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29 October 2019

Five thoughts on the United Kingdom’s December election

A long campaign and a volatile electorate make for an unpredictable outcome.

By Stephen Bush

MPs have voted to hold an election on 12 December, the first December contest since 1923. Boris Johnson has opted to fight a “save Brexit” election, despite the existence of a narrow majority in this parliament to leave on his terms – judging that his chances of success are better if the question is “To Brexit, Y/N?” rather than one about the specific terms of his preferred final relationship with the European Union.

This election is up for grabs

Boris Johnson starts this election with a lead over Labour: according to one set of pollsters (YouGov, DeltaPoll, IpsosMori, Opinium and especially Kantar) he has a big lead that ought to compensate for any seats lost to a Liberal Democrat revival or to the SNP in Scotland. But according to another (Survation, ComRes) set of pollsters, while the Conservatives have a reliable opinion poll lead, it isn’t big enough to be certain of winning a parliamentary majority.

The United Kingdom has a highly eccentric electoral system and the rise of smaller parties is making it harder for any party to win decent majorities even in favourable circumstances. In addition, as the British Electoral Survey team reminded us, the growing volatility of British voters means that it essentially impossible to predict how the election will play out.

Nonetheless, we know how the parties want to play it

The big two political parties are both fighting souped-up versions of their 2017 campaigns. Boris Johnson is running the Theresa May playbook with a better centre-forward and a more coherent policy programme. Jeremy Corbyn will run his 2017 campaign on steroids: the same focus on constituency visits and big rallies, with clips designed to travel well on social media and a broadcast strategy focussed around local television and other local press.

What we don’t know is how that approach will work for them: and how the fact that Jo Swinson, unlike Tim Farron, will not have her campaign disrupted by questions about her attitude to homosexuality, will change the electoral dynamic.

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It’s a long, long campaign

One of the few things that Theresa May is unfairly criticised for is holding such a long campaign in 2017 – but British electoral law now commits political parties to holding a long campaign. The statutory minimum of 25 working days means that six week election campaigns are now the norm – and with them, the potential for things to go wrong and for the narrative to shift decisively is very real.

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The weather could be decisive

A December election means an election at a time of year when the National Health Service generally comes under strain. A contest triggered because of Brexit might yet hinge on the condition of the public realm if events force non-Brexit issues back into the political spotlight.

Boris Johnson needs to defy history

Elections are rare so generalising from them is risky, but: it’s worth remembering that British voters have been asked on five occasions to help out a government in the middle of its term and on every occasion so far they returned a hung parliament.

Johnson has a friendly media environment, his team is expert at playing the mainstream press, and he starts with big leads on leadership and the economy, usually the prerequisite to election victory.

But the possibility that a polarised, fractious electorate might return a fractious, muddled parliament is still a live one.