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United Kingdom’s snap election: more likely to be a referendum on Brexit

On 12 December, British citizens will once again be heading to the polls for UK parliamentary elections. Yet citizens appear to be more concerned about the major decision of whether to stay or leave the European Union rather than about the fate of national parties. John Curtice, a university Professor and polling guru, draws attention to the advantage of Boris Johnson's Conservatives. However, Labourers, Liberals and the "Brexit party" are bound to be tough competitors. A final warning: “we must not forget that the election campaign is bound to be a violent one”

A deeply divided country, yet determined not to miss the opportunity to vote in the upcoming general election on 12 December. In fact, the Brexit issue has led to the involvement of British citizens in politics as perhaps never before. Until now, UK politics proceeded with no apparent logic: the issue of the withdrawal from the EU brought about the fall of governments, multiple parliamentary rifts, divided public opinion as well as a number of knocks on the door of Brussels, requesting sympathy and postponements. EU27 showed both firmness and understanding towards London. Now the new date for Brexit is set at January 31 … unless the UK  reconsiders or expedites its decisions. Meanwhile, Westminster has decided to hold early elections.
The latest polling suggest that Premier Boris Johnson’s Conservatives are taking the lead in the UK, with a seven to fifteen point lead over Labour. However, questioning pollsters reliability is legitimate, given the mistakes of the past. John Curtice, Professor of Political Science at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, a veritable polling guru, commenting for the BBC and other news media at every new round of elections, is convinced, however, that these projections are nonetheless dependable.

Professor, is it possible to trust opinion polls that proved to be wrong in 2015, when they failed to predict David Cameron’s victory, and on the eve of the referendum of 23 June 2016, when the United Kingdom decided to leave the EU? Errors were also detected in the last elections…
It’ important to be able to distinguish. The picture is more complex than one might imagine and we must realize that projections are not 100% accurate and that not all electoral projections reach the same conclusion. Indeed, in 2015 there was talk of a “suspended parliament”, with no majority for either party, while Cameron subsequently triumphed. However, in the 2016 referendum most pollsters showed a lead for the Leave vote, while ultimately a slight advantage of Remainers misled four pollsters out of six. Undoubtedly in 2017 most opinion polls were wrong, but there was one important reason: they were trying to bypass the problem they faced in 2015, when they had ignored the fact that at the last minute many young Labour voters decided not to vote. A “Survation” poll, however, had nailed the right outcome.

And what about the upcoming election?
Once again, not all projections give the same result, even in the presence of a clear structure. Most surveys give Conservatives an advantage of between seven to fifteen points because the Tories have successfully established themselves among the EU’s “leavers”. In fact, they won 60% of those votes, thereby marginalizing the “Brexit party”, their most direct opponent. All polling companies also agree that the “Remain” vote, i.e. those who want to stay in Europe, is divided between Labour and Liberal Democrats. The country as a whole, however, is split in half, as it had happened in the 2016 referendum, between pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit voters. For Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn the real battle for the final vote will be against Liberal Democrat Jo Swinson, and not against Prime Minister Boris Johnson, while for the latter, the real rival is Nigel Farage, of the Brexit Party. Things will change if Corbyn succeeds in taking more votes from the Lib Dems.

Will there be a majority on the morning of 13 December, or will the Country be facing a “hanging” or ” suspended ” parliament, with neither of the two main parties prevailing?
Right now, outgoing Conservative Premier Boris Johnson has a clear lead in UK election polls. Should he have a consolidated majority in parliament, we will leave the EU on 31 January 2020. The Labour Party is so far behind in the polls and so weakened in Scotland that it seems impossible for it to gain the 326 seats needed to have a parliamentary majority. However, a minority government is possible, namely an alliance of Labour, Scottish nationalists, Welsh nationalists and Greens, as all these groups want a second referendum.

What kind of elections do you expect?
The country is deeply divided, but also involved, in a very strong way, by the Brexit issue. For the first time since the 1960s, politics has attracted citizens to the polls and the turnout is expected to be high. Suffice it to say that we feel four times more committed to staying or leaving the EU than to voting for a given political party. Nevertheless, a common ground is hard to find. The political apathy that existed a few years ago, when citizens had stopped casting their votes, has now gone. But we see a strong polarisation. Moreover, we should remember that this is bound to be a violent election campaign. Some parliamentarians have decided not to run because they are afraid of  personal attacks, including via social media. The police have adopted special security measures such as alert devices, which candidates must wear, and some candidates have decided not to campaign near houses after sunset, as they don’t feel safe.

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