Stakes Are High in British Election, But Outcome Is Up in the Air

If the Conservatives miscalculate, the outcome could be a disaster for them.

The Houses of Parliament in London, England, February 19, 2013
The Houses of Parliament in London, England, February 19, 2013 (Martin Robson)

In a month, Britain will have its third election in four years. Once more the reason is Brexit, or rather the lack of Brexit.

I’ve argued before that Britain’s departure from the EU is accelerating a breakdown of the two-party system. The upcoming election is like a kaleidoscope. Every time you shake it, a new pattern appears.

Yet the stakes are simple enough. For the Conservatives, all that matters is winning a majority. The other parties merely have to stop this from happening to claim victory.

Already we can say the new Parliament will be more partisan and less experienced. Sixty lawmakers with 750 years of combined legislative experience are not seeking reelection. Many blame the coarse political discourse of recent years.

Labour hopes

Labour and the Liberals may be hoping that history repeats itself. The last winter election in 1923 saw the Conservatives under Stanley Baldwin win the most seats in a hung parliament, yet Labour, under Ramsay MacDonald, were able to form a government for the first time with tacit support from the Liberals.

Labour would prefer another 1945 election. That was the year in which the party won its first outright majority and created a new political settlement, including the National Health Service. Given its radical left-wing manifesto, Labour’s hope is to once again shape British politics for decades to come.

That will require keeping a fragile coalition of metropolitan, mainly pro-EU voters and older, mainly northern Brexit supporters intact, despite Liberal and Conservative efforts, respectively, to pry those voters away from Labour.

Conservatives

The Conservatives are still ahead in the polls, but they have lost support since Theresa May’s ill-fated 2017 election.

Furthermore, while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is unpopular, so is Boris Johnson.

The Conservatives are hoping to gain more pro-Brexit Labour voters, especially in Northern England, than they will lose Brexit hardliners to Nigel Farage and Brexit opponents to the Liberal Democrats. Given how deep Labour affiliation runs in the north, that seems like an ambitious goal. Some of the seats there have been represented by Labour for a century or more.

If the Conservative calculation proves incorrect, the outcome could be an electoral disaster.

Pro-EU parties

The Liberals, whose numbers have slowly risen over the last year, are hoping their unequivocal support for EU membership will win them seats. A “remain” alliance in around 10 percent of constituencies is likely to help pro-EU parties, including the Welsh nationalists and Greens, gain new seats and keep the ones they already have.

But nationalism in Wales and Scotland also makes it harder to predict the outcome. The Scottish National Party is against Brexit, but some of its voters are for it. Who will they break for?

The same question can be asked about pro-union, anti-Brexit voters in Scotland, especially since that the Scottish Conservatives have lost their popular and center-right leader, Ruth Davidson.