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Friday, 18 January, 2019

Plenty of background issues to consider as UK goes to the polls

Features editor Katherine Fidler looks into potential shocks

The Liberal Democrats have a long way to go to match results they enjoyed under Nick Clegg
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In the past 12 months there have been three seismic shocks in the world of politics. On the eve of Britain’s European referendum, despite polls showing there was only a nose in it either way, many didn’t even entertain the idea that Britain would vote to leave the EU. It did.

Five months later, buoyed by this emergent wave of introspective nationalism and with a knack for provocative sound bites, Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States – albeit with almost three million fewer votes than his rival Hillary Clinton, such is the nature of America’s electoral college system.

Kudos to anyone who had the double.

In April, France witnessed its own Trump moment (hopefully that doesn’t become a thing) when rejecting the traditional order and sending centrist new kid on the block Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen through to the final round of its presidential elections.

Macron won, as the polls and bookmakers predicted, but that it was a head-to-head between the pair provided the latest chapter in a re-ordering of the global political establishment.

Such outcomes leave punters on the search for similarly shocking results this time around, albeit bar a Labour victory, they will be on a much smaller scale. So where to start? Well, for Britain, where it all began.

The Brexit big bang
Yes, that’s a huge oversimplification. Britain’s decision on the night of June 23, 2016 has had enormous and ongoing ramifications for the country and Europe, but it didn’t come from out of the blue – the issue of Europe had been colouring the political waters for decades, poisoning or purifying it, depending on your persuasion.

This has been billed as the Brexit election, but as the campaigns have shown, it is in no way one dimensional – and so those who are pinning their hopes and yellow rosettes on a Liberal Democrat resurgence thanks to their promise of a second EU referendum will likely be disappointed.

The party is aiming itself at two main groups, Remainers and younger voters – categories with a huge overlap. While the anti-Brexit sentiment that Lib Dems are hoping to capitalise on may still be strong in many quarters, a new group of voters has emerged, dubbed ‘Re-Leavers’ – Remain voters who have now accepted the result and are keen to get the best deal possible.

Is Tim Farron the man for that? His policy proposals make the right noises for existing Lib Dem voters, but a manifesto that explicitly states his party is bidding for the opposition benches renders many of them rather inconsequential – especially since such a scenario would likely only arise through an unprecedented switch in support from Labour to Conservative by Leavers, well beyond that which is predicted.

So, what does this mean? Don’t be too confident of a resurgence in the party’s former heartlands of the south west – which recorded some of the highest Leave votes – and the London boroughs in which they typically fare well, despite recent by-election success in Richmond Park.

The shock result this time might be that the Liberal Democrats fare even worse than they did in 2015 if their Brexit bargaining chip doesn’t hold its value. Bookmakers predict Conservative wins in the existing Lib Dem seats of Carshalton & Wallington, North Norfolk, Southport and the aforementioned Richmond. However, Bermondsey & Old Southwark, Cambridge, East Dunbartonshire, Edinburgh West, North East Fife and Twickenham are all to play for.

Policy promises
So let’s be clear – this isn’t a Brexit election, it’s a general election, and there’s even more at stake than negotiations for the UK’s divorce from the EU bloc. Of the domestic policies announced so far in the campaign, none has caused bigger waves than Theresa May’s revision of personal contributions to domiciliary care costs, dubbed the ‘dementia tax’.

Despite an enormous u-turn, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the Tories’ last u-turn over National Insurance contributions (six weeks earlier), the proposal did May no favours in the polls.

While Labour was initially the biggest beneficiary, traditionally liberal constituencies with an older demographic may defy the bookmakers. Norman Lamb, North Norfolk’s Liberal Democrat incumbent since 2001, is a best-priced 7-4 to retain his seat from the odds-on Conservative candidate James Wild. However, the region has been heavily targeted by the Tory leadership however, with the Prime Minister, defence secretary, justice secretary and international trade secretary all visiting Norfolk in recent weeks.

Further north in Barrow and Furness there has been some support for Labour, but if the party is to fight off strong Conservative support – much of which could stem from the region’s large Brexit vote – it must reaffirm, and reaffirm again, its support for Trident.Barrow shipyard, where the new Trident nuclear submarines are being developed, employs 9,000 people in the region.

At 7-2 Labour versus 1-6 Conservative it looks an uphill battle, but following a surprise Labour surge in late May, Corbyn’s team could turn it around.

Theresa May also pledged to allow fracking for shale gas, which many fear could lead to the industrialisation of the countryside. In the recent local elections, held before the Conservative manifesto was released, the Green Party saw a surge in support across at-risk areas.

