Expert Commentary: Boris' Big Gamble

Dr Peter Laugharne, Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Politics, provides his insight on the upcoming General Election.

Date: 04 November 2019

Europe has been a totemic issue for students of parliamentary politics for over 40 years. In 1972, the European Communities Bill produced an explosion in dissent among MPs and what political scientists call a breakdown in party cohesion. Essentially a significant number of Conservative and Labour MPs voted against their party leaderships over our entry into what was then called the EEC, or Common Market. The myth of the power of the party whips was shattered and the incidence of dissent continued to be much higher than before.

Eurosceptic minorities in both major parties persisted to the point where decades later David Cameron felt he needed to lance the boil once and for all and called a referendum on our membership of the EU. 

The rest is not yet history and we’ve found ourselves in a profound state of political limbo as the UK was almost equally divided over leaving the EU and we’ve had a government without a working majority of MPs.

2019 could be the most unpredictable and volatile General Election yet. There are at least three major factors at play. 

Firstly, the long-term trend of a weakening party identification. In the 1950s, 90% of voters identified themselves as supporters of the Conservative or Labour parties and this was reflected in the so-called two-party electoral system. Since 1974 party identification has steadily declined, though there was a slight blip at the 2017 election. There are likely to be many more voters prepared to switch allegiance at this General Election than there were one or two generations ago.

Secondly, party loyalty may be further weakened by Brexit. Let’s say that you have usually voted Conservative but wish to remain in the EU. Or you have usually voted Labour but dislike the EU and want a hard Brexit rather than a deal or second referendum.  Both sets of voters may face difficult choices between party and identity. 

Finally, turnout. This is the first winter election since February 1974, and also the fourth national poll in as many years. Voter fatigue and potentially bad weather could depress voter turnout. Traditionally bad weather was thought to favour the Conservatives as more of their supporters had cars to get to polling stations. However, more of their constituencies are in rural areas prone to bad weather so that advantage may be cancelled out. Additionally, an increasing number of people opt for postal votes which may balance things out.  

All these factors mean that this election is a big gamble for Boris. He is ahead in the polls but so was Theresa May before the election in 2017. We face a fascinating six weeks – enjoy!

Portrait of Dr Peter Laugharne