Predicting voter behaviour in our current complex circumstances is a fools' game—but there are certain factors that will determine how the election plays outby Chaminda Jayanetti / October 31, 2019 / Leave a comment
The coming general election is set to be the most momentous in living memory—it is not an exaggeration to say it could determine the future of the British Union itself.
It is also set to be more volatile than any election this country has ever seen.
Predicting voter behaviour in the current circumstances is a fools’ game, but there are certain factors that will determine how the election plays out.
- Everyone is a swing voter now
Almost everyone is a potential swing voter in 2019. The divisiveness of the two main party leaders, the incentive to vote tactically in numerous seats, and the realignment of voter behaviour along the Leave-Remain axis (and the independence-unionism axis in Scotland) means voter behaviour could change rapidly and with little national uniformity during the campaign. Nothing can be taken for granted.
- The pacts
At present, the two main parties are split on Brexit lines. The Tories have ruled out a formal pact with Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, while a Labour-Lib Dem pact is not on the cards due primarily to the outright policy clashes and mutual loathing between the parties. However, against as divisive and inflammatory an opponent as Boris Johnson, local parties could reach tacit non-compete “understandings”—and Johnson’s reckless conduct has made tactical voting by Remainers much likelier.
- Brexit v A&E
Conventional wisdom states that the Tories want to make this election about Brexit while Labour wants to make it about domestic concerns. The truth is a bit messier. Yes, the Tories will try and use voters’ desperation to ‘Get Brexit Done’ – but they will also foreground spending pledges on hospitals, schools and town regeneration funds, plus a tough line on law and order, to win over former Labour loyalists in key marginals in the Midlands and Wales.
These spending pledges make it harder for Labour to do what they’d prefer—rerun their anti-austerity campaign. So this time the party will run on a programme of transformational reform to redistribute not just wealth but power—’taking back control’—as well as emergency measures to tackle climate change. An NHS winter crisis blowing up during the campaign would be a gift to Labour. They want their Leave voters talking about anything but Brexit.
But Europe isn’t an allergen for Labour either – stopping Brexit has the capacity to drive significant tactical voting by Remainers, which is at least as important to Labour’s chances as holding on to Leave voters in defensive marginals. And in playing up the risk that the Tories use Brexit to ‘sell off the NHS’ and cut workers’ rights – the ‘Trump Brexit’ – Labour has an attack line that links back to domestic concerns.
- Voting geography
Uniform National Swing is dead. Different types of voter behave differently in different places. If Labour piles up support in England’s core cities while losing it in northern and Midlands towns, it’s screwed. If the Tories pile up votes in their shire heartlands while losing them in Scotland and the liberal English suburbs and failing to win Labour’s Leave-voting seats, they are done for. Hence both main parties are pledging big money to Northern and Midlands towns as they chase these voters.
Without national level pacts, local arrangements will be crucial. The Remain voters of Milton Keynes would perhaps prefer Jo Swinson to Jeremy Corbyn—but it’s Labour who are by far best placed to win its two seats from the Tories. Truro and Falmouth is in the old Lib Dem heartland of Cornwall, but is now a Labour target. London has a number of seats that could be messy three-way marginals.
Meanwhile, will local Brexit Party branches actively campaign in key Tory targets like Grimsby, or watch quietly from the sidelines?
- Who’s grooming who?
Also known as: another month of endless speculation about Who Will The Lib Dems Back. Swinson is mostly targeting liberal Conservative voters who don’t like Corbyn. But her party depends on tactical votes from Labour supporters who hate the Tories.
The Lib Dems haven’t successfully squared both sides off since the Rose Garden coalition. The speculation and repetitive questioning are tedious and distracting, but voters have the right to know who, if anyone, the Lib Dems would put in Downing Street – or, alternatively, if Labour will offer the SNP a second independence referendum in order to win power.
- Toxic Corbyn
Corbyn’s dalliances with anti-Semites will be a focus of Tory attacks. He doesn’t draw solid lines against those who engage in violence against civilians. His attitude to Russian aggression is flimsy. Will voters put these concerns to one side? A lot of people need to hold their noses for Labour to form a government.
- A sea change in Northern Ireland?
The politics of Northern Ireland are a fiasco, with no functioning government. Tactical voting is more established here than in England and Wales—but will the cross-community Alliance Party make a historic breakthrough, as voters tire of deadlock? Will the DUP suffer after Johnson threw them under a bus, or did their stand against his deal solidify their support? Given Sinn Féin’s abstention from Westminster, any gains for the Alliance and the SDLP help the Remain side in Parliament, while the DUP are no longer potential partners for the Tories.
- Ideology matters
A government is for years, not just for Christmas. The Tories are pledging to splash the cash on public services —but only after a decade of spending cuts, and with senior cabinet ministers who are ideologically committed to shrinking the state. Meanwhile Labour is keen to emphasise how it will use public money to support private enterprise, but the shadow chancellor is at least a former Marxist, while some of Corbyn’s key advisers are, shall we say, ‘communistic’.
What the two main party leaders really want for Britain may not be apparent in the party manifestos, but could be more telling in the long run.
- Fiscal rules
Public spending is back, baby! It’s good again. The budgetary rules the two parties set for themselves will determine the spending pledges they can make.
This means little for the Tories now, given their commitment to post-truth mathematics, but it could still tie Labour into maintaining damaging spending cuts, supporting politically risky tax rises, or simply relying on fantasy accounting. Can Labour pledge the spending it wants while still protecting middle earners from tax hikes?
- Will Labour overreach?
The Tories’ shift on austerity has stolen some of Labour’s clothes from 2017, but Corbyn and John McDonnell need no excuse to push for more radical proposals to secure a mandate as the “party of change”—a four-day week, Right to Buy for private tenants, state-run pharmaceuticals firms and abolishing private schools are all on the agenda, and party conference demanded full backing for free movement.
These will please party members, but how will they go down with voters? And could some of these plans unexpectedly blow up in their face during the election campaign, as their mooted Land Value Tax—branded a ‘garden tax’ by the Tories—nearly did two years ago?
- Constitutional change
This could cause some of the biggest mess post-election. The Lib Dems will have a raft of proposals for electoral reform, an elected second chamber, regional devolution and all sorts. Labour will match some of these too.
But will these require referendums? Or will the mere fact of election victory, even in coalition, be taken as mandate enough? What happens when SNP use their inevitable election triumph as a mandate for a new independence referendum? And speaking of referendums, there’s the small matter of organising a ‘People’s Vote’…