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21 August 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 5:04pm

Will the next general election be 2017 all over again?

By Stephen Bush

Labour’s position in the opinion polls is, by any definition, appalling. Regardless of the pollster it is consistently second, with the only question a matter of degree. More importantly, given that leadership ratings have tended to be a better predictor of electoral outcomes in British politics than headline voting intention, Jeremy Corbyn trails Boris Johnson by double-digit margins on the question of who people prefer as prime minister.

The party’s performance in local elections and parliamentary by-elections – again, a more consistently reliable predictor of general election performance than voting intention – is again, dire.

But Labour have a big and important hope: that these things were all true of their political position in April 2017, when Theresa May called an early election. Over the course of the campaign that followed, Corbyn transformed his political position.  Will it happen again?

Well, there are some important factors to consider in both directions.

The candidates are already both very well-known

As strange as it may seem to politically engaged New Statesman readers, one important factor in the 2017 election was that most people didn’t know very much about Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. They knew that the Conservatives had a new prime minister who seemed hardworking and essentially normal: a step-up, as far as most voters were concerned, on David Cameron. They knew that Labour had elected a leader who was different from what had gone on before and there had been a great deal of internal upheaval, but not a lot more.

Whereas in 2019, most people have a pretty clear idea in their minds about what Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn are like, for good or for ill.

This works both ways for the Conservative Party. On the one hand, it makes it hard to see how they can expand their coalition when they have a sharply polarising candidate at the helm. On the other, I think they should feel more relaxed that their post-Johnson “bounce” is unlikely to dissipate all that much: people have a pretty fixed sense about who Johnson is and he is unlikely to lose votes that he hasn’t already.

But taken together with the fact that Labour’s candidate is already well-known, it feels unlikely that opinions about the two candidates are going to be in as great a degree of flux as they were in 2017.

The Conservative campaign will probably be better

I mean, it could hardly be worse, short of Boris Johnson announcing that in his first full term he will test the nuclear subs on a monthly basis, with a random marginal constituency picked by lot during the campaign.

Boris Johnson is a better campaigner, but a worse product

On the one hand, the Conservative campaign will almost certainly be a lot better. On the other hand, the campaign will be helmed by a deeply polarising figure who a large chunk of the electorate dislikes, including crucially a well-sized chunk of a) social liberal voters in seats the Tory party has basically written off but more importantly in b) the seats that the party thinks it will pick up to compensate for the loss of the seats in a).

The Liberal Democrats aren’t going to detonate at launch

While the headline story in 2017 was, of course, the Conservative-Labour battle, what was equally important is what didn’t happen: that the Liberal Democrats, who even in their horror year of 2015 did better in the actual election than local elections and polls in January of that year would have suggested (the party usually does a bit better because it gets more headlines around election time) fell back rather than moved forward in a campaign.

Why? Well, because instead of fighting the campaign they wanted to, on stopping Brexit and the drift of both political parties to the right and left respectively, they were instead overwhelmed by a series of stories about Tim Farron’s attitude to homosexuality and reproductive rights. Their campaign never recovered.

That won’t happen next time, and at least part of the 2017 dynamic was that the detonation of the Liberal Democrat campaign made it a straight “Tory vs Labour” battle.

It’s difficult to say who this will benefit – broadly, the Liberal Democrat risk to Labour is indirect – a Liberal Democrat vote in most Conservative-Labour marginal cannot elect a Liberal Democrat MP but it can elect a Conservative one indirectly, as Labour loses more votes to the Liberal Demcorats than the Conservatives.

But the Liberal Democrat risk to the Conservatives is direct – most of the seats that the party seriously hope to win are held by Tory MPs.

So we don’t know who has the most to worry about here but it is certainly a big change on 2017.

 “Stop the SNP” may not be the theme of the Scottish campaign this time around

Theresa May was bailed out in 2017 by Ruth Davidson and the 12 Conservative gains she orchestrated in Scotland. That was partly a result of conscious strategic decisions made by Davidson over the course of her leadership, but partly because only a few days before May announced that she was calling an election, Nicola Sturgeon had delivered a major speech calling for another independence referendum.

That helped to make the 2017 election the contest that Davidson wanted to fight – a referendum on whether or not there would be another independence referendum. That may not be the case next time, and added to that, the political positions of her 13 MPs are pretty varied. For good or for ill, it will be harder to fight the Scottish campaign as an entirely separate affair.

That means that the next Conservative campaign probably starts from a position where it will be doing very well to hold six of its Scottish seats, and of course, for every seat they lose to the SNP in Scotland, they need to gain two from Labour in England and Wales.

From a “forming a government” perspective, it doesn’t really matter all that much as far as Labour are concerned if a seat in Scotland is held by them or by the SNP (though the perception that they can only take office thanks to the SNP may well matter in England). But it does matter a great deal whether a seat is held by a Scottish Conservative or an SNP MP.

Mostly, the present turns out to be a lot like the past

While past performance is no guarantee of future success, the number of election-winners who won having convinced themselves that it is “different this time” is quite low.

The difficult thing is, what we don’t know yet is: was the 2017 election the beginning of a new pattern of voter behaviour or a freakish result thanks to the immediate afterglow of the 2016 referendum, and a crushingly bad Conservative campaign?

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