British election: a surprise is possible – but would be surprising

Some elections arouse eager anticipation. Not this one.

There’s almost a lassitude before Britain’s voters go to the polls on 12 December.  Sure, campaigning has its usual vigour and the media is abundant. But there is also a pervading detachment, as if voters are not convinced that an election can shake the country out of its pre-Brexit stasis.

Perhaps this is one reason why the parties have put forward clear, distinctive – and in some parts compelling – visions for the future. 

For the Conservatives, PM Boris Johnson is proposing a two-fold approach.

First, complete Brexit and open a confident Britain to the world, with lower tariffs, less onerous regulation and a skills-based immigration policy.  Markets ahoy. But at the same time, a large increase in state spending – on infrastructure, health, policing and home ownership – pitched at low and middle income families.

Conservatives no longer make much case for restraint but say that only they can create the prosperity to pay for high spending.  To hammer home the message, Johnson has revoked plans to cut corporate tax and will raise tax thresholds for national insurance instead.

Undaunted, Labour is significantly overbidding the Conservatives on social spending and infrastructure.  The numbers are unprecedented in modern history, more than £90 billion a year on one estimate. Not many – even in the party – are confident that this can be financed by taxes on tech giants, investors and the top 5% of earners, although its plans have got support from 168 left-leaning economists.

Even more striking is Labour’s proposal for the biggest extension of micro-management of British society since 1945:  more state setting of workers’ wages and hours, workers on company boards, rent controls, nationalising swathes of post, power, water, transport and telecoms (with broadband declared an essential national service), more subsidised decarbonisation and abolition of university fees and independent education.

It is a bold test of the proposition that politicians (or at least Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn) can see and order most things better than unreliable markets.  If you believe (and reckon your share of the bill will be below-average), this is for you.

The one thing Labour doesn’t know how to manage is Britain’s economic and political relationship with Europe. It wants the people to decide and thinks the best way to do this is with – a referendum.  What could possibly go wrong with that?

The minor parties are also doing their bit to be distinctive:  Liberal Democrats want Britain to recommit to an ever-closer European Union; the Brexit party wants less government from both Brussels and London, while the Scottish Nationalists just want less government from London; and the Northern Irish parties struggle to govern each other.

So far Boris has a clear edge, consistently scoring above 40% in the polls.  The Conservative double of getting Brexit done and a softer tone on public spending seems to be a more consistent and unifying message, consolidating support from the half of the population that are his potential supporters.  In particular, the polls suggest that he is draining pro-Brexit support from the Brexit party.

Labour, by contrast, looks riven by conflict (currently over Jeremy Corbyn’s response to anti-semitism in the party ranks).  Its shift from the center ground has yet to generate a strong response and the party is nosing above 30% in the polls.

The odds checkers suggest a Conservative majority, and with the right tactical divisions in the opposition, it could be very big indeed, given the FPP electoral system.

Why might it not turn out that way?  There are three things Boris is probably fretting about.

The first is a return to tribalism.  It’s a polarised environment and the Conservatives are well in front.  In 2017, this brought Labour supporters back home and there are some indications of a similar swell now. The difference this time might be that Labour – as in the 1980s and 1990s – has gone all out for policies which might alienate traditional middle income supporters.

The second worry is that he might have got Brexit wrong.  If the half of the population that voted against Brexit really hate the idea, then Labour’s policy, despite its tergiversations, works quite well.  Delay leaves Britain stuck in the EU. It has worked for three years – why not longer? As an added bonus, it enrages Brexiteers.

The third is much harder to predict.  What if recent straws in the wind presage a historic lurch, particularly by young voters, towards socialism.  The woke left in the UK and US is running this line, and you can argue that it helped Labour’s strong showing in the 2017 election. Youth voting registration has just seen a late surge, stronger than in 2017. 

These factors were also present during the 2017 campaign – albeit in less extreme form – and Boris will be hoping that this was when they reached their high tide.

The election is certainly an excellent natural experiment for testing all of these propositions. 

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