Europa 02 – The UK Edition 🇬🇧

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Hey! Welcome to one of the most politically-relevant weeks of 2019!
 
This Thursday the United Kingdom will vote in an election that will shape the way the European Union works for the next decade. Due to the great importance of this election, and its complexity, I’ve done this special long-form edition of Europa.

Polls are always wrong

You’ve for sure heard this before. Polls said that the UK would remain in the EU, and they were wrong. Polls said Hillary Clinton would win against Trump, and they were wrong.
 
It’s an easy thing to say: most people don’t know how to read opinion polls, and thus take a simplistic read based on their own biases; politicians use opinion polls as a mean to prove their own strenght, and not to look out for their weakness; journalists are after the big headline to gather clicks, and not to explain reality. This provokes quick and weak readings of opinion polls which then do not fit the reality of facts.
 
Let’s look at the 2016 US Presidential elections. Opinion polls said that Hillary would get from 3 to 5 percentage points more than Donald Trump. The election result was that Clinton got 2 percentage points more than Trump, just one point bellow the forecast – perfectly inside the margin of error. At the Brexit referendum, once again, the media ignored the margin of error and the ammount of undecided to claim Remain was clearly leading, while all data showed a very small difference between both options. And, after the referendum and for the past 3 years, time and time again we’ve seen politicians claim that “the people changed their mind” on Brexit while all data shows that the 50-50 division hasn’t moved.
 
Why the rant? UK elections are coming up and they are one of the most complex elections that exist, so simplistic analysis do not fit reality. Chances are high that on Friday morning many will be complaining about polls.
 

The 2019 UK Christmas Election

UK elections are always a favourite for any politics-nerd: the English-language coverage is extensive, everyone is familiar with the main political actors and the electoral system is as complicated as they come.
 
This one is specially exciting: besides Brexit and the climate emergency, it’s the first December election in almost 100 years and there are almost 20 incumbent MPs running for reelection either as independent or by a different party than the one that got them in parliament in 2017.
 
How do Brits vote.
 
It’s not enough that Brits vote on a Thursday instead of during the weekend like in most countries, but a UK general election is actually a set of 650 different local election.
 
The United Kingdom is divided in 650 constituencies, each with approximately the same population, and in each constituency the seat is won by the biggest party. This means that a situation like in 2015 where a party with 13% got 1 seat while one with 5% got 56 seats is not abnormal. It also means that no party runs in all 650 constituencies and that the dynamics are not the same accross the whole territory.
Where are we in this election?
 
The Conservatives are the favourites and this is their election to lose. Boris Johnson called this election in order to “get Brexit done” and anything short of a Conservative majority will be a defeat.
 
Since Boris Johnson became leader of the Conservative Party, his strategy was clear: make the Conservatives the party of Brexit and thus monopolize that half of the electorate. With that the Conservatives could hope to win those constituencies that voted for Brexit plus those where Remain won but the division between the other parties was enough for them to be the most voted one.
 
And truth is, Boris was sucessful in this: the Brexit Party has been reduced to 3% and in most constituencies the Conservatives are the only relevant party for Brexit still running.
But this sucess in monopolizing the Brexit vote opens the Conservatives to their own defeat: if in the new parliament they are the biggest party, but don’t have a majority, they will be looking around and find out that they are left without allies. Of all the parties that can return MPs, only the Northern Irish unionists of the DUP and the UUP could be seen as reaching deals with the current Conservative Party, and for that he would have to revisit his “oven-ready Brexit deal”.
 
On the other side, since the Labour Party has failed to monopolize the anti-Brexit vote, this also means that after the election it has a long list of potential allies: SNP, Plaid Cymru, Greens, Alliance and SDLP. If the sum of the progressive parties in parliament is bigger than that of the conservative parties, then a Labour government is a possibility.

In the middle there are the Liberal Democrats. They have said no to supporting a Conservative government, but they also have said no to supporting a Corbyn government. If they keep their word, they could be the blocking minority for any solution, but recent history says that their promises are often badly kept.
 
So, before looking at the state-of-play, we can see 4 different scenarios:
 
  • Conservative majority which means Boris Johson is Prime Minister and the EU-UK Brexit deal is approved
  • right-wing majority of Conservatives depending on the DUP which means Boris Johson is Prime Minister but puts a question mark on Brexit
  • a scenario where the Liberal Democrats are king-makers, where whatever happens is still to be seen
  • and a progressive majority that can deliver a Corbyn government and a 2nd referendum on Brexit
The Labour Electoral Comeback.
 
In 2017, Theresa May called an election believing a Conservative majority was a given. At that time the Conservatives were polling at more than 40% with Labour coming way behind. As soon as the election was called, and campaign started, this changed. Labour performed incredibly well, gaining 16 percentage points during the campaign.
 
Unlike many post-mortem readings, this was not due to a bad performance by the Conservatives (Theresa May got the biggest Conservative vote since Margaret Thatcher) but due to a great campaign by the Labour Party. Corbyn might be unpopular, but he has built the most mobilized political party in Europe, which is key in an election that is won by knocking on doors. Even more so, Labour in 2017 managed to bring out the youth vote in unprecendented numbers.
 
Now, in 2019, Labour is again performing an incredible recovery. With less than one week to go, the result seems to be in the hands of those who go to vote – if Labour manages to push the youth vote again, it could again surprise like it did in 2017.
The battlegrounds.
There are 650 seats in the United Kingdom. Of those, 434 can be considered safe seats, with 60% being Conservative seats. 
Excluding those safe seats, the election plays out in 216 competitive seats: one third in the North of England, one third in the rest of England and one third in the rest of the UK.
 
The North of England has a characteristic that shapes this election: those geographically close seats are mostly traditional Labour seats that voted to Leave the European Union and are now between the Labour and the Conservative parties. A total of 144 seats are being disputed between Labour and Tories, with half of them being in the northern regions.
 
If in the North of England the Conservatives are fighting to gain Leave seats from Labour, in Scotland and in the South of England they’ll be fighting to keep Remain seats from the SNP and the Liberal Democrats.
 
Another key battleground, and one that is usually ignored, is Northern Ireland. Far from the past duopoly of DUP and Sinn Fein, this time a great number of parties are fighting to gain seats. A good night by a party like the centrist pro-EU non-sectarian Alliance, could not only block a Conservative-DUP majority, but change Northern Irish politics. 
 
So, what will happen?
With such a large number of competitive seats, it’s difficult to take any other conclusion other than that this election will be one that will be fought close until the end. The size of the mobilization of young voters and of eurosceptic Labour voters in the North might decide the way it goes. And it could happen that the Conservatives gather a big majority or that there is enough numbers to block a Conservative government. Don’t trust anyone that says they know what is going to happen.

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