As the prospect of a Brexit deal drifts further away and a blame game ensues between Downing Street and Brussels, the UK is on course for a volatile general election. As James reveals on Coffee House, No. 10’s attention has moved to how to position the Conservatives in an election in during a Brexit extension. A senior Downing Street source tells him: ‘Those who pushed the Benn Act intended to sabotage a deal and they’ve probably succeeded. So the main effect of it will probably be to help us win an election by uniting the leave vote and then a no deal Brexit. History is full of such ironies and tragedies.’
When it comes to that election, two reports today have been published identifying the swing factors that could decide the result. The British Election Study has published a report declaring the current British electorate the most volatile in modern times – with the electoral shock of Brexit (along with the 2008 crash as well as immigration) having a big impact that has caused people to deviate from traditional voting lines.
The group of professors behind the report suggest that we could be heading for the most surprising election yet with Brexit likely leading to more big shifts. In 2017, there was the highest level of switching between the Conservatives and Labour since the BES started in 1964. One of the authors of the report – Professor Edward Fieldhouse – says to expect big shifts in voting in the next election which will be ‘defined largely by Brexit’. Such findings will be music to the ears of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. Both parties’ electoral strategy rests on voters moving away from traditional right/left axis to a remain/leave axis.
When it comes to which voter groups are most likely to be open to putting tribalism to one side and switching parties, new research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation identifies low-income voters as crucial in the next election. This group are now more likely to vote (up by 7 per cent between 2015 and 2017), with 59 per cent of low-income voters who did not vote at the 2017 General Election said they now planned to vote at the next one when asked in July 2019. However, this group – according to the study – are motivated more by economic factors than Brexit.
Given that Boris Johnson’s most senior aide Dominic Cummings is a follower of focus groups and regularly has Downing Street hold its own, it’s likely that these results won’t come as too much of a shock to the government. As Ben Page from Ipsos MORI said on the most recent Spectator podcast: ‘The Conservatives are doing their research. They are testing out messages and making sure that their positions are understood and the Labour party is not doing that’.
Evidence of this can be found in the Brexit slogan the Tories picked for their annual conference: Get Brexit Done. The phrase is supposed to appeal to two sets of voters: (a) leave voters regardless of party loyalty (b) voters who want to get Brexit done so they can talk about something else. The Tories hope their domestic push – they’ve been accused of Labour levels of spending with new funding for the NHS, the police and education – will appeal to low income voters in the marginal seats they need to win for a majority.
However, the 2017 election ought to serve as a reminder to the various parties that campaigns can often move away from the topics leaders want to talk about. Theresa May hoped to run a campaign based on Brexit along with a domestic agenda to solve long term problems. However, the Tories found that other topics – from police funding to fox hunting – often overtook their planned issues for the day. Even the most well researched campaign has the potential to go off-piste.