Dem 51
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GOP 49
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U.K. Elections Set for July

As most readers have heard by now, U.K. PM Rishi Sunak has decided to call elections for July 4. It figures to be the most momentous July 4 in British political history (Note to staff historian: Confirm there have been no other important events in British political history that took place on July 4).

We reached out to our British correspondents to share some thoughts on the news, and G.S. in Basingstoke, England, UK and A.B. In Lichfield, England, UK were amenable to putting something together on a quick timeline. First up, G.S.:

As regular readers of the news will know, a General Election in the UK is now inbound. The latest possible date that Rishi Sunak could have dissolved Parliament was December 17 of this year (meaning an election on January 28, 2025). Whitehall officials were known to be leery of any date that coincided with your own electoral fun in November, so Sunak, apparently wary of the "squatter in Downing Street" mentality that waiting until the last minute would generate—and conceding that things, apparently, are not going to get better—took a very wet stroll to the lectern in Downing Street (accompanied by the deafening sounds of Labour's 1997 election song "Things CAN Only Get Better" from a nearby protestor) and announced the election will be on July 4.

In the few days since the announcement, things could not have gone much worse for the incumbents; the Conservatives have had predictable backlash to their plans for all teenagers to do a year's mandatory national service (and you thought there was no way to energize the young vote!), a further raise to the state pension (if this was so important, why didn't you do it in the last budget rather than an election giveaway?) and outgoing MPs from their own party being suspended for actively supporting even-more-right-wing-than-the-Tories parties. All this following on from disastrous local elections in England in early May which saw the Conservatives lose a net 474 seats, a near 50% loss rate compared to 2021. They ended up electing fewer councillors—just barely—than the national third party, the Liberal Democrats, the first time this has happened in 30 years. The net gainers were Labour (186), the Lib Dems (104), Independents (93) and the Greens (74).

So what do May's results portend for July 4? Part of the problem with accurately predicting nationwide elections here is the occasionally very local (compared to the US) nature of politics; readers may remember the Uxbridge by-election, where this correspondent confidently asserted that it was the most likely to "flip" of the three elections that day (it didn't.) To that end, I will direct readers to three differing psephologists/sites and invite them to draw their own conclusions.

The first (and most pro-Tory) is Professor Michael Thrasher, who extrapolated the local election results to predict a hung Parliament—where the "winning" party would have a plurality, but not a majority of the 650 seats and so require to form a coalition or govern as a minority party. The political "picture" painted here is somewhat similar to the election in 2015, where then-Prime Minister David Cameron was able to utilise a "coalition of chaos" threat (about a Labour government propped up/beholden to a Scottish National Party or other supporter), conveniently ignoring his having governed in a coalition for the previous 5 years. The vast majority of the political commentariat here have been somewhat dismissive of Professor Thrasher's analysis; that said, If this situation were to transpire, it would be a huge shock for the aspirant Labour party and certainly lead to questions about Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer's lack of... well, any boldness whatsoever.

Secondly, we have Electoral Calculus, a site not dissimilar to this one, where polling data (not election results) is used to form a national picture. For those who do not wish to click through the link, their latest analysis has Labour winning a total of 472 (possibly as high as 545, and no fewer than 351) of the 650 seats in Parliament—a majority in all circumstances. Needless to say, anything even approaching 472 would be beyond Labour's wildest dreams (and way beyond even Tony Blair's landslide of 1997), giving a majority of something like 290 and enabling Sir Keir to enact pretty much whatever program of legislation he thought fit. At this stage, it is worth nothing that your regular British correspondents are somewhat-to-highly skeptical of Electoral Calculus; it does not really attempt to incorporate local factors into its conclusions, and is guilty (at least in this correspondent's opinion) of underestimating the strength of Tory support in the rich, rural constituencies that make up much of the center and southeast of England.

