With speculation rife that there will be a general election in the autumn, Matthew Goodwin assesses the new government’s likely popularity, and which groups of the electorate Boris Johnson will have most problems appealing to.
With a new Prime Minister, a divided parliament, a looming Brexit deadline and rumours of a general election it might be time to put the seatbelt on. Only this weekend, the Financial Times revealed that Prime Minister Johnson and his staff are preparing for a ‘people versus politicians’ election in event of losing a confidence vote when parliament returns one month from now.
If the talk turns out to be true then Britain’s voters will enter their second nationwide election this year – after the European elections in the spring – and their sixth major election in just five years. After the 2014 European elections, 2015 general election, 2016 referendum, 2017 general election and 2019 European elections, Brenda from Bristol could yet make another appearance.
Remarkably, many people appear very confident about what would happen at such an election. I say ‘remarkable’ because of the record rates of volatility that are rumbling through British politics. Voters have never been less loyal to the main parties and more willing to switch their votes. Think about all we have seen in only a few short years. The rise of UKIP. David Cameron’s surprise majority in 2015. The rise of the SNP. The rise of Jeremy Corbyn. The vote for Brexit. The shock failure of Theresa May to win a commanding majority in 2017. The six-week-old Brexit Party winning the European Parliament elections. Ordinarily, such volatility should give us pause for thought not confident predictions of a Boris slam dunk.
The popular narrative goes something like this. Boris Johnson goes to the country with a populist ‘people versus politicians’ message. Parliament has thwarted popular sovereignty and so only the people, presumably in alliance with Johnson, can triumph against the out-of-touch Westminster elites and finally deliver what they voted for more than three years ago: Brexit.
Johnson throws himself into the campaign and cobbles together an alliance of several groups, almost all of which are sympathetic to Brexit. He repairs the Conservative Party’s all-important relationship with the over-50s who felt alienated by Theresa May’s suggestion in 2017 that they will have to sell their homes if they are unlucky enough to get dementia. He launches a sustained campaign of love-bombing on Brexit Party voters, doing all that he can to squeeze Nigel Farage’s vote. Along the way he turns his guns onto the nearly 160 pro-Brexit Labour seats and executes a much better Conservative campaign than Theresa May ever managed. He exploits a divided Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn’s crashing leadership ratings, which have deteriorated since the last election. On the ground, and from one seat to the next, Johnson also ruthlessly exploits internecine competition among Remainers, not least the fact that the Labour Party is currently only retaining little over half of its 2017 electorate. About one in three of Labour’s 2017 voters have gone walkies to the Liberal Democrats or Greens. All of this, so the thinking goes, allows Johnson and a unified Leave vote to cross the line in dozens of seats and win a huge majority.
There is already evidence the strategy is working. In the latest poll, the Conservatives have a clear 10-point lead over Labour and numbers that would, in theory, give them a majority in the 70–80 region. Since Prime Minister Johnson entered office the ‘Boris Bounce‘ has been joined by a ‘Farage Flop’. Look below the surface and you find other shifts. Before PM Johnson one in three of the Conservative’s 2017 voters had decamped to the Brexit Party. Since he entered office that’s already down to one in five. Furthermore, ask the remaining Brexit Party voters who they want to be Prime Minister and 84% say Johnson. Just 1% say Corbyn. Labour, meanwhile, are averaging less than 30%. They are in Gordon Brown 2010 territory.
Johnson’s campaigning also speaks volumes. He has been visiting northern England to promise major investment in transport links outside of the capital, a new trans-pennine rail line between Leeds and Manchester and to ‘turbo-charge’ the north. The weekend brought more, including a £2 billion cash dump for the NHS (one of the few remaining issues on which Labour retains a lead over the Conservatives).
All of this is clearly aimed at Brexiteers, working-class and elderly voters who care passionately about leaving the EU and the NHS and who live in the left behind and left out communities I flagged in a recent UnHerd piece. And don’t forget. Lots more voters are in Wales where polling last week put the Conservatives first and Labour on course for its lowest number of seats since 1918. Put all this together and it’s not hard to explain the Conservative confidence.
