BY STEPHEN BOAKES
After weeks of campaigning, voters go to the polls today in an election which will shape the future of the United Kingdom for decades to come.
A total of 650 Westminster MPs will be elected, with roughly 46.9 million people registered to vote and exit polls releasing at 10pm tonight.
Theresa May surprised the country when she emerged from the steps of Number 10 Downing Street on the 18th April to deliver an important announcement behind an unmarked podium, traditionally signifying a resignation or an election. It is yet to be seen whether this announcement will turn out to be merely the latter, or both. By announcing this election, Theresa May has rolled the dice on her own premiership in an attempt to “strengthen her hand” in the Brexit negotiations, taking advantage of her own personal popularity against a weakened opposition. She would hope to crush Labour, prevent the Liberal Democrats frustrating Brexit, and to put Indyref 2 to bed for the foreseeable future. Whether this gamble has paid off will be decided today on June 8th. Will Theresa “Maynia” deliver the Thatcher-like landslide that Theresa May hopes this election will bring, or is she a victim of her own mayhem?
Theresa May entered this election as a popular Prime Minister, indeed more popular than her own party (ORB), and thus her name has been splattered across campaigning literature, emboldened on the Conservative Battle Bus, and her army of candidates deployed into Labour’s heartlands. In contrast, Labour had run a defensive campaign on the back foot. Jeremy Corbyn is a divisive figure, undermined by a vote of no confidence of 172-40 last June before seeing off a leadership challenge. Corbyn’s seemingly weak and questionable leadership had no doubt contributed to Labour’s decline in support. On the other hand, the Conservative mantra of Prime Minister May providing the “strong and stable” leadership the country needed to steer the British ship through stormy Brexit waters, and negotiate a good deal for Britain against 27 other member states, was cutting through with the electorate. For many she was, and still is, the “safe pair of hands” the country needs, and not a “coalition of chaos” ran by Corbyn, “Marxist” McDonnell, and Diane Abbot who have all faced painful interviews and gaffs in the campaign. The mere idea of Nicola Sturgeon propping up a Labour government sends shivers down the spine of many English voters. The Conservative campaign has gone to great lengths to highlight the seeming difference in competence between the two camps, and whether it has been successful remains to be seen. Labour lost over 300 seats in the May 4th council elections, but have since narrowed the gap due to the mayhem of the Conservative campaign and by publishing a popular manifesto.
By putting Brexit at the heart of her campaign, and asking the British public to “strengthen her hand” to ensure that negotiations cannot be frustrated by opposition parties, UKIP voters have rallied to her side. As a result, UKIP was wiped out in the 4th May local elections as the Tories surged. The Liberal Democrats have also put Brexit “left, right, and centre”, campaigning to stand up for the 48% who voted Remain in last June’s EU referendum, and thus campaigning for a second referendum at the end of Brexit negotiations. This campaign has been less than successful however, with YouGov finding that the British public has united behind Brexit with only 22% remaining “hard remainers”. Thus, Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats have struggled to cut through, even dwindling below 10% in the polls, while Theresa May’s Conservatives have been riding high, counting on support from those who accept the result. After the revival that wasn’t, leader Tim Farron was also scrutinised over his views on gay marriage and sex. After evading the question multiple times, he finally announced that he didn’t think gay sex was a “sin,” even though he abstained to vote on marriage equality.
Corbyn’s enthusiastic support on the left of the party has shifted Labour away from its more central position under New Labour, and has resulted in this election providing a “real choice” for voters. A popular anti-austerity manifesto which pledges renationalisation, scrapping tuition fees and reversing cuts against a more hard-hitting, perhaps more honest, manifesto from the Conservatives, has energised Labour’s campaign and provided the momentum that has narrowed the gap in recent weeks. The Greens have failed to make headway in this election, with Jeremy Corbyn championing much of what they stand for.
With the right uniting behind Theresa May, and the left uniting behind Jeremy Corbyn, the party dealignment that has occurred since the 2010 election has been reversed in England and Wales with the combined Conservative and Labour vote share expected to be much higher than recent years.
In Scotland, a different picture is shaping up, one heavily influenced by Nicola Sturgeon’s calls for Indyref2 and the Conservatives, led by popular Ruth Davidson, presenting themselves as the unionist vote. Nicola Sturgeon has seen her own popularity, and support for independence, slide in Scotland as support for the Conservative and Unionist Party has surged, pushing Labour into third place in the May 4th local elections. This trend has seen a Conservative resurgence in Scotland, and may even result in seat gains. By calling this election, Theresa May has outmanoeuvred Nicola Sturgeon as SNP losses will be taken as falling support for independence after Sturgeon’s calls for indyref 2. It would strengthen May’s calls for Sturgeon to “get back to the day job” despite Sturgeon arguing that the SNP will still win the most Scottish seats.
The Conservative campaign has been dogged by the mayhem of alienated pensioners, traditionally the Conservative’s base, U-Turning to cap social care contributions, and “no-shows” to the debates. Meanwhile, Labour has narrowed the gap with a popular manifesto and large rallies across the UK, and Corbyn outmanoeuvring May to take part in the BBC Debate. But will voters be swayed by a more optimistic “Christmas list” of proposals from Labour, or a more pessimistic hard-hitting manifesto from the Conservatives. Will the Brexit negotiations see a landslide for May, or will “cut-backs” come back to bite the Conservatives?
The recent terrorist attacks in Manchester and London have inevitably opened up a debate on national security, with the left criticising police cuts, and the Conservatives highlighting Corbyn’s affiliation with the IRA, Hamas and others and his seeming opposition to “shoot-to-kill”. Corbyn has also come under heavy fire over his opposition to Trident, as exposed in the Leaders Question Time at the University of York on the 2nd June, which threatens to undermine Labour’s surge.
Corbyn’s Labour performs well on issues involving public services, such as the NHS or education, but come under fire on economic credibility and national security. The opposite is true for Theresa May’s Conservatives who are quick to point out Labours apparent “money tree”, while being criticised for vast cuts damaging public services.
With mere hours to go until the exit polls, and for results to start pouring in, voters and pundits can only watch in anticipation to see whether Theresa May has won her landslide, and whether she has successfully vanquished her enemies. She hopes to crush Labour, and put the issues of Brexit and Indyref2 to bed. Has her decision to call a Snap General Election resulted in mayhem by her own hand, or has “Maynia” propelled her back into Number 10 with a strong mandate?