Last weekend, Insider enjoyed various documentaries and interviews commemorating the 20th anniversary of one of the most extraordinary nights in political history - Labour’s landslide win in the 1997 UK general election. Now, two decades on, as the UK electorate goes to the polls again Insider sees some interesting parallels with 1997.
The three most striking parallels are that, once more, a landslide result appears to be on the cards; secondly, the impact the vexed issue of European integration continues to exert on British politics; and thirdly, a sense that this is an election which will have a significant effect on Ireland.
While the Labour Party enjoyed a landslide win in 1997, polls this time around indicate that they are set to be on the receiving end of one – more on that later but, for the time being Insider will cite that old adage that the electorate will not vote for a divided party. Back in 1997, of course, the cause of Tory divisions was that old chestnut – Europe.
The early to mid-1990s saw the Tories being torn apart by the issue of Europe, with backbench revolt over the Maastricht Treaty, followed by a never-ending debate over the new single currency, and a growing sense that Britain was not getting a ‘fair deal’ in Europe. Yet, back then, the idea that the UK would leave the EU was regarded, even inside the Tory Party as an eccentric view held by a small minority. By the turn of the millennium, opinion polls suggested only 18 per cent of the British public wanted a Brexit.
Fast forward to 2017 and Brexit is now a reality; yet, despite a clear majority of Tory MPs campaigning (however reluctantly ) to remain in the EU during last year’s referendum campaign, the issue, far from dividing the party seems set to benefit it.
The Irish Question
In light of the close ties between the countries, a UK election will always be watched closely by political players on this side of the Irish Sea, as they look to pick up some tips and tricks from their British counterparts, and try to identify trends that they feel may be relevant to Irish politics. On some occasions though, the Irish feel they will be impacted more directly by the outcome.
In 1997, one side effect of the divisions over Europe was that a Tory Party with a small majority was reliant on the votes of Ulster Unionist MPs, which somewhat stalled the nascent Northern Ireland Peace Process. Problems are nowhere near as acute in Northern Ireland now but there would still be a general feeling that it would be desirable for the UK government not to be reliant on DUP votes.
The big concern on this occasion however, is the impact the election, and its outcome, will have on the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. Indeed, the theme of Brexit dominates the backdrop to the contest.
In Northern Ireland, in addition to the traditional headcount between Nationalists and Unionists, and the internal battles within each faction, there will now be a focus on the breakdown of Pro and Anti-Brexit MPs returned. This is likely to be a tight contest, perhaps likely to finish 9-9 with seats such as East Belfast, South Belfast, and Fermanagh/South Tyrone proving key.
The Brexit Factor
In calling the election, British Prime Minister Theresa ('strong and stable leadership' ) May cited the need to get a strong mandate for the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. Insider is struck by how little dissent there has been from the Opposition to this; it means the election will be fought on grounds of the Tory Party’s choosing. Realistically though, Brexit was always going to be the dominant issue regardless of what May said.
Insider is very concerned about the tone around the Brexit issue. Yes, a big Tory majority should enable May to side-line the hardliners and make compromises that the broad centre of her party (‘reluctant remainers’ and ‘reluctant leavers’ ) can live with. However, there is little in the tone emerging from Downing Street to indicate that this is what they desire; the anti-EU rhetoric will also be ratcheted up in the coming weeks.
What also worries Insider is that the tone from the EU side is equally discouraging, if not more so. The EU is an institution that has taken a pounding on several fronts in recent times – Brexit, the migrant crisis, Putin, Erdogan, Trump, the rise of nationalism in Hungary and Poland – and seems determined to respond to this, not by asking questions of itself but instead by digging its heels in and trying to get one over on Britain.
Perhaps the most sobering sight in recent weeks has been to watch the response from both sides to the French presidential election, in which a candidate whose platform has been likened with fascism will likely receive 40 per cent of the vote next Sunday. The EU have hailed this as a vindication for the pro-EU side as the untested centrist Emmanuel Macron is likely to win; large sections of the British press and even political class on the other hand have sided with Mrs Le Pen on the basis she is hostile to the EU.
She May have a coronation
Opinion polls have got a bad name in recent years but even the most sceptical of observer would have to concede that the trends illustrated by current polls in Britain are pretty clear. In broad terms, they point to a surge in Tory support, calamity for Labour, a moribund Liberal Democrats, and UKIP falling apart.
Much can change in the next five weeks of course – and the Tory campaign launch has been slightly muddled with internal divisions and unclear policy on issues such as tax and pensions - but right now everything seems to be aligning in a way that Tories could only hope for in their wildest dreams - its core vote remaining rock solid; picking up soft Labour voters unimpressed with that party’s direction; Remain voters sticking with them as the best bet to negotiate Brexit terms, while UKIP supporters move over to them en masse; a notable recovery in Scotland as they become the party of choice for pro-Union Scots; and the party set to further improve on recent good results in Wales.
If all of this were to come to fruition, not alone would it result in a thumping majority in the House of Commons, but it would also render the Tories a genuinely national party to an extent not seen for decades. Insider suspects there will be some retreat from the party among non-traditional Tory voters as polling day approaches, but it still promises to be a good night for Theresa May.
Insider has always felt the Tories would be the big winners from the Brexit vote. The outcome gives the party the chance to finally move on from the issue that has most dogged it over the years, and re-unite as a party. It will also enable the centre-right in British politics to focus on other issues as a unified force without having to worry about UKIP or other threats on its right flank.
Labour: averting disaster
For Labour the prognosis is bleak. While there will be a lot of focus on a few flashpoint issues – the leftward swing represented by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader, the ongoing recriminations over the Blair years, the collapse of the party in Scotland, and the muddled response to Brexit – Labour's malaise is a far more complex issue and goes back a long way. Blair and Corbyn are from radically different wings of the party but both are culpable in their own way.
Blair’s three General Election victories are the only ones enjoyed by the party in the last 43 years. British society and its economy has changed radically since the 1970s – the fall of manufacturing and rise of services sector for example – and Labour has struggled to adapt. The party has lost support among both the ‘aspirational voters’ in the south of England and those ‘left behind’ in its traditional heartlands. Insider has also sensed the party being seen as very elitist and detached from the ordinary voter, a theme very topical in global politics of late.
Insider feels the party should focus on shoring up its key vote; if it does so, it can salvage a reasonable number of seats but then needs to take a long look at itself and where it is going.
There is much speculation the Liberal Democrats may benefit from being the only anti-Brexit party; it will be hoping to target both Tory ‘remain’ voters and disillusioned Labour voters. The difficulty is that the bulk of the seats in which it is competitive are currently held by the Tories and most of them voted to leave the EU; for example, the traditional Liberal heartlands in south-west England have long had a strong Eurosceptic streak. Insider suspects the party will recover some vote share and increase seat number, but doubts if it will be any more than a modest recovery.
One possible outcome that has not yet garnered much attention is that if things go badly awry for Theresa May these next five weeks, she may end up relying on Liberal Democrat support after the election. This would be a dream scenario for the ‘Remain’ side. With the lie of the land being as it is, this is the longest of long shots, but, as we have seen countless times recently, even the most surefooted of forecasts now comes with caveats! With so much at stake Insider will be glued to the action for the next five weeks!