Written by Steven Fielding.
This has been the most tragic, weirdest and most unnecessary of election campaigns in British history. Some see the return of two party politics – with UKIP, the Liberal Democrats and SNP all looking likely to lose support – as a reassuring echo of elections past. But nothing else is familiar or comforting.
The tragedy is obvious
In the past, Britain has held elections while either at war or facing the possibility of terrorist attack. The MP Jo Cox was assassinated during the EU Referendum last year but this is the first time civilians have been murdered on the mainland in large numbers during a campaign. Yet, while both attacks led to suspensions in electoral activities and the main parties sought to exploit the outrages – while denying they were doing any such thing – they failed to change the basic course of the campaign. Would these incidents have taken place had an election not been called? Their perpetrators are not around to tell us but it’s likely not.
The weirdness is also there for all to see
It is likely Theresa May will increase the Conservatives’ Commons majority. But instead of strengthening her position – supposedly the reason she called the election – her conduct has undermined a once-overwhelming authority. Starting out as ‘strong and stable’, a badly drafted manifesto forced May to execute a U-Turn over the fatally named ‘Dementia Tax’ while claiming she was merely ‘clarifying’, still leaving open many questions about her exact intentions.
Yet, if appearing more ‘weak and wobbly’ than the colossus she aspired to be, May remains the preferred choice to be Prime Minister and to conduct Brexit negotiations. But that is largely because the only figure able to succeed her in Number 10 is regarded as even less desirable.
Jeremy Corbyn will likely see the Labour party’s number of MPs fall to a level close to that achieved in the disaster of 1983. Yet his position as leader may well have been strengthened due to the campaign, during which his personal poll ratings have improved while Labour’s support has apparently increased to touching distance of the Conservatives. How far this is a function of May’s incompetence or Corbyn’s brilliance in persuading Britons there is a socialist alternative to ‘Tory Austerity’ currently remains a moot point.
Because an election ostensibly called to strengthen the Prime Minister’s hand in Brexit negotiations – a claim many questioned – has seen Britain’s imminent departure from the EU little discussed. Britons are no clearer as to how the Conservatives or Labour will conduct talks than they were at the start of the campaign. Neither May nor Corbyn has wanted to expose the contradictions in their own positions and so have restricted themselves to platitudes.
With a few days to go we remain in the dark as to the precise nature of the result. The polling companies fundamentally disagree about how seriously they should take the declared intention of younger people – overwhelmingly pro-Labour – to actually turn out and vote. If the young do vote in historically unprecedented numbers it will not be a comfortable night for May. But even if they do she will likely remain as Prime Minister and end up facing the very same Leader of the Opposition as before she forced Britons to endure one of the most futile elections in living memory.
Steven Fielding is a Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Image credit: Screencap/Youtube