5 Things You Ought to Know About the British General Election
It’s unsurprising that many British people are facing election fatigue.
In 2014, there was the ‘once-in-a-generation’ referendum on Scottish independence, with the union upheld with 55% of the vote. In 2015, a general election in which the Conservatives surprised nearly everyone by winning a majority. In 2016, the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU resulted in a shock victory for the Leave campaign. And now in 2017, after Prime Minister Theresa May denied it would happen umpteen times, we’re having another general election. That’s four major votes in four years, the latest one coming just five weeks after local elections in many areas. No wonder British voters are worn out from going to the ballot box so often.
If you’re trying to follow British politics, you might be finding the ongoing series of votes in a country that’s supposed to only elect its government once every five years a bit of a struggle to understand. In this article, we take a look at everything that you need to know about the general election that’s taking place on 8th June, and what you should expect from the results
1. It was never supposed to happen
Until 2011, British parliaments could last for up to five years, sometimes less if it seemed in the interests of the Prime Minister to call one sooner (or the sitting government was forced out by scandal). But 2011 saw the passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which set a five-year term as the minimum and maximum, with a general election election only occurring sooner under a limited range of circumstances, including a two-thirds majority of MPs voting in favour. The Act was an attempt to stop the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government then in power from collapsing early, and for that purpose, it succeeded admirably.
When Theresa May replaced David Cameron as Prime Minister, she insisted on several occasions that she wouldn’t call a general election; that it would be a distraction when government needed to focus on Brexit negotiations. But her slender majority, criticism for her lack of personal mandate, and astonishingly high polling figures together swayed her to go to Parliament and get that two-thirds majority; and at risk of looking like they were running scared from the prospect of a democratic verdict on their performance, the opposition parties had to give their support. So that’s why the UK is going to the polls a full three years earlier than anyone was expecting to. What’s more, the Conservatives have announced their intentions to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act if they are voted back in, so any certainty about when the next election might be that it could have provided is likely to be gone soon.
2. There’s little doubt about the result
It goes without saying that prime ministers don’t usually call elections that they think they’re going to lose – especially when they’d have another three years in power otherwise. But for this election, the outcome has been treated as if it were a certainty from the start. Most pundits and pollsters are so confident of Theresa May’s victory that they have been speaking in terms of the size of the Conservative majority, not whether May will win a majority at all.
Right now, the Labour Party have seen an increase in their projected vote share in the polls, but even then they’re trailing the Conservatives by an average of 16 percentage points – at 31% to the Conservatives’ 47%. And that’s in a country where polling typically overstates Labour vote share; at this point at the last election, Labour and the Conservatives were polling neck-and-neck, and yet the Conservatives went on to win 330 seats to Labour’s 232. Further data that will cheer Conservative Campaign HQ is that the UKIP vote has almost completely collapsed, and those voters are likely to go predominantly to the Conservatives, and the danger that pro-EU Conservatives would switch to the Lib Dems seems largely not to have materialised.
How certain is Conservative victory? Most bookies currently have it as a one-to-ten odds-on likelihood that they’ll win. In fact, it seems so likely that the Conservatives have been stressing in election materials that their victory is not assured, just in case – ironically – the certainty of their victory makes their voters so complacent that they don’t bother turning out on 8th June.
But the past couple of years have also been full of election surprises. Few people predicted the Conservative majority in 2015; fewer still thought that the Leave campaign would win the referendum, and Remain was ahead in the polls for most of the campaign period. Further afield, who predicted when Donald Trump first stood for the Republican nomination that he would end up President of the USA? Though postal votes have landed on doorsteps across the country, the election isn’t here yet. There’s already been one embarrassing u-turn on a Conservative manifesto pledge; even a very strong lead can be swallowed up by a few more of those. Still, Theresa May is probably not reformatting her CV and updating her LinkedIn page just yet.
3. It’s all about the leaders
The Conservatives’ other big strength coming into this election is the huge popularity of Theresa May. At the end of March, a full 51% of the public thought that Theresa May would make the best Prime Minister, compared with 13% for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who was beaten by “Don’t Know” on 36%.
The leaders of the two major parties could not form a greater contrast. Except that they’re both in their 60s – on the older side for party leaders – they have astonishingly little in common. Theresa May has been in government a long time; she was the longest-serving Home Secretary for over a hundred years and has a wealth of experience. She’s known as a micro-manager, and she’s visibly uncomfortable giving speeches, doing interviews or even having conversations with the public. All the same, the general public like her; she’s instinctively perceived as a safe pair of hands, a strong leader who will be able to chart the stormy waters of Brexit reliably.
