Britain has gone to the polls for the third time in as many years. Unlike the country’s last two votes, the 2015 General Election and the 2016 EU Referendum, this should have been an easy race to call.
On April 18, when Theresa May called the snap election, she had a comfortable 20-point lead over Labour, enough to land her a crushing majority in Parliament. Weeks later, that lead has eroded to just a few percentage points. Though she is still favoured to win, left-wing voters cling to the twin shocks of 2016 in the hope that this time, the surprise result might swing their way.
The polls close at 10pm UK time (9am on Friday in New Zealand). Here’s a quick guide of what to look for:
Remember, it’s FPP
Take your mind back to 1993 when New Zealand had its last First-Past-the-Post election. Remember Jim Bolger’s National storming in with 67 seats from 48 percent of votes, while Jim Anderton’s Alliance had to content itself with one seat from 14 percent? Well, that’s what we’re dealing with here – only on a grand scale.
Today, a total of 650 seats have been contested all across the United Kingdom and yet, as it always does in FPP elections, this vote will come down to a few key battleground seats – around 110, where the gap between the winner in the last election and the runner up is less than ten percentage points.
Ignore London, ignore most of rural England and ignore Scotland – those places are largely foregone conclusions. This election will be fought in England’s industrial heartland, where traditional Labour voters, emboldened by their victory in the European referendum, will choose whether to return to the fold of their old party, now led by the leftist Jeremy Corbyn, or cross the political divide to Theresa May’s Conservatives, whose new economic interventionist and populist conservatism aims recreate the allure of the UK Independence Party.
It’s impossible to talk about the Tories, likely to be the biggest winners, without talking about the election’s biggest loser: UKIP. The party was also the big loser, of a kind, in the 2015 election, winning nearly 4 million votes but ending up with just one seat. Contrast this with the Scottish National Party, which converted almost 1.5 million votes into 56 seats.
The UKIP’s rise came largely at the expense of Labour, rather than the Conservatives, as socially conservative, economically populist voters left the party, disillusioned with Tony Blair’s metropolitan, neoliberal direction. With UKIP largely irrelevant post-Brexit, these 4 million votes, concentrated in the post-industrial north of England and the Midlands, are all up for grabs.
Path to victory: Look at places where there was a big turnout for Leave in the EU referendum, seats in Stoke, Middlesbrough, Halifax, and Derbyshire, which just went red in 2015 are pro-Brexit strongholds who will be emboldened by May’s pledge to take the UK out of the EU without a compromise on immigration. Early gains in these seats will indicate that the Tories have succeeded in luring a significant number of ex-UKIP (and therefore ex-Labour) voters to the party.
Starts to look rocky: If the northern and Midlands seats stay red, May could be in trouble. Recent polling has suggested that her poor campaigning and failures on national security, coupled with a stronger than expected performance by Jeremy Corbyn have seen an unexpected shift of centrist voters to Corbyn’s leftist vision.
With Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party is reliving the Bernie Sanders/Hillary Clinton divide that polarised the US Democratic Party in 2016. The party establishment fears his radicalism will give the Tories a free reign in the coveted political centre, while Corbyn supporters point towards his incredible grassroots support to argue the party has a greater chance of victory if it energises the disenchanted and disillusioned with a strong leftist message. They have some good evidence to do so: under Corbyn’s leadership, the British Labour party membership has doubled, making it the largest political party in Europe.
Corbyn has electrified young and urban voters, but has so far failed to repeat this success with the party’s working class base. That said, he hasn’t completely put them off either, managing to (just) hold onto the strongly-Brexit Stoke-on-Trent Central seat in a by-election earlier this year.
Path to victory: This election is a two-horse race, so keep watching those same northern and Midland seats, particularly in Stoke, Middlesbrough, Halifax, and in Derbyshire. If Corbyn manages to hold onto these seats and his party base, while also growing his vote in new areas, he’s in with a chance.
Starts to look rocky: Jeremy Corbyn’s pivot to the left has, according to polling, energised first-time voters and those disenfranchised by the political system. Unfortunately, these aren’t usually the most dependable voters. If it looks like voter turnout is low, Corbyn’s attempt to bring new voters into the fold will have failed, giving Theresa May an enormous advantage.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) looks to win big again in Scotland, vanquishing Labour and, for the first time in a generation, making the Tories the party of opposition north of the border. The party’s leader Nicola Sturgeon has said though she would not enter into a coalition, she would support a minority Labour government, giving Labour a fifty-seat advantage over the Tories.
This could be a poisoned chalice as a minority Labour government backed by the SNP would only add fuel to building English resentment of the Scots over their juicy benefits like free prescriptions (over £8.60 each in England) and free university education (over £9000 a year in England).
Path to victory: Literally everywhere in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon and the Nationalists can rest safely on their thistly laurels, while plotting their next independence referendum and whether it’s too soon to rebuild Hadrian’s Wall.