The United Kingdom goes to the polls tonight, almost three years ahead of schedule. The Conservatives, led by prime minister Theresa May, are overwhelming favorites – Sportsbet has them at six to one on to win a majority and ten to one on to form government – but there’s a widespread sense that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour opposition has outperformed expectations.
Last time around, in 2015, the Conservatives surprised almost all observers (including this one) by winning a majority, albeit a narrow one: 330 of the 650 seats, with 36.9% of the vote.* (Pause here to be suitably shocked by those numbers. This is an unreformed electoral system if ever there was one. In fact it can get worse; Tony Blair won a larger majority in 2005 off 35.2%.)
It is not disputed that the Conservatives will increase their vote this time, probably to something above 40%. But Labour will also improve on its 30.4%, since the vote for minor parties has nosedived: particularly the UK Independence Party, which came third last time with 12.6%. UKIP achieved its goal with the “leave” vote in last year’s EU referendum and now lacks any obvious purpose except for a sort of generalised xenophobia, which the Tories seem to be catering to adequately.
Fourth and fifth placegetters from last time, the Liberal Democrats (7.9%) and Scottish Nationalists (4.7%), are also in some difficulty; the former are at best holding their vote in what should have been a comeback election for them, while the latter are bound to lose some ground in Scotland, where they hold 56 of the 59 seats. Scots have now been to the polls five times in four years, so it’s understandable that the SNP’s call for another referendum would not be popular – just as the Tories are being punished in the rest of the country for an unnecessary early election.
Beyond those limited verities, the likely shape of this result is very difficult to pick. Opinion polls have given widely different readings; their record in 2015 was poor, and no-one knows just how and how well they have adjusted their methodology to try to remedy the problem. The antediluvian electoral system makes it hard to translate votes into seats, and the opportunities for tactical voting make the problem worse.
To get a feel for things, best to start with Guy Rundle’s excellent preview in yesterday’s Crikey (perhaps leaving aside some of his ideological flights of fancy), then work your way through the poll results and associated seat projections collected by Wikipedia.
If the mainstream of the polls (as distinct from the outliers that each side seizes on when it suits them) is anything like correct, then the Tories are going to increase their majority – probably to somewhere between 50 and 80 seats (that is, a gain of 20 to 35 seats), although some estimates go as high as 100.
That’s below what many were expecting when the election was called, when a majority of 150 or more seemed possible. But it’s nonetheless a reasonable result, particularly if it’s towards the high end of that range; it will put May out of danger for the time being, although it is unlikely to make the Conservative Party any more governable in the long run.
If I was barracking for the Tories (which, as I explained the other day, I am not), the thing that would most worry me is the thought that the pollsters have over-corrected for the mistakes they made last time, and that instead of understating Conservative support they are now understating Labour’s.
In that event, it’s possible that the government will gain few if any seats, which would make May’s position a precarious one. Negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU is going to be difficult enough: the point of the early election was to reduce the power of the Tory backbench to run interference. If it fails to do so, the prime minister’s critics will be out for blood.
Worse still, if the government loses its majority, other options become thinkable. Labour has no serious chance of winning a plurality – as Rundle says, “There is no likely-at-all scenario in which the Tories get other than the largest number of seats.” But a net loss of more than 20 seats would raise the possibility of a Labour-led coalition if the Scots and the Lib Dems were willing to come on board.
Such a coalition would be an unwieldy beast, and it’s hard to think of a politician less suited than Corbyn to the task of managing it. Nor would he be at all likely to step aside and let someone else have a try. Just as well, perhaps, that it’s unlikely to happen.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the British party system is headed for a major shakeup sometime in the near future. With such unsatisfactory choices on offer, there is a big opportunity for something different, perhaps along the lines of what Emmanuel Macron has achieved in France (more about that tomorrow). But for now, Britons seem stuck in the bog into which David Cameron unintentionally deposited them.
Polls close at 7am Friday eastern Australian time, and meaningful results will start coming in about three hours later. If it’s not too depressing, I’ll do some liveblogging, as no doubt will many others.
* Note: what looks like a ten-seat majority is actually 15 seats on the floor of the House of Commons, since the Speaker and the four Sinn Féin MPs do not vote. I shall ignore this complication, but it sometimes produces discrepancies in reported totals.