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Sunday 3 December 2023 Dublin: 1°C
PA Wire/PA Images Johnson entering 10 Downing Street earlier this year.
And they're off

Four nations, 650 seats and one elephant in the room: What to expect from the UK election?

Brexit, Brexit, Brexit, but what else do we need to know?

WHAT CAN WE expect from the UK election?

The latest poll from YouGov puts the Conservatives on 36%, Labour on 21%, the Lib Dems on 18, the Brexit Party on 13% and the Greens on 6%. Other candidates are on 6%. 

But let’s not rely to heavily on polls – almost anything could happen in this election. 

Boris Johnson is in the role as Prime Minister based on his ability to win voters over with his lovable-rogue style of politics and bizarre speeches; and Jeremy Corbyn finally has the election he’s been calling for, and another chance to prove the pollsters wrong – as well as some sections of the British media.

Meanwhile, the Lib Dems’ Jo Swinson is targeting the 16 million people who voted to remain in the EU as her potential electoral base; and former Ukipper Nigel Farage is heading up his new Brexit Party into its first general election, having won 35% of votes in the European election. 

In Northern Ireland, the DUP will battle to keep their 10 MP seats and Sinn Féin will be defending their abstention policy to the media again, while the UUP and SDLP will look to gain some ground without splitting the unionist or nationalist vote. 

Any one political move could change the outcome dramatically, including a ‘Leave’ pact between Johnson and Farage, or a ‘Remain’ pact between the Lib Dems and SNP. Here’s a more in-depth look at England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.


Don’t mention the court case

When the choice was between a general election before or after Christmas, the dominant Scottish National Party (SNP) would have preferred one before the end of January – before its prominent former leader and First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond goes on trial charged with multiple counts of attempted rape and sexual assault. 

That will play to its favour, as will a few other factors. 

Ruth Davidson, the Tories hugely popular Scottish leader, resigned from her role earlier this year. She said this was because of family commitments (she gave birth to her son earlier this year) but also cited qualms over the Tories’ handling of Brexit.

general-election-2015-campaign-april-18th PA Images First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and former first minister Alex Salmond on the campaign trail in 2015. PA Images

In her address to journalists, she asked MPs to get on with it and vote for a Brexit deal.

Labour, meanwhile, have had historic problems in Scotland because of the strength of the SNP, and as Scotland voted to Remain in the EU, the party’s wishy-washy stance on what it wants from the 2016 EU referendum result won’t help them one bit. But:

“The enthusiasm of Scottish Labour to campaign is palpable,” Jeremy Corbyn told the House of Commons on Tuesday. Let’s wait and see. 

Current make-up of the parties

 The SNP has 35 MPs, winning the majority of Scotland’s 59 seats in Westminster. It won 3 MEP seats in the European election, which represents half of Scotland’s total. 

As a result, the SNP is Scotland’s largest political party (in terms of seats in Westminster and the Scottish Parliament on Holyrood).

What do the polls say?

A YouGov poll from September this year puts the SNP on 43%, while a Panelbase poll from 11 October had them at 39%. In Scotland the Tories are on 20/21% in those same polls respectively, while Labour is on 15%/19%. 

The Liberal Democrats are on 12/13%, while the Brexit Party is on 6%/5% in Scotland, in what will be its first general election outing. 

There are a lot of tight-votes and bitter fights ahead of us in Scotland. In the current seats held, a dozen of the 59 seats were won my a majority of under 1% of the vote. In North East Fife, the SNP’s Stephen Gethins won a majority of just two.

What to look out for

Two tense battles are brewing in Glasgow – in the North East, Labour’s Paul Sweeney won back a seat from the SNP’s seven seats with a majority of just 242, and has since been made Labour’s Shadow Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. Whether he keeps his seat or not will tell us a lot. 

Glasgow East is another traditional Labour stronghold, and Natalie McGarry won the seat in 2015 – only to resign the whip and later be convicted of fraud, which she is appealing. David Linden replaced her in the by-election and won the seat by just 75 votes.

In Stirling, the Conservative candidate Stephen Kerr took a seat over the SNP by just 148 votes – things will be trickier this time for him. There have also been rumours that the prominent and Twitter-friendly SNP MEP Alyn Smith would contest the seat…

And finally, Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath will be a key area for the SNP to win back. An area where former Prime Minister Gordon Brown ran, it was won by Labour’s current Shadow Scottish Secretary Lesley Laird over the SNP’s Roger Mullin by 259 votes. 

England and Wales

Last time out

brexit PA Images The 2017 election didn't work out they way Theresa May wanted. PA Images

The last UK election in 2017 saw a clear return to two-party politics across England and Wales. 

This time around, it’s already seemingly clear that this virtual duopoly on voter share is set to be eaten into next month. The question will be by how much and what effect it will have

Whereas Ukip had carved a niche for itself in the 2015 election and the Liberal Democrats entered government after a strong 2010, Theresa May’s snap election in 2017 was a two-horse race. 

Ukip’s collapse after the departure of Nigel Farage allowed Labour and the Conservatives to hoover up a combined 87% of the vote in England in 2017, taking all but 10 of the 523 English seats on offer. 

The Conservatives won 296 seats to Labour’s 227. 

In Wales, Labour won 28 of the 40 seats after a huge surge in its support that saw it win a mighty 70% of the vote. 

Welsh independence party Plaid Cymru won four seats, half of the Conservatives eight.   