But we can also challenge this narrative. Indeed, we should. One lesson of the past decade, as I usually point out in my talks, is that we should always challenge groupthink. It’s not that I find the above implausible, because I don’t. If things do not change then Johnson has a pretty good chance of winning a majority, albeit one that in my view will be much less spectacular than Twitter would have you believe. But it could also go very wrong and we should recognise that conventional wisdom has a dismal record. Groupthink did not see the 2016 Leave victory coming. So where could it go wrong for Boris Johnson? Here are four things his team need to think about.
1. He fails to unify Leavers. One reason why Conservatives failed to hold Brecon and Radnorshire in a by-election last week, and why Johnson now has majority of one, is because the Brexit Party (who threw almost no resource into the campaign) still took 10% of the vote. This, combined with coordinated opposition, deprived him of an early win in a pro-Leave seat. Johnson is beginning to eat into Farage’s electorate but so far he’s not eaten enough. In the national polls, the Brexit Party is still averaging 14% of the vote, more than enough to cause problems in the marginals. In fact, if you compare the averages in the polls before and after Johnson entered Downing Street you get:
Conservatives on 30% (+5)
Labour 25% (-1)
Liberal Democrats 19% (+2)
Brexit Party 14% (-5)
Greens 6% (-)
On these kinds of numbers you are looking not at a solid Conservative majority but the Conservatives as the largest party but short of a majority. And remember. One thing that helped David Cameron navigate his UKIP problem in 2015 (when Farage polled basically what he is polling today) was his ruthless exploitation of the Liberal Democrats. Cameron captured nearly 30 Lib Dem seats, mainly in the southwest, something that will not be possible at the next election. If anything, and as I pointed out in the Financial Times after the European elections, the Lib Dems could get revenge for Cameron’s ‘decapitation strategy’, bearing down on Conservatives in a significant number of seats, as they did in Brecon and Radnorshire.
And what if Johnson does squeeze the Brexit Party but wins votes in the wrong places? Stealing votes from Farage in pre-existing strong Conservative seats in Eastern England, like Boston and Skegness or Castle Point, is not going to help. Failing to win enough of them in marginal and more northern Labour-held pro-Leave seats like Dudley North or Crewe and Nantwich could make things much harder. Brexit Party voters in the north might be far more resistant than their counterparts in the south to vote for ‘the Tories’.
2. Corbynomics remains popular. One reason why Johnson might struggle to whittle down the Brexit Party vote, and connect with voters in Labour areas, is because of economics. We hear much about the rise of Brexit as an issue but our left-right views on the economy still pack a heavy punch when it comes to elections. One of the big myths in British politics was that Farage’s followers were free marketeer Thatcherites. Many lean left on economics, wanting more regulation of business and believing that the system is rigged against them. So too do lots of Labour Leavers, who Johnson will also need.
Few people have said it but it’s not hard to see how an anti-Johnson campaign might work. Frame him as a distant, affluent, elitist capitalist who wants to put globalisation on steroids. Tell the electorate again and again that the Tories will ruin the NHS and have no serious interest in reforming crony capitalism. Present Johnson as the man who wants to turn Britain into Singapore-on-Thames – a place where tax cuts and big business matter more than delivering good public service and building a fair society. Basically throw what you have at presenting Johnson as an opportunist who backs business over the people.
I’ve seen the strategy play out on door-steps. One reason why Labour managed to fend off the pro-Brexit UKIP in a northern pro-Leave seat, Heywood and Middleton, in 2014 was because of this narrative. What many Conservatives overlook is the critical point that while lots of Labour Leavers agree with them on the cultural axis – on Brexit, immigration, and also crime – they remain deeply dubious and distrustful of ‘the Tories’ on the economic axis – about whether they really are on the side of the people. That strategy was enough to fend off Farage and I’d expect Labour to roll this out across their heartlands against the Tories.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn is certainly unpopular but, as I point out in talks to business, Corbynomics is more popular than people think. Most Brits remain deeply sceptical and pessimistic about the economy. Boris Johnson says he wants more optimism but note that only 13% of Brits think the economy will improve. Nearly 60% think it’s going to get worse. Most voters do not want tax cuts but want taxes to go up to spend more on public services. Large majorities back nationalisation. A majority want workers on company boards. So, if all they hear between now and the next election are tax cuts for the better-off then it is not hard to see how Johnson comes unstuck, leaving Farage with a significant chunk of support and giving Labour what they desperately need: a way of rallying their base.
