The Barriers facing Labour this election
In Late October the Labour Party felt it had no alternative but to accept the General Election (GE) challenge laid down by Prime Minster Johnson. The UK General election is set for the 12th of December and Labour seem to be at a disadvantage in the polls with recent polls showing Labour 10 points behind the Conservatives (Coates 2019). This paper briefly summarises and analyse the main barriers Labour must overcome to close this gap on the government.
Labour's Fragmenting vote
The first barrier Labour must overcome is to make gains in securing voters they have lost from the last General Election (GE) in 2017. In the Summer of 2019 it was recorded by the British Election Survey (BES) that many voters who were recorded as voting Labour in BES surveys in 2017 were not intending to support the party at the next GE. Only just over one third of voters who voted Labour in 2017 were not committed to supporting Labour at the next GE. 20% of their support had fled to the Liberal Democrats, with a further 11% going to the Greens. On top of this Labour also appeared to be losing support to the newly formed Brexit Party, indicating they are being flanked in all directions, making it harder for them to secure their electoral base. There is some hope as 19% of voters are still undecided, possibly indicating some might be able to be brought back on side. Consequently, this means Labour will need to devise an electoral strategy that can win over a proportion of these undecided voters, Left Liberal Remain voters and Brexit Party leaning voters if they are likely to close the gap and beat the government at this coming GE. This is quite some task and may not be possible in such a short campaign. However, electoral volatility is currently reported as being very high by academics analysing BES trends so the election could still swing Labour’s way if they overcome other weaknesses that currently exist.
One weakness Labour must overcome is one of poor assessments of its leadership. A low favourability rating on a party’s leadership historically has been found to be an important indicator of opposition parties not being able to win elections (Clarke 2004; Clarke 2009). Therefore, Labour will need to improve on its current poor leadership performance ratings if it is likely to be able to close the gap on the Conservatives.
On top of this there might be more than just a leadership problem to overcome as their might be concerns with the party’s ability to perform as a whole. Here again a majority of voters indicate they do not rate Labour’s ability to perform as a party. Again less than one fifth of the electorate rated Labour highly enough to indicate they trust Labour’s ability to perform on their most pressing concerns. These challenging figures for Labour are also highlighted in how many voters perceive Labour to perform better than any other party on their most pressing concern of the day.
The ability to close this gap is diminished when considering most voters do not trust Labour to handle the most important issue of the day, the issue of Brexit. When respondents were asked how well would Labour Handle the process of leaving the EU 7 in 10 voters thought they would handle them badly, whilst only just less than 13% of voters thought they would do a good job handling these negotiations. This indicated that Labour’s policy of re-opening the EU issues, of which many voters are fed up talking about, could actually harm their prospects of closing the gap on the government rather than helping Labour. If a significant majority of voters do not trust Labour to handle the process of leaving the EU competently few may opt to give Labour power to renegotiate the deal the UK already has as voters may fear the UK will get an inferior deal compared to the government’s current deal.
Also large sections of the public will be reluctant to give Labour control of this issue as many voters do not back their policy of having a second referendum, especially on a renegotiated deal many fear Labour would make worse. Only 4 in 10 voters back having another referendum to settle the Brexit issue and offering a second referendum on a deal that voters know little details about could harm Labour’s chances of closing the gap on the government rather than helping them. Therefore, Labour’s vague stance on Brexit, which may have helped them in the last election, this time around might this time around could be a major barrier.
Labour also face a struggle convincing former Labour Leave voters to come back on side as roughly a third of the electorate sees Labour as being a source of delay in terms of getting the Brexit issue settled. Therefore, the Labour Party might be vulnerable to Conservative messages of “dither and Delay” as such messages might resonate with Labour Leave voters. Labour also may be under threat from the Brexit Party’s message of Labour betraying Brexit voters through not allowing Brexit voters they very thing they voted for. As a result, Labour may be flanked form both the left, centre and right of British politics which may limit their ability to appeal to enough voters to form a strong base that will allow them to challenge the government’s large lead in the polls.
Finally, Labour will also need to clarify their immigration position in order to be trusted on the issue of immigration, which will be partly linked to the EU question during the campaign. In fact the BES shows that 50% of the electorate think securing migration controls from the Brexit process is an important objective. Labour Leave voters in particular will want to see immigration controls come into force in the UK after Britain leaves the EU. Consequently, In order to have a good chance to secure these voters Labour will need to overcome the vague nature of the EU and immigration position in a way that will show how they plan to competently control immigration levels more than the UK does now. This potential barrier is made even greater when considering how most voters perceive Labour to be able to handle the immigration issue. Over 50% of the electorate indicate that they feel Labour will handle the immigration issue in a way that will increase migration. As many people want immigration controls in order to reduce migration Labour may not be trusted at this election to deliver, possibly reducing Labour’s vote share and limiting their ability to win the election.
Overall, Labour faces a barrier of trust and perceived competence. The voters going into the latter half of the 2019 year do not appear to trust Labour’s Leadership to be competent in managing the affairs of government. Labour does not appear to be trusted to handle the EU issue and might be seen as a party that will delay the Brexit process even further with a second referendum. Labour does not also appear to be trusted to handle the immigration issue either. All this indicates Labour faces significant barrier in trying to close the gap on the Conservative Party and most likely will not do so.
However, there is still a long way to go in the campaign and Labour’s big spending pledges might attract some voters and may help to cause the election to swing in Labour’s favour. Alternatively, it could reinforce doubts voters have over trusting Labour as these large spending pledges might be seen as too ambitious and potentially create an image Labour would spend beyond the country’s means. Tax and spend has often been Labour’s Achilles heel in UK general elections and if it can’t overcome the crucial barrier of trustworthy leadership and policies it will likely not close the gap and the Conservatives will win the election this time.
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Data Used: Fieldhouse, BES 2019 Panel Data, July 2019. E., J. Green, G. Evans, J. Mellon & C. Prosser (2019) British Election Study Internet Panel Waves 1-16. DOI: 10.15127/1.293723.