Finally, you have the person this correspondent would regard as the leading British psephologist, Professor Sir John Curtice. Sir John is a fixture of election night television over here; his calm, measured predictions, using exit polls, released at precisely the moments polls close, have been, well, almost unerring in their eventual accuracy for the past few elections. Sir John is not one for releasing figures, but has made two specific observations with regards to events last week. Firstly, those disaffected with the Tories are now often changing their vote to the aforementioned even-more-right-wing-than-the-Tories Reform Party—leading to a situation where the conservative vote can plausibly be split, leaving Labour/a third party to pick up the seat (and you thought third-party voting just advantaged Republicans, right?). Secondly, the picture points to some reasonably tactical voting; Labour and the Liberal Democrat share of the vote increased more when they were the main challengers, and Tory support fell more when the challenger was in danger of defeat. Neither of these developments portend at all well for the Prime Minister. Sir John has recently described the Prime Minister's decision as "either very brave or extremely foolhardy."

We will see while you're enjoying your own fireworks whether he is right.

And now, A.B.:

With G.S. offering an overview of the election landscape, I thought I would offer a quick summary of eight key points to look out for over the remaining weeks of the election campaign. As G.S. notes, British politics can be highly localized, and while the national polls currently show Labour with an average lead of 20% (a lead almost unimaginable in current U.S. politics), different dynamics are in play in different regions and in different U.K. nations.
  1. How well will Labour recover in the "Red Wall" seats? These are the traditional Labour-voting seats in the post-industrial Midlands and North of England (the equivalent of the Midwest Rust Belt) that switched to the Conservative Party in the 2019 "get Brexit done" election that consolidated Boris Johnson as Prime Minister (and didn't that go well?). Labour need to do well here to stand any chance of regaining power. One set of constituencies to watch out for are the three seats of the pottery-producing city of Stoke-on-Trent. In 2019, all three Stoke seats were won by the Conservatives for this first time in the city's history; win these back, and Keir Starmer is well on his way to Number 10.

  2. How well will Labour recover in Scotland? Until the 2015 general election, Labour had dominated national elections in Scotland, but the 2014 Scottish independence referendum (where, it's worth remembering, independence lost by 10%), transformed the position of the parties, and the pro-independence Scottish National Party has dominated national elections north of the border for a decade. In 2019, Labour won a single Scottish seat—compared to 41 in 2010. But over the last couple of years the SNP has overseen a series of scandals and missteps, including the former chief executive (and husband of former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon) being arrested for embezzlement; previous First Minister Humza Yousaf disastrously mishandling the end of an arrangement where the Scottish Greens propped up his minority government, forcing Yousaf to resign, and newly installed First Minister John Swinney refusing to accept recommended sanctions against an SNP politician who tried to claim £11,000 for data roaming expenses on his iPad (perhaps showing that Boris Johnson taught the SNP a thing or two after all). This has all led to Labour taking the lead in Scottish opinion polling over an increasingly tired and unpopular SNP. Some polls suggest that the SNP seat share could more than halve from the 48 seats won in the 2019 U.K. general election, with Labour picking up most of the difference. Labour could probably just about win a majority at Westminster without doing well in Scotland, but the path to that majority would be immeasurably eased if they pick up seats in the Central Belt between Glasgow and Edinburgh.

  3. How well will the Liberal Democrats do in the "Blue Wall"? The Liberal Democrats, the U.K.'s traditional centrist third party, have never quite recovered from the collapse in their support following their 2010-2015 coalition with the Conservative Party. They're currently polling at about 10%, compared to the 23% they won in 2010, and even that 10% represents a recovery from 7.4% in the 2017 election. But the party have become quite ruthless at targeting their vote on winnable seats, particularly in the affluent south of England where small-c traditional conservative voters may be fed up with the Conservative Party, but can't quite bring themselves to vote for Labour. This would be welcome for the LibDems, no doubt, but would also help Labour by further depressing the number of Conservative MPs.

