So here we go again. Another General Election, another field day for the political pundits; a series of emerging soundbites that we can expect to be repeated endlessly over the thankfully short election period; and, no doubt, some confounded predictions.
Calls from Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish Nationalists, for a progressive alliance between the SNP, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, to block Conservative policies are already falling on deaf ears since each of those parties needs to raise its own profile and secure as many seats as possible. There’s hardly much chance of an Alliance in Scotland where Labour is already on its knees and likely to lose dozens, potentially over a hundred seats in the local government elections on 4th May, leaving its ground troops bitter and demoralised in the run up to the General Election a month later.
Already, the Conservative rebuttal that such an alliance would be a “coalition of chaos” leaving the nation pulled in different directions by different extremists is gathering traction on the doorsteps; and Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is now trailing Theresa May in opinion polls for every age group and every demographic group, with the Tory lead in the polls looking unassailable. Are the Conservatives right to be sniffing the prospect of a huge increase in their majority?
Theresa May is certainly popular on the doorsteps as your author is finding as he knocks personally on over 1,000 of them in the current local election campaign. We don’t have a direct Prime Ministerial election, but that confidence in Mrs May as a safe pair of hands is definitely a bonus to Conservative candidates at every level when compared with the horror that is a Labour movement led by Len McCluskey of Unite, sorry, that should be Jeremy Corbyn, but the mistake is easily made these days.
Tim Farron has almost no profile with the wider electorate (he’s the Leader of the Liberal Democrats apparently), and the Greens for all the greenhouse gas of hot air they generate are unlikely to make huge breakthroughs, though they might conceivably double or triple their Parliamentary representation to two or three MPs.
Ukip, the once great movement for change, has collapsed in disarray, is rudderless and has expelled its own biggest funder. It’s one MP has announced he will not stand again in the General Election and is urging a Conservative vote. Similarly, one of Ukip’s Members of the Welsh Assembly is backing the Tories, but it’s still possible Ukip will take a handful off seats off Labour in the North given the deep traditional Labour grassroots disgruntlement at the lurch to the left of the Labour Leadership, the rise of Momentum, and deep-seated resentment of immigration, pledges to tackle which are few and far between from the Corbynistas.
But it’s not actually going to be all plain sailing for Theresa May’s Tories. There could be surprises ahead. The decision to call an election came as a shock to many of her own Government Ministers who had believed her absolutely in her steadfast refusal to call such an election lest it distract from the Brexit process. Brexit has been triggered and that might more than balance in many voters’ minds the fact that she changed position on an election being called. But, the fact is that messaging over the first few days of the campaign lacked the clarity it should have had.
Yes, we get the message about the alternative to Mrs May’s safe pair of hands is a coalition of chaos, but we’ve also had mixed messages about taxation from Phil Hammond about which he has had already to backtrack; and we’ve seen the Prime Minister repeat what is frankly an increasingly unpopular policy to maintain or increase overseas aid spending.
Whilst this column has always maintained its support in principle for committing 0.7% of GDP to overseas aid, there is a widespread, and sadly in many cases valid, perception that such funds are not used efficiently, are not targeted where need is greatest, and are not leveraged to promote our nation’s interests in terms of either economic ties or political consensus. What is more, they are not being deployed effectively to promote human rights and religious freedom. This is an area of policy that requires fundamental rethink if the public are going to accept the continuation of spending at this level. Like it or not, for many hard-pressed tax-payers, the question is simple. What are we getting out of this? The government, and to some extent the aid agencies, need to address this question if a commitment of expenditure at this level is to continue to be sustainable.
Two more issues arise for the Conservatives. There is a real danger that if the electorate believe that Theresa May is on course for a landslide and that Jeremy Corbyn stands no chance of electoral success, then a significant number of potential Conservative voters may simply feel they need not bother to vote and can afford to stay at home. Getting out that vote for the Tories will never have been more important.
Secondly, since the election was announced, hundreds of thousands of new voters have registered for the first time, mainly younger people who have reached the age of 18. Targeting policies on this younger generation, convincing them that Brexit delivers opportunities, not just threats; and that the housing crisis can effectively be tackled, is going to be crucial if the Conservatives are to secure a significant proportion of this younger vote.
There’s everything to play for still in this General Election and predicting the outcome is a mugs’ game at this stage: but let’s go for it anyhow: a significant, but not massive, increase in the Conservative majority, a smattering of Ukip and Liberal Democrat MPs, not much change in Scotland, and a significant, but not massive fall in the size of the Parliamentary Labour Party, which will then face the joyous prospect of five more years of demoralising opposition and internal turmoil.
Cllr Chris Whitehouse KCSG is Chairman of Westminster’s leading political consultancy, www.whitehouseconsulting.co.uk, Secretary of the Catholic Legislators’ Network, a Trustee of the Right To Life Charitable Trust, and a Member of the Isle of Wight Council (Cons. Newport West).