In which Chris Napier talks about the case for and against a snap general election.
In the wake of Brexit and Theresa May’s swift succession as Prime Minister there have been significant calls from just about every party other than the Conservatives and UKIP to decide who takes the country forward in the aftermath of the referendum and for May to earn a personal mandate at Prime Minster (or not.)
So, should there be a general election and if there was one soon, who would it benefit?
First of all, there is no constitutional requirement for a change in Prime Minister* to trigger an election and under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 the only way an election could be held before May 2020 would be for a vote of no confidence in the government to not be resolved with a vote of confidence within two weeks OR for a 2/3 majority in parliament to support a motion for an early election. Or of course, the government could pass legislation superseding the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.
* Indeed since the Second World War there have been five changes of Prime Minister which weren’t immediately followed by a general election, namely… Tony Blair to Gordon Brown, Margaret Thatcher to John Major, Harold Wilson to James Callaghan, Harold Macmillan to Alec Douglas-Home and Anthony Eden to Harold Macmillan.
Despite the lack of a legal obligation to hold an election, there is a compelling case that there should be one because the result of the EU referendum changes everything and made the manifestos of 2015 effectively meaningless. The EU referendum is the most significant political earthquake of my lifetime and the way it has affected the UK’s prospects almost necessitates an election.
On balance, I think there probably should be an election but that there won’t be, because it would require a considerable Conservative rebellion to either trigger the necessary 2/3 majority or successive votes of no confidence in the government and I just can’t see that happening. The Tories whole ethos is around maintaining power and while they may squabble, they don’t tip the boat over…
That said, assuming there WAS an election called for October, who would it benefit?
The prime beneficiaries would be the Conservative party and UKIP, who would utilize their considerable funding to run aggressive campaigns while Labour are divided and the smaller parties are starved of funds so early in the usual electoral cycle.
Labour’s divisions make them weak. If they actually split into two parties – as seems more than possible – they would divide their voter base and lose net seats, just as they did in 1983.
In fact, I’d suspect they’d fall even further as there weren’t multiple parties snapping at their heels in 1983 as there are now. I’d expect Corbyn-Labour and Eagle/Smith-Labour between them to lose any seat where they have less than a 20-30% majority, with the Tories picking up middle England marginals, UKIP making gains in Labour’s industrial heartlands and a cohesive Liberal Democrats winning seats back in urban areas and possibly some against the Tories in their old heartlands. There is even scope for the GPEW to win some of the seats they had second place finishes in back in 2015.
In Scotland, I suspect little would change, other than the possibility of Labour losing Edinburgh South to the SNP and the Tories possibly winning a few of the marginal seats back from the SNP.
As such, I’d expect an early election – in the unlikely case that one was called this autumn or even next spring – to result in an increased Conservative majority, with Labour making massive losses and gains for almost everyone else. Much as I’d cheer potential gains for the Greens and Lib Dems at Labour’s expense, the damage to the balance of our democracy and an (more likely) increased representation for UKIP would be a bitter pill indeed.
In short – it’s not going to happen and it wouldn’t go well for the cause of progressive politics, likely setting back the case for proportional representation and the making it almost certain that we’d have a majority Conservative government for the foreseeable future.