5 weeks to go – 5 things to watch:
First of all, lets establish some baseline facts – if the election were today, according to all the available evidence, the Conservatives would win a majority. This is not a matter of serious dispute – anyone denying that basic premise is engaged in the psephological equivalent of claiming the moon landings were faked.
Labour is hoping to repeat its feat of catching up from far behind, as it did in 2017, by squeezing Liberal Democrat support and winning over more of its disaffected supporters.
Here’s five things that could shift the contest:
Can Labour change the subject?
The 2017 election was supposed to be about Brexit, but this wasn’t how it panned out. At the outset, polls from Ipsos Mori found Brexit and the NHS tied as the most commonly cited “major issue” but by the end of the campaign, the NHS was clearly ahead on this front.
The same survey this time finds Brexit is clearly established as the number one issue – Yougov and Opinium, for consistency, have also found Brexit is rated as by far the biggest issue, with the NHS a distant second.
For the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats there is a clear incentive to keep this issue as prominent as possible, as polls have consistently found Labour’s Brexit policy is not clear to the public, whereas theirs are both well understood and (comparatively) popular.
In addition, both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats hope to use Brexit as a wedge issue to peel away people who previously voted Labour. If Brexit remains the number one issue, this is more likely to be successful.
Labour’s hopes in this election may well turn on how successful they are in shifting discussion off Brexit or whether the news agenda lends Labour a helping hand.
Will anyone watch the TV debates?
Given that the Conservative campaign has had what I will charitably call a bumpy start, you might be surprised to hear that the biggest mistake the Conservative campaign has made to date has barely even been noticed in the press.
This mistake is agreeing to a TV debate between just Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. For the Conservatives, this is all downside.
Firstly, Johnson already has much higher ratings than Corbyn, according to all polling firms. This means there is little opportunity to grow this lead, but plenty of opportunity for it to shrink.
Secondly, Johnson isn’t great on details, or as good a media performer as CCHQ seem to think. It’s highly unlikely he will land any telling punches on Corbyn in this debate. And although the opposite is also unlikely, why take the risk?
Finally, the most important element of the Conservative electoral strategy is to hope for a split opposition. Put simply to try and ensure Jo Swinson takes more of Labour’s vote than Nigel Farage takes of their own. In this situation, you really don’t need to be a genius to figure out it might be a bad idea to have only one opponent on the same stage as you, implying it’s a straight head-to-head contest.
The TV debates in 2015 and 2017 didn’t shift the election dynamics at all, but we saw in 2010 when people temporarily “agreed with Nick” that they can have a serious impact.
With Labour and the Liberal Democrats competing for Remain-leaning voters, there is the active risk that they will split the opposition, and make the Conservatives’ task easier. Brexit Party supporters are also facing pressure to vote tactically for the Conservatives.
For this reason, there are a range of websites encouraging people to vote tactically, on both sides of the Brexit divide.
There is no shortage of willingness to vote tactically. A recent survey certainly found over half of students would be willing to vote tactically to advance their preferred Brexit outcome.
And tactical voting can be effective – in 1997, the Liberal Democrats in particular benefited from a large degree of tactical voting.
However, orchestrating effective tactical voting is very, very difficult. For example, if voters make their decisions based on what happened last time, they may tactically vote for Labour in seats where they came second in 2017, but where, in 2019, they are less well placed than the Liberal Democrats.
A classic example of this is John Redwood’s constituency of Wokingham, where Labour came (a distant) second in 2017, but where polling shows the Liberal Democrats are in a close contest with the Conservatives. Thus, tactical voters might accidentally back the wrong anti-Brexit horse.
In addition, Brexit isn’t the only tactical voting motivator. For some voters, especially some of those considering the Liberal Democrats, opposition to Jeremy Corbyn may motivate them to vote Conservative in an effort to try and prevent that outcome at all costs. Reportedly, several Lib Dem candidates are encountering this challenge in their campaigns.
Therefore I’m sceptical that tactical voting will shift the outcome in many seats – but it has the potential to influence results significantly, especially in places with possible three-way contests, like many seats in London.
Will the SNP factor come back?
Labour’s campaign strategy has implicitly conceded Scotland to other parties, and has instead sought to court the SNP for some form of arrangement – hence the statement they would allow another independence referendum, in direct contradiction of Scottish Labour.
This decision has profound ramifications, starting with the campaign. Firstly, it more or less takes a Labour majority off the table – they would need a swing of at least 6.5% to win enough seats in England and Wales alone, which is pretty far-fetched – especially as polls actually show them losing a lot of ground to the Conservatives.
That means if Labour are going to govern, realistically, they are very likely to need some kind of arrangement with the SNP. Such an arrangement has two massive risks for Labour.
In the campaign, it allows the Conservatives to warn voters of the prospect of Nicola Sturgeon pulling the strings of a Labour government. If anyone doubts the effectiveness of that line, I suggest asking any of the defeated Labour or Liberal Democrats incumbents from 2015.
Secondly, should they survive the campaign, it means Labour would actually have to govern on the sufferance of the SNP. Given that the SNP has a clear goal of achieving independence, they will have every incentive to turn any Labour government into a disastrous failure, because this will serve to alienate Scottish voters further from the union. If the SNP are in a position to do so, they will make Labour’s life a misery – and if Labour think otherwise they will be in for a rude awakening.
Who will the Brexit Party take votes from?
On the face of it, this is a question with an obvious answer. As a party advocating the hardest possible Brexit, the Brexit Party is clearly aiming to win support from Leave voters almost exclusively – and that means it is overwhelmingly likely that they take more votes from the Conservatives than Labour.
But it’s not so simple. In the run-up to 2015, many Labour strategists were eagerly anticipating the damage that UKIP would do to the Conservatives vote share.
In the event, though UKIP took 13% of the vote, the Conservatives gained votes. I imagine if you told Labour strategists that would have happened before 2015, they’d have called you an idiot.
This time, the available evidence suggest the Brexit Party actually will take more votes from the Conservatives than Labour, about twice as many. But this is before the Conservatives have had the chance to really turn the screws on Brexit Party supporters.
And the hemorrhaging of Labour Leave voters directly to the Conservatives currently outweighs the impact of the Brexit Party – in fact, according to Yougov, about 4% of the total voting electorate are Labour Leave voters who have made this direct switch, with almost zero moving the other way.
That could prove far more telling in the final analysis.