Whilst the upcoming UK election is being commonly referred to as the most important in a generation - coming ahead of any final Brexit decision - it is also perhaps the most unpredictable.
The finest political commentators in the land - usually so sure of their powers of prediction have instead come to a consensus that “nobody knows anything”. Indeed the election is being framed fundamentally through a prism of uncertainty and risk with headlines regularly describing it as a ‘roll of the dice’.
Why has Britain’s electorate become so fluid and unpredictable? Where have the certainties of the world’s oldest parliamentary democracy disappeared to?
In a capitalist democracy it shouldn’t perhaps be so surprising that we have ‘retail voters’ who are far more happy to shop around rather than maintain an unswerving loyalty to one party or even one part of the political spectrum.
The statistics speak for themselves with almost 50% of the British electorate having voted for different parties than previously over the course of the last three elections. Whilst the last election, back in 2017, 82% of the vote was shared between the two main Labour and Conservative parties. Meanwhile in the 2019 EU elections over 50% of the vote was shared between the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrat’s.
Such uncertainty as to political identity is underpinned by a multitude of factors including distrust and dissatisfaction with politics at large. There is in this election also the issue of familiar faces stepping down, with over 50 MPs not re-standing.
Then, layered on top of this volatile electorate, you have the wafer thin battle in many of the constituencies all filtered through a ‘first past the post’ electoral system. Over 50 seats have majorities of less than 1,000 votes and 97 seats were won in the last election by a margin of 5% or less. Of the 31 most marginal seats, less than half are Labour/Tory.
A volatile electorate, close battle ground seats are all in play in a short, sharp few weeks of campaigning taking place in the first December election since 1923. The timing of the election will impact on traditional door knocking and leaflet campaign and will force a greater focus on digital and phone bank campaign.
Social media advertising remains a contentious tactic. Whilst Twitter recently refused to show political adverts, Facebook hasn’t agreed to such a step. This means that highly targeted and personalised adverts - often bereft of the scrutiny of media fact checking - could be the key means of normal British people receiving their election news.
Into this heady mix Brexit started the race as the single biggest issue influencing political choice with 40% of the electorate saying it’s their key issue, up from 18% in 2017. However, back in 2017 Brexit was also the biggest issue but slipped down the list of priorities as the campaign rolled on. Likewise there is currently talk of an ‘NHS winter crisis’ and suddenly spikes in waiting lists and capacity in the UK’s clinics and hospitals could quickly change the focus of the election’s narrative.
One commentator wryly commented recently that voters may have “Brexit fatigue” but they don’t have “politics fatigue”. An engaged but unpredictably electorate will be faced with the choice of a series of party leaders who all hail from the populist mode of politics with a common reframe of ‘people versus the establishment’.
The fact that the ‘Brexit Party’ will be contesting the election, following their success in the EU elections, is another ‘x-factor’ accelerating uncertainties even further. Previously they have taken two votes from the Conservative Party for every ‘one’ from the Labour Party. However, following changes in leadership in the Conservative Party there is no guarantee that this 2:1 ratio will sustain.
This is the equation that makes up the UK’s currently political formula and is the reason that traditional means of forecasting the result, particularly polling and focus groups, feel so inadequate to the scale of the challenge. What we know for sure is that come the 13th of December the UK will wake up to a new political dawn, one that could look strikingly similar to the ‘hung’ Parliament we have today, or one that would represent a radical departure driven by the most fluid electorate of the modern age.
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