted Labour’ is moving into the history books as we continue to move into what political boffins call the era of dealignment – much weaker relationships between the main parties and voters,” Professor Goodwin says. “With the most recent two elections, 2015 and 2017, being the most volatile in modern times it is also a reminder for why only a fool would make a confident prediction about what will happen on December 12. British voters are increasingly up for grabs, shopping around the political marketplace like consumers.
On the voters’ radar
“Corbyn needs to reassemble his 2017 Labour electorate which we can see he is already trying to do by turning up the volume on environmental protection, warning about the alleged privatisation of the National Health Service (NHS), detailing backroom discussions between the Tories and big pharma, and underlining Labour’s commitment to hold a second [Brexit] referendum,” Professor Goodwin says.
Voters want to talk about the NHS and crime and are deeply pessimistic about the direction of the economy. Many aspects of Corbynomics, such as nationalisation, putting workers on company boards and increasing taxes for high-earners, are also very popular.
“Johnson, meanwhile, faces a different challenge; he needs to hold on to the existing Conservative territory while ideally breaking new ground in Leave Land by talking about regional inequality, the NHS, rebooting the northern powerhouse and speaking ever more loudly to blue-collar Britain.”
THE DISUNITED KINGDOM
The context:The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) continues to control much of Scotland, Labour holds big majorities in the North, is dominant in London and has been spreading further into the southeast. The Liberal Democrats are resurgent, bearing down on Conservative MPs in nearly 30 seats where they are second. And the Brexit Party could still cause problems. And in Labour seats with a strong Leave vote, Johnson will be trying to make gains, turning seats that have long been red into his blue popular Conservative column. Now, more than ever before, regional factors will determine the makeup of the new House of Commons.
England and Wales
Last time out
The last UK election in 2017 saw a clear return to two-party politics across England and Wales – now, however, that duopoly is very much up in the air. Whereas Ukip, the United Kingdom Independence Party, had carved a niche for itself in the 2015 election and the Liberal Democrats entered government after a strong 2010, Theresa May’s snap election in 2017 was a two-horse race.
Ukip have imploded under the burden of relevance, a string of poor leaders, party scandals all following the departure of Nigel Farage, who has since established the Brexit party. Labour and the Conservatives to hoovered up a combined 87 per cent of the vote in England in 2017, taking all but 10 of the 523 English seats on offer.
The Conservatives won 296 seats to Labour’s 227.
In Wales, Labour won 28 of the 40 seats after a huge surge in its support that saw it win seven out of every 10 votes cast in the principality.
Welsh independence party Plaid Cymru won four seats, half of the Conservatives eight.
Two, three, four party system?
If it’s a case of the major parties being brought back down to earth, it remains to be seen what sort of a landing they’ll get.
Farage is back and he’s at the helm of the slicker and more disciplined Brexit Party, targeting seats where the two major parties could be weak.
The Conservatives had hoped that Brexit would be a reality by the time that UK voted again, stymying the appeal of the Farage’s shiny new vehicle, but this has not happened. Farage, however, has decided not to seek a seat himself – he’s lost on seven previous attempts – and that may lead to a drift of support to Brexiteer-supporting Conservatives. Farage has been attempting to build a Leave alliance and roped in US President Donald Trump to support the notion.
But it’s not just Johnson that Farage could prove troublesome for. The Brexit Party stealing votes from otherwise Labour-leaning voters in Leave voting constituencies could derail Corbyn’s chances of winning vital marginal seats he needs to form a government.
Labour faces the prospect of bleeding votes on two fronts, with the Lib-Dems aggressively targeting Labour Remain voters with its vociferously anti-Brexit message.
The Lib-Dems have also been stealing Conservative MPs and bringing them under its banner – five so far this year have defected from Tory ranks – a clear sign of just how the dominance of both parties of both the Conservatives and Labour have been eroded.
The Lib-Dem message is getting through that it’s a smarter tactical vote to vote for them in some constituencies. But how much all this plays out on election night is the real question.
The Johnson factor
Johnson was comfortably elected as leader of the Conservatives with 66 per cent party support. His message was simple – get Brexit done by October 31.
That hasn’t happened.
For many of those who voted for him though, the real reason for putting him in charge was the belief that he could be a populist vote-getter come election time.
Johnson himself seemed be in campaign mode from the start too, promising new rail links in Northern England, vowing to put 22,000 more police officers on the streets and, most recently, cancelling the controversial practice of fracking for shale gas in England and Wales.
Now that the election has come – at the fourth time of asking – there is huge pressure on him to deliver the decisive victory Theresa May could not. Should he fail to do so his future would already be brought into question.
His judgement in proroguing parliament in early September was reversed by the Supreme Court in a ruling that said he misled Queen Elizabeth and purposely attempt to stifle debate on Brexit. He has suffered a series of humiliating parliamentary defeats, but he is leading in the opinion polls for now. He will do well, however, to remember that former Prime Minister May was in an even-stronger position when she called the 2017 general election – one that saw a Conservative advantage and majority vanish during the campaign.
The Corbyn factor
Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn faces an existential crisis during this election campaign. Including nationwide local elections, the last general election and the recent European elections, Corbyn will be fighting his fifth election as Labour leader.
The previous general election didn’t bring the party into government but was seen as a qualified success after Labour increased its vote share and won more seats. That was built on the back of Corbyn’s campaigning – the so-called Corbynmania united a fractured party for a while. The problem now is that all that seems like a distant memory and questions linger about whether that performance represents a high watermark for what Corbyn can achieve with Labour. A failure for him to become prime minister this time would likely mean his final chance had come and gone.
