Whenever the next election comes, it won’t be like any we’ve seen, or that commentators can reference, or that historians can compare to.
Whether it is in 8 weeks or 18 months time, there are several elements that will make this coming General Election very different to any we’ve known.
It will be the first post-Brexit election. We may have had two since the 2016 referendum, but this will be the first since Boris Johnson “got Brexit done” with the 80 seat majority he won in December 2019. If he still leads the Tories, Johnson will be keen to reunite the winning coalition he assembled last time, this time around “keeping Brexit done”, preventing the “liberal Remoaners” from reversing it and using it as a vehicle for many other culture war issues. The costs and benefits may be clearer by the day, but for many they are reluctant to see them, or their absence.
Many, probably most, will have moved on and be far more focused on the cost of living, however much the failure of Brexit plays into those increased costs faced by households across the country.
It could be the first election post-Boris, with anyone’s guess at this point who will replace him as the PM seeking to emulate the likes of Major, May and Johnson himself in winning a first election as party leader from Number 10 after an already extended period in power for the Conservatives. Should he survive further mutinies, it would seem inevitable he goes down with the ship, and yet he seems to have ways of making the laws of political physics disapply.
Whatever happens, he’s shifted the “Overton Window” of standards and accountability, he’s proven that news cycles move so swiftly now that last week’s scandal feels like Watergate or Profumo, and that gaslighting the electorate works particularly with the help of a client media.
For Labour it will be the first election post-Corbyn, a test for those who thought they may never trust Labour in power again after putting forward the veteran and controversial left-winger as putative PM in two elections. Whilst this may draw comparisons with 1987, Foot wasn’t Corbyn and Kinnock wasn’t Starmer. Very different leaders in very different times.
With each election social media has a more and more polarising effect, old loyalties break down, and the desire for change is challenged by the fear of the unknown. New tribes go to war.
We are in a time of near unprecedented rises in the costs of food, energy, fuel and other essentials. Even a comparison to the Seventies doesn’t factor in the millions already using food banks to survive, the massive changes in the world of work, and the lingering uncertainty from a once-in-a-century pandemic.
No PM has pushed and broken the boundaries of our conventions and our constitutions like Johnson. Challenging the courts, curtailing the independence of the Electoral Commission, leaning heavily on the already supportive newspapers to suppress bad news, changing seat boundaries in their favour, harrying and threatening independent news channels like the BBC and C4 copying the strategies and tactics of the MAGA Republicans in the US, hurdling scandals that would have ended the careers of his predecessors without question or delay. The playbook has changed, the playing field is even less level.
Faced with the loss of their seats on the back of voters outraged by his behaviour, Tory MPs may remove him. But there seems little chance of a return to the Major/Clarke era, moderate “One Nation” dominance. Johnson remade the parliamentary party in his own image in 2019, the influence of the “Reform/Research Group” right-wingers runs deep, and the “Conservative Corbyn” could well be replaced with a Tory version of Richard Burgon or Zara Sultana.
If you don’t think that what’s happened in the US with Roe v Wade, then you haven’t noticed Dorries and Rees-Mogg at the Cabinet table. Few thought an extreme figure like Trump could be President, but if the last six years have taught us anything, it’s that anything is possible. The comfortable post-war consensus and steady course towards a liberal and democratic future has been and is being disrupted.
This will perhaps be the first election where the Lib Dems are finally clear of the “guilt by association” derived from their five-year coalition with Cameron’s Conservatives. Ed Davey is a blank sheet for most voters, and the big question is how much former Tory voters in seats like the ones they’ve won on huge swings in by-elections will feel safe in voting Lib Dem if they think it will deliver a Labour-led government rather than just a mid-term kicking for the Conservatives. The next election could be the first where the desire for tactical voting of 1997 is matched by the online means to organise it in the way we saw in Tiverton and Wakefield.
In the early days of 2020 few would have thought Labour could return to office after more than a decade out of power, after their biggest defeat in ninety years, needing a 12% swing to do so even for a majority of one. Impossible, most thought, particularly with the SNP grip on seats in Scotland that whilst not arithmetically needed in 1997, certainly helped Tony Blair to the first of his landslide victories.
Keir Starmer, with the campaign spotlight on his record as a former DPP and modest family background may be just the “safe pair of hands” the electorate need after the dangerous showman of Boris Johnson. In two years he has rehabilitated a deeply damaged brand in a way that took fifteen years and three leaders between 1983 and 1997. He’s got a frontbench replete with talent, balancing experience (Yvette Cooper, Rachel Reeves) with rising stars (Wes Streeting, Peter Kyle) that compare so favourably with the lightweight absurdities of the Trusses, Dorrieses and Rees-Moggs of Johnson’s team.
Despite their long period in office at Holyrood, the SNP still seem dominant north of the Border. Anas Sarwar and his able team are delivering a recovery for Labour, and scandals beset the Nationalists, but their undoing may come in the “indicative” independence referendum they are intent on holding. Polling currently shows they would lose it. Would the risk of a renewed period of Tory rule in Westminster, a busted flush of independence and a credible Labour alternative deliver more seats than expected for Keir Starmer in Scotland? Again, we’ve never been here before.
Many of Labour’s Left and some pundits still say Labour should be further ahead in the polls mid-term in order to overcome the incumbency benefits of the Tories. Perhaps, but again polling methods have changed to be cautious on big leads, it’s difficult to judge how much the desire for change – always a crucial factor in elections – plays out in our increasingly fractured regional/national/cultural battlegrounds. How far will tactical voting be a factor? Will a new Conservative leader have the time to make a clean break with Johnson in the eyes of the electorate whilst keeping his electoral coalition on board?
A 5% Labour lead on polling day might be enough to put Keir Starmer in Number 10 as the leader of the largest party, with coalition support from the Lib Dems on a promise to go further on Europe and electoral reform than his manifesto may have offered, as well as a reluctance by the SNP to be seen to prop up any minority Tory government.
A 10 or 11% Labour lead, as some polls have indicated this week, would be enough combined with tactical voting for a small working majority, if that lead can survive the furnace-like heat of an election campaign with so much of the media still on the side of the Tories, and changes in the number and nature of those news sources. We’ve no “Fox News” yet, but this isn’t the same environment as thirty years ago by a very long way.
Different leaders, different electorates, different circumstance and a different environment mean the 2022/23/24 election won’t be the same as 1987, or 1997, or 2017.
Everyone is reaching for points of safe anchor, those harbours of certainty that have given places at which to navigate the choppy waters of political navigation. But Brexit, Boris Johnson, nationalism and many other factors have eroded or washed away the familiar beaches and headlands we’ve used to plot a course before.
In uncharted waters the direction for Labour’s ship seems the right one, whilst the Conservatives appear holed below the waterline, but there’s a lot of political weather to ride out and a long way to sail yet.