You’re Theresa May, vaguely accidental Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. You’ve inherited a flimsy majority in the House of Commons, currently at just 17 seats. You’re about to enter into a series of negotiations with the European Union, which will define the UK’s economic framework for at least a generation. The party opposite is going through a spot of bother (that many claim to be existential). While you had consistently rejected doing so since June, you finally make the logical choice, and call for a snap election. A snap election that will lead to the shortest period between elections since October 1974, and also the first General Election to not be held simultaneous with local elections since 1992.
Whenever this question came up in my various media appearances since May took over this past July, I argued, consistently, that a snap election makes perfect sense, electorally. In addition to negotiating with the EU, pushing through “boundary review” (i.e. redistricting) with a reduction in the number of seats in the House of Commons from 650 to 600 has been on the cards since the David Cameron-led coalition government of 2010-15. So why was this a surprise?
Namely, because the Brits like to hold their General Elections simultaneous to whatever local elections might be on offer. There’s a logic to this: turnout increases for the local elections, and money is saved by only administering one election. Such elections are scheduled for May 4, 2017. Given the statutory requirements for the “short campaign”, combined with the vagaries introduced by the 2011 Fixed Term Parliament Act, the time to have called for a snap election would have been no later than the second week of March.
What has changed in the past month or so? Labour’s polling disadvantage has not depreciated significantly; according to UK Polling Report, Labour was 14.8% down on average, whereas now Labour trails the Conservatives by 16.8% (by my unsophisticated calculations; for the current average I aggregated all polls back to the beginning of March; for the average of one month ago, I averaged from the beginning of February to March 15.) While Nate Silver suggests that the snap election is not as slammy a slam dunk as most might assume (h/t friend of LGM Bijan Parsia for bringing this to my attention), I doubt that a further two point lead in the polls is what convinced May to call the snap election now when she couldn’t a month ago.
I’ve speculated in the media here that this is about internal Parliamentary Conservative Party politics regarding the negotiations with the European Union about the shape of Brexit. The transformation of the previously tepid Remainer Theresa May into staunch Hard Brexiteer Prime Minister is due in part to the leverage the latter currently have within the House of Commons. With current polling data suggesting nothing less than the Conservatives significantly increasing their working majority, one important (if not the important) side benefit of this is that suddenly May will have freedom of movement (in domestic politics terms) in EU negotiations.
But even this would have still been true a month ago.
It’s a safe bet that the Conservative Party will increase its majority in the 2017 election. Labour famously lost the Copeland By-Election in February. Copeland had been a Labour seat since 1935, and this was the first time the opposition party has lost a seat to the governing party in a by-election in 35 years. In addition to the anaemic performance of the party during parliamentary by-elections, Labour’s performance for local by-elections have been even less suggestive of a strong showing in a general election. Since the beginning of 2016, the Conservatives have suffered a net loss of 33 seats in local by-elections, which is to be expected. Governing parties typically struggle in such elections. However, Labour have lost a net nine seats in these elections over the same time frame, which is not typical of a strongly positioned opposition party. The Liberal Democrats on the other hand have experienced a net gain of 36 such seats (data can be compiled from various summaries posted here). The Green Party has been losing vote share to a certain degree, while since the EU referendum in June 2016, UKIP has struggled in by-elections of all types.
Naturally, word went out yesterday that Jeremy Corbyn desired that each Constituency Labour Party have the right to re-select their MP candidates (including sitting MPs). This has been a preference of a segment of the Corbyn supporters on the left of the party, as a means to purify the party for the new, post-Blairite world. When you only have 230 out of 650 members of parliament, and you’re anywhere between 15% and 18,000% behind in the opinion polls, that’s obviously an astonishingly ludicrous idea, even if we had a normal run-in to the general election. It doesn’t help to invoke a leftier-than-thou sentimentality in general, and in particular why volunteer to give away whatever advantage of incumbency that you possess? Given the election is seven short weeks away, wasting half of that time determining the names of the candidates in the first place takes that ludicrousness to new levels of electoral suicide. Fortunately, cooler heads have prevailed, and by my understanding of the rules, all existing MPs have the right to stand again, while previous candidates (of the non-winning variety) likewise have first right of refusal to stand as candidates in the constituencies they stood at the last general election (although the national executive committee has some significant sway here).
The big question, of course, is what would Jeremy Corbyn choose to do should Labour lose the snap election by some of the more pessimistic projections (e.g. a Conservative working majority of 100 seats, perhaps?) There is nothing in the rule book that would force him to stand down as leader. Given he’s already ignored a tacit norm of British politics by failing to stand down when overwhelmingly losing a vote of confidence 172-40 among his own MPs, there’s no reason to automatically expect that he would do so in the face of an electoral disaster similar to the 1983 General Election.
That may or may not be something to dwell on by the second week of June. Until then, the 8th and 14th target seats for the Labour Party are in Plymouth, where I live. We lost these by only 523 and 1026 votes two years ago. While things might not look rosy on a national level, Labour did win the (aggregated) vote in both constituencies during the city council elections in 2016, so there’s a solid chance down here for two Labour victories.