In the News

Is the outcome of the next election being decided now?

Mike McCartney

7th November 2021

Will Boris Johnson's poor handling of sleaze allegations cost his party the next election?

What do the polls say, and might events this week prove to be a watershed for the Johnson administration?

According to today's Observer:

"Boris Johnson’s personal approval rating has slumped to its lowest level on record after his botched attempt to scrap Westminster’s standards system and spare a Tory MP from being suspended.

According to a new Opinium poll for the Observer, the prime minister’s personal ratings have now fallen to -20, down from -16 last week. It surpasses the previous low of -18 that Johnson recorded a month ago, suggesting he was already experiencing a low point in his popularity in recent weeks.

The Tory lead has also fallen to a single point in the past week, according to the poll that is the first to be conducted entirely after the resignation of Owen Paterson. The former Tory cabinet minister quit as an MP after No 10 ordered an embarrassing U-turn over its attempt to spare him from a 30-day Commons suspension for breaching lobbying rules.

There was also a significant shift in who voters see as the best prime minister. An 11-point lead for Johnson has shrunk to just 2 points. Johnson is regarded as the best prime minister candidate by 28% of voters, down 5 points, with the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, on 26% (up 4 points)."

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/po...

This news has made me think about what the implications would be in terms of voting behaviour.

The modern electorate are more inclined to cast their vote according the rational choice model. The twin anchors of partisan and class alignment still heavily shape decisions by voters at the polls, but they don't decide the outcome. It is decisions by the vital swing voters that ultimately determine what the colour of the door at Number 10 will be painted.

As such, it is the 3Ps that matter: past performance, the party leader, and future policies. And so, as things stand, it doesn't look too good for Boris Johnson's government. In an excellent article in the Economist, it is suggested that the game is finally up. The Paterson issue may be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

In the article, they state:

"Whatever you think of Boris Johnson as a person, you have to admire his political survival skills. To reach the pinnacle of British politics, he weathered exposure as a liar and philanderer, and even humiliation as a Union-Jack twiddling buffoon stuck on a zip-wire. As prime minister, he has overseen a disastrous initial response to the pandemic and an endless series of debilitating rows with the European Union. But his party’s 80-seat majority in Parliament—and a weak opposition prone to infighting—have assured him of being able to get away with almost anything, and of enjoying the constant, if at times reluctant, support of his Conservative Party. This week’s disasters may come to be seen as the moment when that began to change."

Read it in full here (register or sign in if you have an account): https://www.economist.com/brit...

So, a bit of context as to how the 3Ps have played out in a couple of elections.

Let's look at 2015. Why did the Conservatives win again at the ballot box?

1. Past performance. It is often said that oppositions don't win elections, government's lose them. And after five years in power, the Conservatives could point to a relatively strong track record. More jobs had been crated, the Chancellor George Osborne said, in the UK than the rest of there EU put together in the wake of the Great Financial Crash.

2. Party leader. Whatever you think of Ed Miliband, that the Labour campaign was a solid one, the Leader of the Her Majesty's Opposition was given a hard time by the media. The lasting image is a recycled photo from the 2014 local elections of Milband apparently struggling with a bacon sandwich. So, in that sense, the media mattered.

3. In terms of policies, and another "P", prospective voting, the Conservatives appeared more competent on the economy. Labour didn't really have an alternative strategy to the government's austerity programme.

Or, let's take 2005. Why did Labour, under Tony Blair, win their third successive election?

1. Past performance. The economy (it's always the economy, stupid) was in fine shape, as far as voters were concerned. Of course, no one had any idea that the housing bubble that had been, and was continuing to be, stoked up would burst a couple of yers into 'New' Labour's third term, but the incumbent Chancellor could point to the 'longest period of growth' in Britain since records began.

2. Party leader. Tony Blair versus Michael Howard. Do I need to write any more?

3. Policies, and the idea of prospective voting. As was the case with the opposition in 2015, the Conservatives in 2005 didn't really offer much to the voters in terms of why they would be the better option. The policy options on offer just didn't capture the imagination of voters. The manifesto promises of more police, cleaner hospitals, lower taxes, school discipline, and controlled immigration didn't garner much support in the media either. But if you look at their last policy on immigration, maybe they were ahead of the curve on that one.

So, while this might just seem like idle speculation, it is worth considering events at the moment, and bearing them in mind, when looking back at the outcome of the 2024 election. Right now, I'm not going to make any predictions. I'm generally useless at predictions. The only major vote I've called right was the Brexit referendum. Ultimately, it's about resonance with voters, and it has been the case that voters seem happy to give the current PM a pass. And I'm not really sure how much the Paterson allegations and the U-turn over investigating MP standards has impacted upon public opinion. Is it all just the Westminster bubble? Or like the MPs expenses scandal of 2009, will it shape the views of the wider electorate? Watch this space.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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