See you in the court of public opinion
When the choice was between a general election before or after Christmas, the Scottish National Party (SNP) would have preferred one before the end of January – before its prominent former leader and First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond goes on trial charged with multiple counts of attempted rape and sexual assault.
That will play to its favour, as will a few other factors.
Ruth Davidson, the Tories hugely popular Scottish leader, resigned from her role earlier this year. She said this was because of family commitments (she gave birth to her son earlier this year) but also cited qualms over the Conservatives handling of Brexit.
Labour, meanwhile, have had historic problems in Scotland because of the strength of the SNP, and as Scotland voted to Remain in the EU, the party’s confusing stance on what it wants from the 2016 EU referendum result won’t help them one bit.
After the 2017 general election, the SNP had 35 MPs, winning the majority of Scotland’s 59 seats in Westminster.
What do the polls say?
Opinion polls put SNP support at anywhere between 39 and 42 per cent support, with the Conservatives hovering at 20 per cent, Labour floating between 15 and 19 per cent. The Lib-Dems are holding in the low teens, with the Brexit party just over 5 per cent.
Despite the polls, a number of local factors make for very tight races – In the current seats held, a dozen of the 59 seats were won by a majority of under 1 per cent. In North East Fife, the SNP’s Stephen Gethins won a majority of just two.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is pressing for a second referendum on Scottish independence, addressing a large Glasgow rally last weekend. She believes a Labour majority at Westminster would allow for that vote to take place.
Johnson has ruled out allowing a second referendum, saying that the 2015 plebiscite, won by 55.3 to 44.3 per cent of those in favour of maintaining the union with the rest of the United Kingdom, was supposed to be a once in a generation event.
One recent opinion poll – in Scotland’s only newspaper to support independence – found support for independence at 60 per cent, with 31 per opposed and 9 per cent undecided. Other opinion polls, however, have voters pretty much evenly split in the low 40s on the question with 11 per cent undecided.
After a tumultuous Northern Ireland regional assembly election in March 2017 in which Sinn Fein made major gains, all eyes were on Arlene Foster to prove that the Democratic Unionist Party was still capable of remaining as the most powerful electoral force when Theresa May announced a general election in June.
The result of that election left the DUP shaping the direction of British politics. And while the party is still smarting from Johnson’s decision to ignore the party’s concerns over his Brexit deal, the DUP still retained key influence in deciding which bills and motions survive their journey through a divided House of Commons.
Now, in a House of commons that may indeed be as equally fractured as that just dissolved, expect more attention on the complex, contentious politics of Northern Ireland than ever before as the DUP faces a nearly unprecedented challenge in holding all of its 10 MPs.
The DUP has 10 MPs, Sinn Fein has seven. The Irish nationalists have steadfastly refused to take their seats in any parliament as that would require Sinn Fein MPs to swear an oath of allegiance to the British monarch. Consequently, while there are 650 seats in the House of Commons, the abstentionist policy of Sinn Fein alters the arithmetic for any party or alliance seeking a majority. If Sinn Fein retains its seven seats, any aspiring prime Minister would require a majority of 323 instead of 326.
What to look out for
Both the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Ulster Unionists had historically bad nights in 2017, ending up with no representation at Westminster. The only other MP from Northern Ireland is Independent unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon, who is opposed to Johnson’s Brexit deal.
But things might change this time around.
The key battleground of Belfast South was won in 2017 by the DUP in a surprise victory for Emma Little Pengelly and represented a major defeat for the SDLP. This time around, the SDLP candidate Claire Hanna will be hoping to wrench the seat back with a passionate anti-Brexit message, while the Alliance Party – which has enjoyed a remarkable few months after success at the European elections – will also have hopes of making a strong showing in the constituency.
In Belfast North, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds faced a serious challenge from Sinn Fein at the last election, defeating John Finucane by only 2,000 votes – a victory aided by the Ulster Unionist Party standing aside in the constituency. This time, things could be different. The incoming Ulster Unionist Party leader Steve Aiken has said that that arrangement won’t happen again, creating a very difficult path to re-election for Dodds. It’s a move that triggered serious criticism in the unionist community, with growing pressure on Aiken to reverse his thinking.
The Alliance Party has had a run of good form, with leader Naomi Long winning the third seat in the European Parliament election and strong returns from the local elections in May. But these successes may be cut short by a first–past-the-post electoral system, which makes it difficult for smaller parties to make inroads. Even if the party doesn’t win any seats, however, watch out for how many votes it gets – if it enjoys something of a minor surge it could be a good indication of a changing electoral landscape in Northern Ireland.
In the Brexit referendum, Northern Irish voters backed Remain by 55.8 to 44.2 per cent. With Johnson’s proposed deal placing a customs border effectively down the Irish Sea and altering the relationship between the province with the rest of the UK, unionists may be tempted to galvanise support behind the DUP or may be disillusioned by its hard Brexit stance.
THE FINAL WORD?
“Corbyn knows that he needs to find a way of holding up the Labour vote in Leave Land while reaching further into Remainia,” Professor Goodwin surmises. “Johnson knows that he needs to fend off these challengers in Remainia while also marching much further into Leave Land than Theresa May who, in the end, only captured six pro-Brexit seats from Labour.”
With inputs from agencies, BBC, CNN, ABC and Press Association
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe