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Leadership gains, uncertain future

Dr Simon Lee, Senior Lecturer in Politics, looks back on the eighties in the run-up to the election 

United Kingdom General Election campaigns tend to be dominated by two key themes: leadership and programmes for government. The 2019 campaign has been no different.

If Boris Johnson leads the Conservative Party to victory and a resumption of government this Friday morning, it will be largely because the general public have consistently identified him as a better candidate to be Prime Minister than Jeremy Corbyn. In the latest Ipsos Mori opinion poll, Johnson’s (47%) leads Corbyn (31%) by a wider margin than his party, the Conservatives (44%), lead Labour (32%).

Nevertheless, a victory margin of 12 per cent in the general election should be sufficient to give Boris Johnson the largest parliamentary majority at Westminster for a serving Conservative Prime Minister since Margaret Thatcher led her party to a third consecutive victory at the June 1987 General Election.

At this point, it is worth noting that Johnson’s net satisfaction rating as Prime Minister of -20 (36% satisfied and 56% dissatisfied) in the same Ipsos Mori poll is better only because it is superior to Corbyn’s -44 rating (24% satisfied and 68% dissatisfied).

Indeed, none of the United Kingdom political party leaders has managed to secure a positive satisfaction rating, with Jo Swinson’s net rating now on -22 (29% satisfied and 51% dissatisfied) and Nigel Farage on -26 (30% satisfied but 56% dissatisfied).

Whatever else has been accomplished by the 2019 General Election campaign, it has not closed the gap between the British political elite and a severely disillusioned electorate.

We could yet witness a repetition of the June 1983 General Election, when the prospect of Michael Foot as an alternative Prime Minister to Margaret Thatcher, allied to his party’s radical manifesto, triggered a collapse in the Labour Party’s vote to a paltry 27.6 per cent, with only 209 Labour MPs elected.

Then, Margaret Thatcher went on to govern for a second term with the Conservative Party’s largest ever parliamentary majority of 144 seats, but the margin of victory which Johnson appears on track to secure is unlikely to be this wide, in terms of Westminster seats, even allowing for the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system.

That is largely because Labour’s vote share is holding up better than 1983 (although it could yet be negatively affected by tactical voting), and because the Conservative Party’s 59 page United Kingdom General Election manifesto is decidedly devoid of major electorally attractive policy commitments for the next five years of government, notably in relation to the reform of the funding of social care provision in England and policies to mitigate the mounting consequences of climate change.

Indeed, in the latter regard, in the Friends of the Earth environmental assessment rankings of the major political parties’ manifestos, the Conservatives have been ranked in last place with a score of only 5.5 out of a possible 45. The Labour Party topped this particular ranking with a score of 33, ahead even of the Green Party (a score of 31).

This reflects how the Labour Party in 2019 has offered the electorate an ambitious and transformative programme for government. The fact Labour has trailed its Conservative rivals throughout the election campaign, has suggested voters, especially in key Midlands’ and Northern English marginal constituencies, remain to be convinced that this ambition can be delivered or afforded, or that it constitutes sufficient political and financial compensation for Corbyn’s destructive ambiguity over the delivery of Brexit.Corbyn has hoped to repeat the success of Labour’s July 1945 General Election 145 seat landslide victory when its bold ‘Let Us Face The Future’ vision captured the public imagination. Labour has committed to spend an additional £83 billion a year on public services and infrastructure. Coincidentally, that is almost exactly the sum which Conservative government since May 2010 has added each year to the national debt, but voters appear unconvinced until now at least.

Unfortunately for his party, Jeremy Corbyn is no Clement Attlee or Harold Wilson. However damaging the past of austerity may have been for ‘left behind’ communities like Hull in the Labour Party’s ‘Red Wall’ of constituencies across the North of England, the lure of Johnson’s campaign strapline ‘Get Brexit Done’ may be too alluring for disillusioned traditional Labour voters keen to move on from Brexit.

However, those voters should be aware of the stark political reality which will confront whoever has the keys to Number Ten on Friday morning. In truth, the United Kingdom faces many further years of uncertainty and tough trade negotiations, even if Johnson decides to opt for an economically painful ‘No Deal’ future at the end of December 2020. There simply is no quick route to getting Brexit done, other than the unthinkable revocation of Article 50.

Furthermore, it is hard to see how Johnson’s manifesto promise to unleash the potential of Britain, and make it the greatest place in the world to live, by levelling up ‘left behind’ communities like Hull, can be reconciled with his party’s fiscal conservatism in committing to raise annual public spending by only a further £3 billion by the end of the next parliament.

Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, once described the era since 2010 as ‘the lost decade’, because it had delivered the worst increase in average incomes since the 1860s.

If Boris Johnson succeeds where Theresa May failed in June 2017, by delivering a working parliamentary majority at Westminster, regrettably there is no guarantee that the early 2020s will be any easier, especially for those who are just about managing or who have been left behind. 


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