9th August 2023
Election campaigning can be gruelling work for the people involved, whether they be the canvassers, party officers, election agents, candidates and of course the people who man the polling stations on the day of the vote. Northern Ireland has had a regular schedule of elections over the past number of years amid continuing deadlock and division between the politicians at Stormont – voter fatigue and the apparent lack of optimism lingers in the atmosphere during election contests.
As Rishi Sunak and the Conservatives head into 2024, the talk of a possible May/June general election becomes louder. How can a party in government for 14 years and on their 5th Prime Minister build a successful campaign? There are a number of factors in determining the difficulties facing the Tories’ 2024 campaign:
- How big is the sentiment the public has for a ‘need for change?’
- Has “Partygate,” the “Truss Premiership,” and COVID-19 ended the Conservatives’ chances of victory before the election has even been called?
- Have the major opposition parties (Labour and Liberal Democrats) presented a credible, alternative government to the Conservative Party?
So what should we look out for in the weeks and months before campaigning begins in earnest?
- Who will win the Rutherglen and Hamilton West By-election?
The by-election in the eastern suburb of Glasgow is a key indictor as to whether Labour and Keir Starmer have the capacity to win a majority in the House of Commons. The 2019 election dealt Labour a huge blow which resulted in only 203 Labour candidates being returned to Parliament, a mere 123 seats below the 326 needed for an overall majority. In Scotland, only 1 MP was elected for Labour in Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) where in 2010, Labour won 41 of the 59 seats available.
Labour’s failure to win over the support of Scottish voters in wake of the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014 has limited its chances of winning a majority in its own right. The Scottish National Party has been the largest Westminster party in Scotland since 2015 – the recent scandals within the party and Nicola Sturgeon’s sudden resignation as First Minister of Scotland has proved harmful to the party’s poll numbers – Labour are now averaging 32% to the SNP’s 35%, enough to suggest that the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election is well within the reach of the Labour Party.
The SNP are aiming to hold the vacant seat by focusing on Keir Starmer’s support to continue the ‘two-child benefit cap’ in England. Labour has a tough task in this race – do they campaign against the SNP and its record in the Scottish Government or do they attack their Westminster opponents in the Conservative Party? This decision may decide the outcome of the election.
- Will London buck the trend in the rest of the UK?
The recent by-election in Uxbridge and South Ruislip gave the Conservatives and Rishi Sunak a small glimmer of hope in their electoral prospects. Labour failed to capture 496 more votes to overcome the Tory candidate, Steve Tuckwell with the ULEZ expansion by Sadiq Kahn being criticized as the main reason why the Tories defeated Labour. This has resulted in changes on climate policy from the Prime Minister who has granted new licences for gas and oil exploration.
This might mean like in the 2019 election, London could see a swing in the opposite direction to the rest of the country which could see the loss of a handful of Labour incumbents. Could the potential loss of some of these seats deny Labour a majority in the next election? If so, the Conservatives’ fears of oblivion at the polls could be ended and Labour’s chances of power become much slimer.
- How will the Liberal Democrats perform?
In the days of a strong third party presence for the Lib Dems, the Conservatives found it almost impossible to win the seats in the West Country of England to add to their grand tally of Westminster MPs. Ed Davey will look to hit the incumbent government hard after ‘Partygate,’ the ‘Truss premiership,’ and the general apathy with fourteen years of Tory rule. By-election victories in Tory strongholds of Chesham and Amersham, North Shropshire, Tiverton and Honiton, Somerton and Frome have raised Lib Dem hopes and optimism.
The Liberal Democrats could compound Tory woes much further if they win safe Tory constituencies which Labour has little hope of winning – tactical voting will be a huge factor in determining the Lib Dem tally post-election. Recent by-elections have shown that they can win in seats where the Conservatives have five figure majorities, but will that transpire into a general election is still unanswered.
- How will Northern Ireland vote in the general election?
We may not realise it, but Northern Ireland’s 18 seats are really important in the next general election because of two important reasons…
- The number of abstentionist Sinn Fein MPs elected reduces the tally of seats needed for a majority – in 2017, seven Sinn Fein MPs meant Theresa May only needed 319 MPs to hold on to power.
- In the event of a hung parliament or small majority government, the Northern Ireland MPs are the most likely to hold the balance of power – the DUP have supported the Conservatives in a hung parliament before and the number of pro-Labour MPs elected here could ensure a comfortable anti-Conservative majority in the House of Commons.
Of the 18 seats in Northern Ireland, there are some seats with the highest percentage share of the vote across the UK – Belfast South (57.2% for SDLP), Foyle (57% for SDLP) and Belfast West (53.8%). Meanwhile, others are among the most marginal seats with Fermanagh-South Tyrone (57 votes), South Down (1620 votes) and Belfast East (1819 votes). The makeup of the Northern Ireland benches may prove to be a crucial pro-Labour or pro-Conservative majority and pro-representation and pro-abstentionism majority.
The 2024 election has not yet even been set, but the excitement and build-up is getting nervously tense. With our first-hand experience and contacts in local government, central government and government officials, the MCE team can provide you with unparalleled insight. For more information on how we can help you, get in touch.
By Edward Ferrin.