A view of the campaign from the sidelines by David Hough
Recent polling has been suggested as one of the reasons Mrs. May decided to call an election now, as well as messages coming out of the CPS regarding possible prosecutions of people involved in some of the campaigns during the 2015 election. Mrs. May, herself, indicated in her announcement speech outside No.10 Downing Street, that the main driving force was the need for a mandate for the Negotiations over Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.
I suspect the calculations revolved around all three possibilities, with the polls a clincher, as she saw the possibility of securing a very solid majority, which would leave her unchallenged for the duration of the parliament.
The formality of a vote in the Commons passed without any problems today. This was held due to the requirements of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011, in which 66% of the MPs had to approve it, which they did with ease. Indeed, in the end only thirteen MPs voted against, including Clive Lewis, who may be considered a leadership contender should Labour lose, and Mr. Corbyn resign the leadership.
As the campaign begins, everything indicates a big Conservative victory, although Professor John Curtice, of Stirling University, has suggested it may not be as big as some believe, due to there being fewer seats than ever likely to change hands on election night.
The biggest reason given for the likelihood of a handsome Conservative majority is what has been happening with the Labour Party since the 2015 election defeat. The election of a leader who the majority of Labour MPs did not, and do not, support has contributed, as the party comes over as divided, and divided parties rarely do well in elections. It doesn’t matter whether the so-called ‘coup’ of 2016 has been a major factor in this, the perception is of a party at war with itself, and any cessation of hostilities for the duration of the campaign will be seen as attempting to paper over the cracks.
As I’ve been watching the coverage of the first couple of days of the campaign, one thing that has struck me, is how many people who say they were Labour voters, will be voting for other parties this time. Some of these cite Jeremy Corbyn as the reason, while others are unhappy with Labour’s, seemingly confused, position over EU withdrawal.
Now I could understand if these voters decided to switch their vote to the Liberal Democrats, especially those who strongly support remaining in the EU, or the Green Party. What doe s get me is those who decide to switch their vote directly to the Conservatives.
Listening to the reasons they give has been instructive. It’s partly to do with Labour’s position on withdrawal, but it also seems as though Mrs. May is still having a bit of a honeymoon. She has been Prime Minister for less than a year, and many see her as a strong and determined character. I think many see her as a fresh face, possibly helped by her keeping a relatively low profile during her years as Home Secretary, so she is not well known by the public.
Since becoming Prime Minister, Mrs. May has also made a large number of statements which are geared to moving onto what is considered traditional Labour territory, and many seem to have found this convincing.
A recent by-election victory in the seat of Copeland, and various council gains from Labour since 2015 do give the Conservatives plenty of grounds for optimism, but by-elections can be misleading, and only time will tell how much of a pointer these results have been.
Although Jeremy Corbyn has rightly pointed out that there are a lot of issues to be discussed during the campaign, it is bound to be dominated by the European Union, and the nature of Britain’s leaving.
The Conservatives appear to be intending on a ‘hard’ or ‘clean’ withdrawal (depending whether you were a Leaver or Remainer), while the Liberal Democrats have stated a clear position, that the UK should maintain as close links with the EU as possible, and a referendum be held on the outcome of negotiations.
Whichever of these two positions you agree with they are clear, and people will know what they are voting for. The Liberal Democrat’s remarkable victory in the Richmond by-election, a strong Remain area, would indicate that they could gain a lot of support in some of these areas. Whether it will have much effect on this occasion will be discovered on June 8th, but a strong showing, following the bloodbath of 2015, will put them in a strong position going forward.
Unfortunately for the Labour Party, their position on this issue has been perceived as a confusing one, which has meant the party has been unable to get a clear message across. This could be one of the factors that costs Labour dearly during the election, so they will need to settle on a clear stance early on, and stick to it for the duration of the campaign.
Before I conclude, a brief word about the UKIP, the party that many would say won the argument with the referendum result, but have since struggled to develop a new narrative. The travails of its latest leader Paul Nuttal during the Stoke Central by-election didn’t help with their public image, and he came ended the campaign as damaged goods, in a seat the party believed it would win.
Since then, their only MP, Douglas Carswell, has resigned from the party, leaving them once again without a voice in parliament. The usual noises have been made in which they say they will make substantial gains, and be the government’s ‘conscience’ during negotiations with the EU. Unfortunately for UKIP, the electoral system conspires against them (unfairly I believe), and gaining a single seat, let alone five or six, seems highly unlikely, even allowing for the position of the Labour Party, if the polls are to be believed.
So that is the state of things, as I see them, as the election campaign begins. No doubt I will proved wrong on some things, and, hopefully, right on others as the campaign unfolds. In such a short campaign, there will be little room for any major errors, and by this time next week, things may have altered considerably.
David Hough was Labour PPC for Rayleigh and Wickford in 2015