The next general election

Whatever happens with Brexit, it seems likely – and apologies if you are a political journalist or activist – that we are heading for an early general election, probably later this year. What does that mean for the three main UK parties, two of which are likely to see a change in leader?

Conservatives

I have already outlined some potential leadership candidates in a previous post.1 Whoever is chosen, it looks likely that they will be more of a Brexiteer than May, and will take a harder line in future negotations – leaving, with or without a deal, is only the first stage of the process. Some potential leaders might see themselves as Thatcher 2.0, forgetting that she negotiated policies such as the rebate from within the EEC, and it seems unlikely that anyone would achieve the same results as an ex-member.

From a purely party political perspective, it is in the interests of the Conservatives to hold an election as soon as possible after Brexit, especially if a deal is voted through. This would allow the party to claim that it had delivered ‘the will of the people’, versus the other parties which had vacillated (Labour) or obstructed all the way (Liberal Democrats and SNP). A snap election, before the real pain of Brexit hits, would in my opinion be electorally beneficial.

Labour

Corbyn is safe for the moment, but this general election would be the final test of his leadership. He made some modest gains in 2017, but were this performance to be repeated without becoming the largest party then I suspect he would face and lose a leadership challenge. The polls are not in his favour, with Labour generally trailing the Conservatives and Corbyn trailing both May and his party.

Depending on how Brexit turns out, a delay before a general election might favour Labour. Allow a few months for problems to build, stockpiles to run down etc., and then go to the polls blaming the Conservatives for everything.

Liberal Democrats

More than anything, the Lib Dems need to replace Vince Cable as soon as possible, so that the new leader has time to build their profile, public recognition, and put their stamp on the party before going into an election. I’ve mentioned previously that I think Jo Swinson should be the next leader, but whatever happens the party needs to get a move on.

I also think the Lib Dems need to approach the election with a concentrated campaign. They have widespread support, but it is spread thinly across constituencies, and under First Past the Post that is a major disadvantage. Running a campaign in every constituency makes sense in some respects, as it means they get a party political broadcast (though does anyone watch and, more importantly, make a voting decision, based on these?), but I think they need to target their resources more effectively.

Ideally the Lib Dems would pick 30-50 target seats which are realistically winnable, probably in areas where their opposition to Brexit will be an asset rather than a liability, even if we have already left by this point. They also need a positive message beyond the usual protest vote, perhaps picking 3-5 simple, bold policy initiatives to run with.

The other key concern for the Lib Dems is to come up with a plan for The Independent Group and other independent MPs. Their old parties will be keen to regain the seats, not just for electoral reasons but also to show what happens to MPs who quit. Ideally the Lib Dems should stay out of such contests, both to conserve resources for winnable seats and stop the ‘anyone but Labour or Conservative’ vote from being split. Alternatively, they could try and bring these MPs into the party, though this would probably upset activists given the stance of some independent MPs on social issues.

Prediction

Psychic Paul has not done well in past elections, but I think this election is going to be a tough one for Labour and the Conservatives, as a lot will depend on how Brexit pans out and who voters blame when things go wrong. If the Lib Dems play their cards right – a new leader and a positive but concentrated campaign – then I think they could make some serious progress towards returning as the third largest party with 30-50 seats.


  1. Next leader of the Conservative party

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