Two, three, four party system?

If it’s a case of the major parties being brought back down to earth, it remains to be seen what sort of a landing they’ll get. 

Farage is back and he’s at the helm of the slicker and more disciplined Brexit Party, targeting seats where the two major parties could be weak. 

The Tories had hoped that Brexit would be a reality by the time that UK voted again, stymying the appeal of the Farage’s shiny new vehicle, but this has not happened. 

It means that  Farage has been attempting to talk up the idea of a Leave alliance. Even drafting in US President Donald Trump to try and get it off the ground. 

britain-brexit-election Alberto Pezzali / PA Images Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage. Alberto Pezzali / PA Images / PA Images

But it’s not just Johnson that Farage could prove troublesome for.

The Brexit Party stealing votes from otherwise Labour-leaning voters in Leave voting constituencies might scupper Jeremy Corbyn’s chances of winning the marginal seats he needs to form a government. 

Labour faces the prospect of bleeding votes on two fronts, with the Liberal Democrats aggressively targeting Labour Remain voters with its vociferously anti-Brexit message and a promise to revoke Article 50. 

The Lib Dems have also been stealing Tory MPs and bringing them under the own banner (five at the latest count this year by Sky News), demonstrating how the dominance of both parties of both parties has been eroded. 

Labour activists have been bleating about a LibDem message which argues that it’s a smarter tactical vote to vote for them in some constituencies.

But how much all this plays out on election night is the real question.

Put up or shut up

portraits-of-oct-2019 PA Images UK Prime MInister Boris Johnson. PA Images

Johnson was comfortably elected as Conservative leader in July on a “do or die” platform of delivering Brexit.

For many of those who voted for him though, the real reason for putting him in charge was the belief that he could be a populist vote-getter come election time. 

Johnson himself seemed be in campaign mode from the start too, promising new rail links in northern England and Scotland within days of taking over

Now that the election has come (at the fourth time of asking) there is huge pressure on him to deliver the decisive victory Theresa May could not. Should he fail to do so his future would already be brought into question.  

Ditto for Corbyn, but for different reasons.

Including nationwide local elections, the last general election and the recent European elections, Corbyn will be fighting his fifth election as Labour leader 

The previous general election didn’t bring the party into government but was seen as a qualified success after Labour increased its vote share and won more seats. 

It was built on the back of Corbyn’s campaigning and the subsequent Corbynmania united a fractured party for a period. 

The problem now is that all that seems like a distant memory and questions lurk about whether that performance represents a high watermark for what Corbyn can achieve with Labour.  

A failure for him to become prime minister this time would likely mean his final chance had come and gone. 

Northern Ireland

All eyes on the DUP

dup-conference-2019 Michael Cooper / PA Images Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster at the DUP conference last week. Michael Cooper / PA Images / PA Images

After a tumultuous Assembly election in March 2017, in which Sinn Féin made major gains, all eyes were on Arlene Foster to prove that the Democratic Unionist Party was still capable of remaining as the most powerful electoral force when Theresa May announced a general election in June. 

The result of that election left the DUP shaping the direction of British politics. And while the party is still smarting from Johnson’s decision to ignore the party’s concerns over his Brexit deal, the DUP still retains key influence in deciding which bills and motions survive their journey through a divided House of Commons. 

For that reason, expect more attention on the complex, contentious politics of Northern Ireland than ever before as the DUP faces a nearly unprecedented challenge in holding all of its 10 MPs. 

Current make-up of the parties

The DUP has 10 MPs, Sinn Féin has seven – though they don’t take their seats in the House of Commons. Both the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists had historically bad nights in 2017, ending up with no representation at Westminster. The only other MP from Northern Ireland is Independent unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon, who has spent recent days berating Johnson’s deal in parliament. 

What to look out for

Belfast South: A key battleground, it was won in 2017 by the DUP in a surprise victory for Emma Little Pengelly and represented a major defeat for the SDLP. This time around, the SDLP candidate Claire Hanna will be hoping to wrench the seat back with a passionate anti-Brexit message, while the Alliance Party – which has enjoyed a remarkable few months after success at the European elections – will also have hopes of making a strong showing in the constituency. 

Belfast North: DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds faced a serious challenge from Sinn Féin at the last election, defeating John Finucane by only 2,000 votes – a victory aided by the Ulster Unionist Party standing aside in the constituency. This time, things could be different. The incoming Ulster Unionist Party leader Steve Aiken has said that that arrangement won’t happen again, creating a very difficult path to re-election for Dodds. It’s a move that triggered serious criticism in the unionist community, with growing pressure on Aiken to row back – so the odds may yet end up being back in Dodds’ favour. 

Alliance momentum: The Alliance Party has had a run of good form, with leader Naomi Long winning the third seat in the European Parliament election and strong returns from the local elections in May. But these successes may be cut short by a first–past-the-post electoral system, which makes it difficult for smaller parties to make inroads. Even if the party doesn’t win any seats, however, watch out for how many votes it gets – if it enjoys something of a minor surge it could be a good indication of a changing electoral landscape in the North. 

SDLP and UUP: Both parties will need to make gains to allay doubts about their long-term viability after a series of poor election results. The SDLP stands a good chance in Belfast South, but even then the pressure is on leader Colum Eastwood to deliver a good night for the party.

Rónán Duffy, Gráinne Ní Aodha and Dominic McGrath
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