Lancaster Central re-elected Gina Dowding on an increased majority, in North Yorkshire’s Falsgrave & Stepney David Malone secured 32 per cent of the vote, up from 18 per cent, while the Isle of Wight returned its first ever Green Party councillor.

Isle of Right
The Isle of Wight is also playing host to one of the most fascinating races of the election. Voters on the island are famously capricious, having switched allegiance from Liberal Democrat to Conservative in 2001 by a swing of seven points, while Ukip’s vote went from 2,500 to almost 15,000 between 2010 and 2015.

All roads point to a Tory victory – they won in 2015 with a share of 40.7 per cent, are currently a best-priced 1-50 and with the UKIP vote predicted to collapse, those 15,000 votes in a solid Leave constituency look sure to turn blue.

However, enter Vix Lowthion, the wild card in this race. The Green party candidate secured a 13 per cent share in the 2015 election – from which she is the only remaining candidate. Conservative incumbent Andrew Turner, who garnered 28,591 votes (a decrease of six per cent on 2010), was forced to resign in April after telling A-Level students he believed “homosexuality is wrong” and it is “dangerous to society”. This has left Conservative councillor Bob Seely to contest the seat, elected in 2013 but without the name recognition of Lowthion.

Such is her potential it prompted Labour MPs to call on Corbyn to step aside in the race to boost the Greens’ chances, an idea officially rejected but just one example of how tactical alliances could have been employed if Labour had been open to working with its left-wing rival.

Realistically, expectations are still low, but doesn’t everyone love an underdog? A Green Party win here really would be one of the biggest shocks of the election.

A lotta love for Labour
While Labour went into the 2015 general election believing they could win the most seats, early talk this time was of damage limitation.

The biggest shock of all would be an outright Labour victory, a result in the mould of Brexit and Trump but with a polar opposite political agenda.

Despite a surge in the polls in recent weeks and the Conservatives’ lead narrowing, such an outcome remains a risky bet – albeit not so risky as to deter one punter from Norwich, who placed £10,000 on a Labour victory.

However, one interesting element could come into play in the final days of the campaign.

If the rumour mill is to be believed, fellow left-wing maverick Bernie Sanders will endorse Jeremy Corbyn when he visits the UK for his book tour.

Support from the US political icon, who took on Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in the 2016 US election, could do enough to nudge the needle left in close-run contests including Batley & Spen, Alyn & Deeside and Bermondsey & Old Southwark, existing Labour seats, and the Brighton Kemptown, Cambridge and Leeds North West battlegrounds.

As a side note, Sanders’ brother Larry will stand for the Green Party in Oxford East, a seat Labour are odds-on to hold.

Scottish power
Lest we ever remember the joy of an election- or referendum-free year, the SNP is campaigning on the promise of a second vote on Scottish independence.

That’s not unreasonable given the Better Together movement campaigned heavily on the premise of remaining part of the EU, and Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain during last year’s referendum. However, for SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon’s wish to be granted she will need a strong show of support in Westminster – yet her hand is likely to be significantly weakened after June 8, with a blue hue expected to seep northwards from the border.

Take the constituency of Berwickshire, Roxburgh & Selkirk for example. In 2015 just 328 votes separated Conservative John Lamont and Calum Kerr, who won the seat for the SNP. Two years on and Lamont is 1-10 for victory. This is not a unique story, with the Tories odds-on in seven races.

The SNP won 56 of 59 Westminster seats in 2015, leaving just one apiece for the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems. The fightback starts here, with the Liberal Democrats odds-on to win three seats and in a fiercely tight battle for a fourth, Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross – a Lib Dem stronghold until ousted by the SNP at the last election and available at evens.

Labour looks unlikely to make major strides in reversing its near wipeout at the last election – Ian Murray, the party’s sole surviving MP from 2015, is odds-on to retain his Edinburgh South constituency, although the Conservatives, which held the seat for two decades until 1987, will be looking to snap up a portion of the pro-union vote.

Ukip put to sleep
Remember when a protest vote was crossing your ballot for the Official Monster Raving Loony Party? Times have changed – protest votes can now trigger momentous change and elect an [insert your own adjective] candidate to the White House.

However, time appears to have run out for Ukip, a charismatic driving force during the EU referendum campaign but never expected to make serious inroads at Westminster (unless you were David Cameron) – its sole MP Douglas Carswell declared himself an independent before parliament was dissolved, stating there was “no point” to the party anymore.

Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies this year, its membership has plummeted and new leader Paul Nuttall failed to secure victory in the Stoke by-election despite the area’s strong Brexit vote.

It will be no shock, but the safest bet of this election looks to be for a party that secured the third largest vote in the 2015 election to return zero MPs.

E.W. Terms
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