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News from the Other Side of the Pond

We try to keep an eye on important elections around the globe, and in particular in the United Kingdom, given that nation's close relationship with the U.S., and its influence on American politics. Our lives are made easier in this regard by our British correspondents, who are kind enough to write up a report for us when something interesting is taking place. Such is the case this week, so take it away, gents:

S.T. in Worcestershire, England, UK: Your U.K. correspondents envy (V) and (Z). They know exactly when the big US 2024 election will be. In the U.K., we don't know when our pending general election will take place. It might not even happen this year!

A brief explanation. The power to end parliaments and hold general elections was originally that of the monarch. Like so many "prerogative powers," it ended up being taken over by the U.K. Prime Minister, subject to a maximum period between elections (set since 1911 at 5 years). This, of course, gave the incumbent and their party a significant advantage over their opponents, in picking the most favorable time to hold an election.

In 2011, as part of the coalition agreement between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, this was altered by Act of Parliament. In the future, parliaments were to run for exactly 5 years unless two-thirds of the House of Commons voted for an earlier election. Given the U.K. executive's antipathy towards any restraint on its actions, it sadly came as little surprise that as soon as a Prime Minister with a significant Commons majority got the opportunity, the 2011 Act was repealed and the U.K. reverted to the old arrangement. Boris Johnson did so in 2022.

So current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak can hold an election any time between now and January 2025. The choice is entirely his. Vast amounts of punditry have been, and are being, generated as to when he will choose. He might yet go for the latest date possible. The polls continue to show the main opposition Labour party about 15% ahead of the government. In U.K. terms, this is landslide territory.

Which makes the current approach of the Labour party baffling. Having twice in living memory (1992, 2015) snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, they are nervous as hell about squandering their current lead. As a result they are showing a startling timidity, and seem to be running on the promise to keep many of the current government's policies but just govern more efficiently. Some would argue that would not be difficult... but it's hardly inspiring.

Meanwhile, Rishi has to find a way to get out of a huge hole by Election Day. He and his finance minister (Chancellor) Jeremy Hunt seem to think a cut in personal tax is the magic elixir. A reduction in National Insurance, a form of Income Tax, has just been actioned. Unfortunately, government projections clearly show the overall tax burden increasing in the near future. Nor is it clear that this approach should be the priority, given the ramshackle state of public services. For example, if you are one of the nearly 8 million currently on the National Health Service waiting list (roughly 1 in 8 members of the population), is your priority a modest tax cut or quicker treatment? Even the IMF have questioned the approach.

Inevitably, given the polls, sections of the Conservative Party are restless. It is an open secret that several cabinet ministers are positioning themselves for the expected leadership contest after the election. And barely a week goes by without another group or individual on the right of the party lambasting the government for not providing bigger tax cuts/scrapping regulation/cutting government spending/curtailing immigration/engaging in culture wars. Even Liz Truss is trying to make a comeback!

Sadly for Sunak, not all elections can be deferred. In May there will be a raft of local government elections. Most of the seats in question were last contested in 2021, when the Conservatives were ahead in the polls. So, a bloodbath is anticipated. And there are always by-elections such as...

G.S. (currently) in Southport, England UK: ...Kingswood. Located in the southwest of England just outside Bristol, this by-election came about after the departure of the previous Conservative MP, Chris Skidmore, who resigned in opposition to the expansion of new oil and gas licenses. Yes, you read "conservative" and "resigned in opposition to new oil and gas licenses" correctly, there. For those keeping track of the recent British by-elections, you also read correctly that Skidmore resigned on a point of principle—as opposed to being hounded/booted out of office under the pall of some sexual misconduct/criminal-level COVID rule-breaking/I didn't get the honor I wanted-related scandal, all of which have been very much in vogue among our elected representatives recently. There's not a tremendous number of distinguishing features for the seat here: Kingswood is very middle of the road, with a mixture of rural and medium sized urban areas, and many of the usual demographics (median income, employment, EU Vote Leave %, home ownership) at or just to the right of the national and regional medians. Given that this seat will be abolished at the next general election this would make this a boring, zero-consequence vote, right?