Jeremy Corbyn is the exact opposite. Though he’s been in Parliament since 1983, he was a rebellious back-bencher – rebelling against his own party more often than any other MP – up until the point when he was elected leader in 2015. He has no experience of running a government department. His skills lie as a campaigner: when he goes to give a speech, he fills town halls and the crowds spill over to the pavement outside. He’s obviously comfortable in the surroundings of rallies, public meetings, protests and generally giving impromptu speeches where he has to shout to be heard over the crowd. Hundreds of thousands of people were inspired by his unconventional style and unusually left-wing politics to join the Labour Party solely to vote for him as leader, both in his first leadership contest and when he was challenged for the leadership after the EU referendum. But for many voters, while he seems pleasant, his views are too left-wing and his style doesn’t inspire confidence in his leadership skills.
The leaders of the other main political parties – Nicola Sturgeon for the SNP, Tim Farron for the Liberal Democrats and Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartleby for the Greens – excite neither such enthusiasm nor such dislike. The end result is that the Conservatives are trying very hard to keep this election focused on May versus Corbyn, and it’s a strategy that seems to be working in terms of press coverage so far. Particularly noticeable are the Conservative leaflets covered in May’s name and face (often to the extent that the word ‘Conservative’ is nearly squeezed out) compared with the Labour leaflets that keep mentions of Corbyn to a minimum.
4. It’s an election fought in slogans
One lesson from the past couple of years is that the campaign with the best slogan wins. In the USA, that was ‘Make America Great Again’ – can you even remember what the Clinton campaign’s slogan was? In the UK, in 2015 the Conservatives referred to their ‘long-term economic plan’ so many times that journalists began to groan every time they heard it. The same principle was applied by Vote Leave with ‘Take back control’.
The theory goes that the majority of voters don’t often read newspapers or watch the news; they get the news through Facebook, or through the brief bits of news on music radio channels. A slogan repeated so many times that hardcore political nerds are sick to death of it is about the only thing with the power to cut through to people who have too many other things going on in their lives to pay much attention.
And both Labour and the Conservatives have taken the message on board for this election. Conservative candidates are repeating ‘strong and stable leadership’ so many times that observers might wonder if it would be easier just to record it and play it back as required. Labour’s own ‘for the many, not the few’ hasn’t quite had the same exhausting repetition, but it’s being regurgitated a lot more often than previous election slogans were.
The election isn’t just being reduced to slogans because that’s been shown to be a winning method. It’s also because what happens next is a bit of a mystery. Whatever happens, the dominant theme of the next Parliament will be Brexit negotiations, and the British government only controls one part of how that will proceed. All other debates and ideas about policy or the economy will necessarily take a back seat as the behemoth of Brexit takes up newspaper inches, ministerial time and civil service capacity. Any programme for radical change that a party might propose has to take this into account – and faced with that, falling back on slogans is a whole lot easier.
5. It may not be about Brexit
It’s true that Brexit is colouring the whole election. But Brexit doesn’t seem to have been the focus of this election in the way that might have been expected. One reason for this is that there’s not a huge amount of difference between the Brexit stances of the two largest parties. Labour have shown more commitment to ensuring the rights of EU citizens currently resident in the UK than the Conservatives have, but otherwise they are unanimous on ending free of movement, and as a result, leaving the Single Market – the biggest decision in the whole process. The Liberal Democrats, Greens and SNP may differ, but their voices are not enough to change the course of the debate.
Another reason is that the public have begun to move on. Although the vote itself was on a knife edge – 51.9% of people voted Leave – only about half of those who voted Remain are now committed to fighting to stay in the EU at all costs. The other half want the process of leaving to get underway; there’s a sense that they’re fed up of dull discussions of different courts and dealing with non-tariff barriers and would like to hear about something else. Election fatigue is also Brexit fatigue; and that holds even if it means that the election, instead of being about Brexit, is about whether Theresa May is stronger and more stable than Jeremy Corbyn, like a chair that you’d choose to reach a high cupboard.
Finally, it’s both too late and too early for this election to focus properly on Brexit. The vote has happened and Article 50 has been triggered, but the consequences of those decisions and of the negotiating stance chosen by Theresa May have not yet been felt. Those voters who are content with leaving but who might switch between parties depending on how successful negotiations are have been don’t have anything to act on yet, at least beyond platitudes about how well each leader would deal with European negotiators. But while Theresa May’s early election gamble may have saved her from that for now, it’s likely to be top of the agenda come the next general election after this, in 2022.
Images: british flag; parliament at night; downing street; woman with placard; brexit arrows; coffee on homework; deer fighting
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