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Craig Wilson analyses the 2019 general election campaign - and looks at what it might mean for the third sector

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21st November 2019 by TFN Guest 0 Comments

Once more unto the ballot box, dear friends. Once more!

Voting has become a national pastime in Scotland. Since May 2010, we have gone to the polls 12 times. And, to keep things interesting, I’m not going to remind you of each and every vote. Consider it my pub quiz-question gift to you.

With a completely Brexit-deadlocked parliament, MPs have – after much argy-bargy and brinksmanship – decided that only a general election, new parliamentary arithmetic and a fresh crop of MPs will allow the country to find a way forward. Quite what that way forward is will very much depend on the outcome.

Of course, even getting to the stage of agreeing an election was hard work – with each of the parties fretting that now might not be the time for them to return the optimum number of MPs. 

Craig Wilson

Craig Wilson

Voting has become a national pastime in Scotland

Despite purging 21 of his MPs, suffering a string of defeats and nursing net approval ratings of minus three, the prime minister seems in high spirits and feels that he will storm to a majority in this election. Certainly, some opinion polls suggest this optimism is justified. Part of the reason for that is that the official opposition is internally divided, struggling to offer coherence on Brexit and is led by Jeremy Corbyn who has a disapproval rating of minus 55. Many on the Labour benches were reticent to go to the country and only latterly offered their grudging support to the PM’s election call.

For their part, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats feel the wind in their sails and believe their unambiguous pro-remain (and, in the SNP’s case, pro-indy) Brexit message(s) will see voters return to them in droves. It also seems that the SNP and the Lib Dems share the Conservative view that parliament has been immobilised and they fear that simply allowing the clock to tick down heightens the risk of a no deal Brexit. While a huge gamble, they would rather take the fight to the Brexiteers, change the arithmetic in their favour and angle for either a People’s Vote or revocation of Article 50.

Which leads to the question: what kind of election are we going to see? While the SNP will have huge prominence in Scotland and will be viewed as potential king-makers, it will be the two major UK parties who will set the tone for the entire election. The Conservatives are more than likely to bang the Let’s Get Brexit Done drum – attempting to head Nigel Farage off at the pass and cementing their position as the real party of Brexit.

Labour, who are (perhaps unbelievably) more split on Europe and who have been unable to offer clarity and consistency on the Brexit question, will attempt to shift debate on to more comfortable territory: public services, the NHS, wages and workers rights. They will (rightly) make the case that this is a general election – establishing the government for the next five years – and not a proxy second referendum.

Setting the tone and the terms for this entire campaign will be a gruelling tug of war.

Expect yet another hung parliament – resulting in endless wrangling and a monumental blockage in the parliamentary plumbing that even Dyno (Black) Rod can’t clear

From the sector’s point of view, the timetabling of this election poses a few problems. Firstly, we all have to be mindful of the (frankly ridiculous) UK Lobbying Act which can cover voluntary sector campaigning. In short, if, since 13 December 2018, your organisation has spent more than £10,000 on campaigning which could “be seen as reasonably intended to influence voters to vote for or against a political party”, then you will have to register this with the Electoral Commission.

The reality is that very few charities campaign in such an overt manner as to be covered by these rules.

Secondly, the short campaigning window and the frenetic nature of the election means that the sector will be unable to influence manifestos, candidates and public opinion in the usual way. Of course, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. After all, it would be strange if our sector chose to stay quiet during an election which will determine Scotland and Britain’s place in the world, our relationship with Europe, approaches to public service delivery, trade, the NHS, human rights, climate action, social care, the overall health of the economy and levels of public spending.

However, being realistic about potential impact and success is always sensible. With so many organisations struggling with limited time and resources, it might be best to keep your powder dry with a view to more forcefully pushing for change when the dust has settled.

So, the big question is: who will emerge triumphant, and what happens next? Anyone offering certainty on that, so early in the campaign, is not to be trusted. That’s not to say we can’t have fun by blindly offering our latest predictions.

As the campaign kicked off (according to Britain Elects) the Conservatives had a fairly chunky lead (36%) over Labour (25%) and the Lib Dems (18%). Of course, converting this to seats in parliament is notoriously difficult. Furthermore, electoral opinion is highly volatile, the campaign is young and a significant number of voters are expressing a willingness to switch allegiances if they think it makes tactical sense. The Brexit Party, in particular, is an unknown quantity and could leach votes from both Labour and Conservatives in key marginals. This really looks like an election where pollsters and pundits could once again end up rather embarrassing themselves with their predictions.

What we do know is what is likely to happen under certain outcomes. Under a Tory majority, expect the PM’s deal to re-emerge and be railroaded through Parliament in double quick time. A Labour or Lib Dem majority looks highly unlikely, but a pact between the two parties and (presumably) a large cohort of SNP MPs could see a Remain Alliance turn the Brexit debate on its head. Under this scenario, expect a half-hearted attempt to deliver diet-Brexit closely followed by a second referendum (both on Europe and Scottish independence). Alternatively, expect yet another hung parliament – resulting in endless wrangling, heightened tempers and a monumental blockage in the parliamentary plumbing that even Dyno (Black) Rod can’t clear.

As for insight in to the day-to-day governance of the country, we should probably expect more heat than light. This is likely to be an election of soundbites, Brexit bluster and spending promises that are subjected to even less costing and scrutiny than normal.

To end on a positive note, by 12 December I confidently predict we’ll all be relaxed, productive, suntanned, debt-free, organised, full of festive cheer and feeling nothing but goodwill to all men. Well, you did come here for a polling day forecast, didn’t you? This one is likely to be as accurate as the rest.

Craig Wilson is parliamentary officer at the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.