3. Tories underestimate Labour tribalism. Some of the points above point to a third risk for Johnson. One reason why Corbyn polled unexpectedly strongly in 2017 was because Labour Leaners ‘came home’ during the campaign, while he also managed to win back floating Lib Dems and Greens. Indeed, we conveniently forget this now but only two months before the last general election Labour had crashed to 25% of the vote while the Tories held a 21-point lead. The point? Things can change during campaigns.
We also know from research that many of these people agreed with Corbyn’s offer, that it was not just an attempt to limit May’s majority. So, while Theresa May thought that she could rampage through pro-Brexit Labour seats in the end how many did she win? Just six. Meanwhile, Labour captured more than a dozen pro-Leave seats, from Keighley to Peterborough, from Bedford to Stockton South.
Labour heartlands are heartlands for a reason. Many seats have long and entrenched traditions of ‘anti-Toryism’ and/or massive Labour majorities. Faced with local tactical choices, I would personally not be surprised to see many voters concluding that the best hope of blocking Brexit, Johnson and the sequel to Vote Leave is – after everything – to still vote Labour. Pointing at Labour seats where a majority voted Leave and assuming they will flip blue after ‘BoJo’ turns up, or because his senior advisor Dominic Cummings runs targeted Facebook adverts, is simplistic. Even in pro-Leave seats with slender majorities, Johnson could find that a combination of Labour tribalism and a Brexit backlash trumps his plans.
What does a nightmare scenario for Johnson look like? Nigel Farage holds onto a big chunk of his vote. Johnson falls short in pro-Brexit Leave seats where he finds Labour majorities insurmountable or has his path cut short by Labour turning up the volume on economic populism. The Lib Dems hit the Conservatives on another flank, in more southern leafy Remainia seats, while Labour entrenches in London and continues to expand into parts of the southeast, helped by a similar ‘revenge of Remainers’ that powered them along in 2017 (see our paper here). Is all of this likely? My instinct says no but all possibilities should be interrogated.
4. Boris plants bad seeds. Even if all of the above is wrong, and I am talking nonsense, Johnson could win a healthy majority but simultaneously damage his party’s long-term prospects. As I argued in the Sunday Times, while the Conservatives have become far more dependent upon working-class, white, older and pro-Brexit voters, they are simply getting smashed among other groups that are only going to become ever more important in British politics.
One such group is who I call the ‘Things Can Only Get Better Generation’: 30-and-40-somethings who came of age under Blair and are now struggling with young families of their own. Childcare costs, fears of tuition fees down the line, ageing Baby Boomer parents, unresolved worries about how to afford their social care, squeezed on the housing market, most likely renting but struggling from one month to the next, in debt to the Bank of Mum and Dad, possibly open to Brexit but now concluding it has been managed disastrously and wondering where Cool Britannia went … It was this group that swung the hardest against the Conservatives in 2017.
Then come the youngest, 18-or-19-year-olds, among whom Labour held a 50-point lead in 2017, and also young women who have been abandoning the Tories in droves. Two years ago Labour held a 34-point lead among young women aged 25–35 years old and a 55-point lead among 18–24-year-old women. And it’s a similar story when it comes to Britain’s black and ethnic minorities, who handed Labour a 50+ point lead only two years ago (a stronger lead than in 2015). Given his time running London, and also his instinctive liberal outlook, Johnson is better equipped than most in his party to renew and repair these relationships. But there is still no guarantee that he will be able to.
Lastly, it’s important to avoid binary takes. Johnson and his team could try to tackle several of these challenges at the same time, during one campaign, which is no doubt what is behind the big NHS give-away this week. But if the Prime Minister and his team are not careful then the current talk about thumping majorities and an era of renewed Conservative dominance could give way to an almighty backlash, either at an election this autumn or further down the road … Beware of confident predictions!
Note: the above was published on the author’s own email bulletin and was republished with permission.
Matthew Goodwin is Professor of Politics at the University of Kent, and co-author with Roger Eatwell of National Populism: the Revolt Against Liberal Democracy (Penguin, October 2018).
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay/Public Domain.