  4. How badly will the Conservatives do in London? The UK's capital contains 73 Westminster constituencies, more than the 57 constituencies in all of Scotland. Currently, 49 are held by Labour, 21 by the Conservatives, and 3 by the LibDems. Just like in the United States, major cities tend to be more left-leaning than rural areas, and some polls suggest that the Conservatives could be almost wiped out across London, with most of those seats picked up by Labour (the LibDems have aspirations in a couple; party leader Sir Ed Davey represents one of London's leafier outer seats). This would obviously also help Labour.

  5. How well will Reform UK do? Reform UK are the rebranded Brexit Party, sitting on the populist hard right of British politics. Polling suggests that as Conservative polling has declined, Reform have picked up at least some disgruntled right-of-center voters, and the party is now battling the Liberal Democrats to see who'll win the third-highest vote share. However, because Reform's vote is evenly spread across England (it has very little traction in Scotland or Wales), the party is unlikely to win any seats; they don't have the LibDems' experience or ability to ruthlessly target winnable seats. But in the U.K.'s electoral system, there's no need for a candidate to win a majority in a seat, they only need win the highest vote share. So if Reform can bleed 5-10% of the vote from the Conservatives in enough critical seats, allowing Labour or the LibDems to win the seat instead, they can significantly harm the Tories without picking up a single seat themselves.

  6. Will tactical voting hurt the Conservatives? One of the factors that led to Tony Blair's 1997 landslide was a willingness for Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters to vote for the party best-placed to defeat the Conservative candidate rather than their own party. With Rishi Sunak's government so catastrophically unpopular, there are signs that this will happen again in 2024, though the extent is difficult to predict. But the more voters who are willing to vote tactically against the government, the worse the night will be for the Conservative Party. The really entertaining dilemma here will be in Conservative seats in Scotland, where the main challenger is usually the SNP—providing a challenge for voters in deciding which party they consider to be the least incompetent.

  7. Will Nationalists/Republicans win more seats than Unionists in Northern Ireland? Northern Irish politics exists in its own unique world, with unique parties reflecting shades of opinion on the relationship between the U.K., Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Outlining this in more detail would require an essay of its own, but there's a significant chance that the two parties with Nationalist and Republican viewpoints (traditionally rooted in the north's Catholic communities) will win more seats than Unionist parties (traditionally rooted in the Protestant communities), with the non-sectarian centrist Alliance Party perhaps set for its best-ever result. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Sinn Féin refuse to take up the Westminster seats they win in Northern Ireland, but given the extent to which the relationship between the U.K. and the E.U. has been impacted by the need to address the special circumstances of Northern Ireland, a significant decline in the Unionist seat vote and seat share will be seen as potentially symbolic. The Unionist cause has not been helped by Jeffrey Donaldson, the former leader of the Democratic Unionist Party—currently the largest Unionist Party in Northern Ireland—being arrested earlier this year on historical rape charges. Yes, it's been quite the year for political scandals across the U.K.

  8. Whither Wales? Labour have long been the dominant party in Wales, and are expected to continue to do well in the general election as well. But perhaps because the Welsh feel they don't want to miss out on the round of scandals impacting the rest of the U.K., a whiff of discontent has arisen in Wales over a messy dispute involving donations to newly installed Welsh First Minister Vaughan Gething. At this point it seems unlikely that this will have a significant impact on the national election result, but there's a slight chance it may cost Labour a seat or two in the Principality.
As an aside, Gething is Wales's first Black First Minister. There was a brief period from March to May this year where the U.K. Prime Minister was a Hindu of South Asian heritage, the Scottish First Minister was a Muslim of South Asian Heritage, the Welsh First Minister was Black, and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland (who have co-equal constitutional status) were both women, meaning no leader of any UK parliament was a white man; this observation may perhaps be somewhat counterbalanced by Charles III, but it was still a historical moment worth noting.

Thanks, gents! We look forward to further commentary as the Fourth draws nearer. (Z)

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