Not quite. A little bit of research reveals this seat to be a true bellwether: Only once in the history of the seat (it has existed since 1974) has Kingswood NOT voted for the winner of the general election (in 1992). Put another way, Kingswood has gone the way of the winner in all 7 of the most recent general elections and in 13 of the 14 for which it has existed. As such, if the aspirant Labour government were not to pick up this seat (and in a by-election, where voters traditionally give the incumbents a kicking), that would be a somewhat seismic result and create many questions about opposition leader Kier Starmer's "carrying a priceless Ming vase over an icy floor" attitude to policy in recent months and years. The pundits and the bookies would seem to agree: You can presently obtain the princely return of £1 for every £33 wagered in the event of a Labour win this week, and local Conservative members are publicly bemoaning the lack of support from Westminster, with words like "death spiral" and "given up" on activists' lips. So, a Conservative hold of this seat would be a surprise. That said, the readership of this site may recall that this particular British correspondent has been wrong about British bellwethers on this very site before, so absent his copy of Grey's Sports Almanac, he will not be making such confident predictions on this occasion.

A.B. in Lichfield, England, UK: Where the Kingswood election results from the startling phenomenon of a Conservative Party MP resigning over a point of environmental policy principle, Wellingborough returns us to the more traditional path of a colorful populist right-wing pro-Brexit MP being forced out over a sex scandal. Peter Bone was subject to a successful recall petition by his constituents after Parliament's independent standards body found that the MP had "committed many varied acts of bullying and one act of sexual misconduct" against a male member of his staff, including the finding that during a 2013 work trip, Bone "dropped his towel and exposed his genitals close to his employee's face" in their shared hotel room. That same year, Bone described the effort to legalize same-sex marriage as "completely nuts," and voted against the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013. I offer no comment on whether Wellingborough's former MP has ever been inspired by Larry Craig, and will equally refrain from commenting on the potential nominative determinism of his surname.

The constituency itself lies near the center of Northamptonshire's traditional shoe industry. While no major manufacturers remain in Wellingborough itself, Dr. Martens boots are still made in the company's original home village of Wollaston, just to the south of Wellingborough, while Sanders & Sanders still produce boots for the British army (alongside ordinary footwear) in the constituency's second town of Rushden. Just outside the constituency is the small village of Earls Barton, home of the factory that inspired the film and musical Kinky Boots. I promise I'm not making this up.

Bone first won the constituency from Labour in 2005, and up until this past year had gradually increased his majority over time, winning just over 62% of the vote in the 2019 general election. Under normal circumstances the Conservative Party would be expected to win the by-election in a canter, but two factors make Labour the strong favorites on Thursday. Firstly, Rishi Sunak's government is now so staggeringly unpopular—Sunak now has lower net favorability ratings than Liz Truss did—that almost no seat can be considered safe. Secondly, the local Conservative Party has done itself no favors by choosing Peter Bone's girlfriend Helen Harrison as its candidate (Bone meanwhile remains officially married to his wife, who's herself an elected local councillor in Wellingborough; it's messy). It's widely believed that Harrison was chosen to stop Bone splitting the right-wing vote by running in the election as an independent or as the candidate of the far-right populist Reform Party (previously Nigel Farage's Brexit Party). But the selection of Harrison seems to have backfired badly, with national Conservative Party politicians refusing to campaign on her behalf in fear that they might be tarred by the tawdry details of Peter Bone's private life. It's almost as if the Conservative Party has had a deliberate death wish in the seat, and events have done nothing to ease perceptions that the party is mired in scandal.

Given the by-election is taking place the week after the Super Bowl, it's perhaps also worth noting briefly that Bone has attracted past controversy for the extent of his willingness to promote the NFL. In 2011 he was told off by the Speaker for using an American football as a prop on the floor of the House of Commons; he chaired the All-Party Parliamentary Group on American Football (there really is such a thing); and he regularly declared free tickets to NFL games in London in the register of members' interests. His 2023 tickets were donated by the Jacksonville Jaguars; presumably both the team and the league will be slightly more cautious about which British MPs they choose to promote their interests in the U.K. moving forward.

Thanks for the reports! Clearly, American politics isn't the only soap opera out there.

We will have a follow-up later this week, once the votes are counted. (Z)

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