The next UK general election will take place on June 8th. The Prime Minister announced on the 18th of April that she would seek the election. This required Parliament to vote for it, which happened the next day, 19th April. Some people pointed out that the Fixed Term Parliaments Act had been revealed as meaningless. Others said that it was folly for the Labour opposition to vote to dissolve Parliament and hold the election. But it was not very clear how they could do otherwise, as the opposition in principle should always want the chance to challenge the government. The way things have turned out, the people who criticized Labour for going along with the election look unwise. But as often, commentators can get things wrong and get away with it: no one will remember their mistakes.
They said it because Labour was at a historic low in polling, with its leadership especially unpopular in polls. The Labour leader had been rejected by 4/5 of his own MPs less than a year earlier. A Labour wipeout was predicted, perhaps taking the number of Labour MPs below 200, to 180 or fewer. That could still (as of June 6th) happen. But it is no longer what people are talking about. How people have talked has gone:
- Labour are doomed: they will fall to 150 or 180 MPs, and may never recover: this is tragic and embarrassing; it is partly the fault of the people who obstinately stood by Jeremy Corbyn.
- Labour will do a bit better than expected. They have strong local MPs who are dug in and can defend their records. Local campaigns can avoid mentioning the leadership, and win via local loyalty and an enduring attachment to the ‘Labour brand’. Labour will lose, but not as badly as some people might think. In addition, the Liberal Democrats will make a recovery from their low base, partly because of their pro-EU, anti-Brexit stance, and this may help in fighting the Conservative Party. (This was pretty much my own view, except that I would not want to use the phrase ‘Labour brand’.)
- Labour are doing a bit better than expected: the polls are carrying them to 30% or above, which is what Ed Miliband got last time. Maybe Labour could even hold on to most of the MPs they have. Mind you, an OK popular vote result would not necessarily mean hanging on to the same number of MPs, as the number of MPs is not proportional to the total number of votes. Labour could gain votes but still lose.
- Hang on – Labour are still climbing in the polls. They are getting up to the mid-30s – the Cons’ poll lead of 22 has been cut to about 10! It’s a surge! – What explains this? I think the short answer is: the equal exposure given to parties by broadcast media under election conditions, combined with an absence of Labour infighting as the party has focused on electoral survival. Labour no longer comes across as a shambolic scenario group of people opposed to each other and irrelevant to government, so much as an energetic alternative government which harries the Cons every day and performs on equal terms with them, more or less, every day. This still has not closed the gap – we are still looking at a Con lead of, say, 11 points – but it has made it more of a contest and made Labour seem a more real contender.
- Meanwhile, a great many people said: the Conservatives are campaigning disastrously! Much of this seemed to hinge on the two parties’ manifesto launches. Labour’s was acclaimed as containing popular policies. The Cons’ was attacked particularly for its policy on charging people for social care. I don’t have a good understanding of this policy, or what’s wrong with it. But other people seem to! For days, it was the biggest reason that the Con party was flailing. Looking back, that moment of failure was important. It has gone on; it has somewhat defined the campaign, flowing into other campaign failures. These include: Theresa May’s generally bad interview persona, sometimes excruciating; her refusal to turn up at a TV debate, which Corbyn on the day (Wednesday 31st May) decided to turn up at, allowing lots of people to make May’s absence the main takeaway of the whole debate; Corbyn’s continued reference to the same trope, for instance ahead of a TV programme featuring them both two days later (Friday 2nd May); May’s apparently panicky failure to go on Woman’s Hour, on which Corbyn has struggled (even I found that painful listening), and her refusal to talk to local newspapers (despite her party having bought the front page of dozens of them: its targeted campaigning will probably still prove effective); renewed policy interest in a Con MP over expenses at the previous election (an issue that some had said was the reason this election was called in the first place).
- Meanwhile, two terrorist attacks took place: after a pop concert in Manchester on Monday 22nd May, and at London Bridge and Borough Market on Saturday 3rd June. The narrative of response to these events starts to grow worn (and this will increase as such events recur). Shock, rolling news, solemn voices, mourning, floral tributes, minutes’ silences, multiple silences at football matches and other public events, debates over security as public dialogue resumes, news of police activities and arrests (but the actual perpetrators always die on the spot these days), sometimes saccharine tributes that drown the essence of whatever the original tragedy was and make it impossible to see or feel it anymore (I thought the Manchester tribute concert of Sunday 4th June went this way) – and another attack, and off it goes again. This is growing all too familiar, but it seems new to have it, twice (so far), in an election campaign.
- You would think the political result would either be: 1) security and anti-terrorism are right-wing themes: this is good for the Con party, or 2) we’re in danger, we’d better stick to the status quo (in fact we probably shouldn’t have an election at all) – also good for the Con party. Oddly, that doesn’t seem to have happened yet. In fact after the second attack the PM’s alleged attempt to politicize what was supposed to be an apolitical break in campaigning has brought a strong political response: on the evening of Sunday 4th June Jeremy Corbyn made a resolute, statesmanlike speech on terrorism that Owen Jones said was the best he had ever made. Police cuts as a form of austerity making us unsafe became a Labour line of attack. Mayor Sadiq Khan stated that the Met police had lost too many officers. Owen Jones spent the next day on TV and online going so far as to say ‘Theresa May is a threat to the security of this country’. Perhaps all this is too much in a bubble to count. Perhaps the Con advantage on security will still win. But this pro-Labour pushback on police and security has been a heartening political response to a situation, dire in itself, which could otherwise have further very bad political consequences.
- One more stage in the story: by the end of last week (say Friday June 2nd), polls showing Labour up to within 3 points of the Con party, at 42/39; other polls even saying 41/40. The result, in leftist mood: we have gone from the virtual resignation to disaster described above to people talking of winning the election, of a hung Parliament, or of the Con majority being cut – which would make the PM’s rationale for calling the election in the first place look untenable. I fear that all this talk is very over-optimistic. I share in the desire for optimism and crumbs of hope, and indeed this polling shift has made the last two weeks the most exciting political time I can remember in years. But I don’t find it plausible that we have advanced so far in these few weeks. We can assume a Labour defeat; the only question is its scale. One figure I’ve heard, amid the vast amount of radio, TV and written news I’ve consumed, is: after all this, May needs a majority of 40 or above for credibility. I suppose whatever she gets, she’ll call it credible. I think we can assume it will be higher than 40. Sensible seasoned estimates say 60, 70 or more. I find it hard to see how this all works in terms of actual numbers of MPs, but let’s see: if they’re going to gain, say, 60 seats, then perhaps 15 could be from the SNP, one from the Liberal Democrats, 44 from Labour – leaving Labour at about 190. OK: let that be my prediction.
Soon, I’m going out to a Labour rally. If I have time, I will write a few more memories of this unexpectedly exciting campaign before polling day.