Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson held their last head-to-head debate of the UK election campaign on Friday night amid signs that polls are tightening. While the Conservatives are still forecast to emerge as the largest single party in the new House of Commons this week, potentially with only the party’s second overall majority since John Major’s 1992 victory, it remains possible that a minority Labour government could yet emerge.
To be sure, the odds of a Labour overall majority are small, but Boris Johnson could yet be turfed out of power if polls narrow further, and there are unprecedented levels of tactical voting, potentially producing a second successive hung Parliament. The Tories are therefore seeking to run a ‘safety-first’ campaign in the final days seeking to avoid the mistakes made by Theresa May in 2017 when she lost a double-digit lead in the second half of that election.
The fact that the Tories have held a polling lead since the Summer underlines the clear shift in the landscape since Johnson became prime minister in July: from Summer 2017 to Summer 2019 Labour held the ruling party to more-or-less
level-pegging. So unless all the polls in the second half of the year are completely inaccurate, it therefore seems that the Conservatives will emerge as the largest party in the Commons for the fourth
The key remaining question in the campaign is whether the Tories can secure an overall majority, or not. Here there is a trend toward tightening in the polls, as evidenced by Electoral Calculus (EC) for instance.
EC forecasts election results using a ‘poll of polls’, and has predicted since the campaign began that a Tory majority will emerge. However, whereas last month, the projected majority was as high as over 130, today the forecast is for ‘only’ 20, and was just over 10 last week.
This underlines that victory is far from ‘in the bag’ for Johnson. Factors that could yet prevent him winning a majority, and potentially losing power to a Labour-led administration include: the possibility of unprecedented levels of tactical voting; a new spike in young voter turnout (after record levels of under 35s have registered to vote last month); a significant differential in Remain versus Leave voter turnout; and/ or a decisive switch of the terrain in which the election is fought in the final week from Brexit to other issues.
Coordinated attempt at tactical voting
To take an example of these factors, this campaign is witnessing the biggest, coordinated attempt at tactical voting in UK history. Remain United is just one of several organisations giving advice for Remainers in each parliamentary constituency on which way to vote, based on latest polls, to defeat Conservative candidates.
Moreover, because these various organisations sometimes give differing advice in a given constituency to voters, a further website (Tactical.vote) has developed the equivalent of a price comparison website with a table showing what all the organisations recommend on a constituency-by-constituency basis. And all this, alongside an electoral pact agreed between the Liberal Democrats, Greens and Plaid Cymru in around 60 seats, and campaign efforts by organisations like the People’s Vote campaign to target around 100 pro-Brexit MPs.
Another way in which Labour could still upset the polls is if the framing of the ballot moves decisively from Brexit to a wider prism of issues such as the economy, the National Health Service, and/ or ‘law and order’ in the final days of the campaign. Were this to happen, in a striking way, Johnson will not be able to fight on his chosen terrain of Brexit.
The reason why Labour would like the campaign to focus on this wider agenda is the backstory of significant public sector cuts that have taken place in the United Kingdom since the international financial crisis. On the law and order agenda, for instance the party has long campaigned for the re-recruitment of around 20,000 police officer positions which were cut back over the last decade, an agenda which the Tories are getting criticised for by opposition parties after last week’s terror attack. It is in this context that an anti-Tory administration could yet emerge next week. Given the continued suspicion of Johnson’s Brexit deal by the Democratic Unionist party (DUP), which was May’s ‘supply and confidence’ partner, it looks like the Conservatives will probably need a parliamentary majority to form a stable government.
Yet, if the polls prove to be a completely unreliable guide to the election result, and the Conservatives do not achieve a parliamentary majority, an anti-Tory alliance between Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and/or potentially the Greens could effectively lock the Conservatives out of power, and push through a new EU referendum.
Taken overall, the election is still not straight forward to forecast, despite the consistent Tory polling lead since the Summer. While surveys indicate the Conservatives look most likely to emerge as the largest single party, the volatility of the electorate means that a range of outcomes from a majority government to another hung parliament remain plausible, especially if there are unprecedented levels of tactical voting.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London
School of Economics