If there is truth in Harold Wilson’s adage that a week is a long time in politics, then two and a half years seems to be long enough to induce amnesia.
To call a general election in June 2017 proved to be a disastrous decision by Prime Minister Theresa May. The parliamentary majority won by David Cameron was lost through a decision based on opinion polls. What May failed to realise is that pollsters had been unable to access a representative cross-section of younger voters because younger voters do not engage with the media or forums inhabited by pollsters. The prediction of a landslide victory for the Conservatives proved completely wrong as the Labour Party gained over 40% of the vote, in defiance of every opinion poll.
Boris Johnson did not need to press for a general election. The withdrawal agreement he had negotiated was approved by 329 votes to 299 in the House of Commons. However, he became cornered by his own rhetoric and withdrew his bill when he could not secure its passage according to a timetable he had dictated.
When the opposition Labour Party withdrew its objections to a general election on 12th December, a more subtle premier might have wondered at what had caused a change in their thinking. A simple Commons majority was going to be enough to allow the election, and with the Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party supporting the election, that majority was going to be achieved, but what caused the Labour leadership to become sanguine in their attitude?
The Labour Party is considerably stronger than the Conservative Party; with half a million members as opposed to the one hundred and fifty thousand people who belong to the Tory Party, it is three times as strong. More significantly, it has a much younger membership profile and a powerful grass-roots movement in the forty-thousand strong radical Momentum group.
The 2017 general election revealed that the Labour vote was much higher among younger voters: voters who neither watch television nor read newspapers; voters who are indifferent to opinion polls because no-one ever asks them how they think; voters who are reached through social media and peer groups.
A subtle prime minister would have pondered the wisdom of an election when his party is weak and elderly and when it is ill-equipped to reach the cohorts of the electorate among which it was heavily defeated in 2017. A subtle prime minister would have asked who was more likely to go out on a cold and dark December day, old age pensioners, or young people for whom 12th December is in the Christmas party season?
Seumas Milne, the director of strategy at the Labour Party, must be gleeful at the approaching poll. The 2017 election was a major success for him; if he achieves a similar success in 2019, when even the Conservative press are expressing doubts over Boris Johnson’s chances, then the prime minister will have fallen into a mantrap entirely of his own making.