Over the past year there has been more than enough political chaos to call public trust in the system into question. We’ve seen a Prime Minister who repeatedly ruled out a snap General Election insist that an early General Election is now urgently necessary to ‘remove the risk of uncertainty and instability’; pollsters’ inability to accurately predict the outcome of any of the major political events, resulting in shock at both the Brexit vote and election of US President Donald Trump; the prospect of another ‘once in a lifetime’ Scottish Independence referendum on the horizon; and that’s all before we even consider the impact of the rise in so-called ‘fake news’.
As the fundamental question in any General Election is one of trust – who do the public trust more on leadership and matters of the economy, for instance – the upcoming General Election forces us to consider some significant trust issues.
Trust in the candidates
When Theresa May called for the June General Election, she said, “I trust the British public. I’m asking them to put their trust in me”. In PMQs the next day, Jeremy Corbyn attacked the Prime Minister over her insistence that there would be no early General Election, asking “how can any voter trust what the Prime Minister says?”
For Corbyn, winning voters’ trust will be the major challenge of the campaign. According to the latest Ipsos MORI Political Monitor, May is seen as more trusted on four of the five most important election issues: Brexit/the EU, the economy, immigration and education (healthcare is a notable exception). A so-called ‘May effect’ has even been used to describe the fact that the Prime Minister is individually trusted significantly more than her party on a number of areas, including housing, pensions, inequality, crime and healthcare.
Over the past few days, there has been more and more evidence to suggest that this polling could be informing Conservative strategist Lynton Crosby’s decision to frame the General Election campaign like a US presidential campaign, where the individual, rather than the party, is at the heart.
In the first few weeks on the campaign trail, strategically-placed rally signs are emblazoned with ‘Theresa May: Strong, Stable Leadership’ rather than ‘Conservatives: Strong, Stable Leadership’. Former Tory Communications Director Giles Kenningham has said the party is very clearly trying to frame the debate as the Prime Minister with an established track record vs the Labour leader who can’t even control his own party. Further, according to a leak to Guido Fawkes, Tory candidates received guidance last week to position themselves as Theresa May’s “local Conservative candidates”. The Spectator reported that some candidates are taking this advice so literally that they’re including it on their Twitter pages. Taking it to the next level this week, banners behind a rally in Harrow this morning were branded “Theresa May’s team”.
Trust in the polls
If the pollsters are to be believed the Conservatives can expect a large majority on 8 June – recent voting intention polls have them up by as many as 24 points – but can they be trusted after the failures of the last few years? At the 2015 General Election, all of the final polls pointed to a hung parliament. Last year, almost every poll in the final week before 23 June showed Remain ahead. And across the pond, none of the American pollsters forecasted Donald J Trump entering the White House on 20 January. So, are we forevermore going to have to say ‘take this with a grain of salt’ before discussing latest polling results?
Well, unfortunately, it is hard to say for sure as there will always be reasons to be cautious when reading the polls. First, of course, is the standard health warning that polls usually invoke a ‘margin of error’ of plus or minus three points. The second, however, is that pollsters often struggle with identifying an accurate sample of voters. This was an obvious problem in the 2015 election when Conservative voters were underrepresented and in the EU ref when likely turnout was underestimated. Those things considered, political parties also do their own internal polls, and the Prime Minister will have certainly considered those results before taking the decision to go the country for her own mandate.
All that said, it would be wise to heed the country’s most respected polling expert, John Curtice’s advice on BBC Breakfast last week: “Opinion polls should be taken but not inhaled”.
Trust in the system
Assuming that the polls can be trusted and the voters put their trust in Theresa May on 8 June, is the public’s trust well-placed? That is, how far can we really trust the system?
Party manifestos are expected in the next week or so, and parties will make a number of promises to the public. Labour has already outlined policies in a number of areas, including education, housing, social care, and employment (as well as the now infamous police officers announcement). The Tory manifesto has been kept under pretty tight wraps but pledges on an energy price cap and a commitment to foreign aid have been officially announced. But no matter what the parties pledge to deliver, the parliamentary timetable will be dominated by the need to deliver on Brexit. Since the Government has said the Great Repeal Bill will not be the vehicle for sector-by-sector change, there will need to be a number of additional Bills to ensure the UK is fully prepared for withdrawal and it is estimated that there could be as many as fifteen additional bills necessary. This leaves very little Parliamentary time for non-Brexit related legislation.
While it might have been pressing for Theresa May to be seen to have non-Brexit policy victories when the majority was only 17, with a significantly enhanced majority expected after the election – Theresa May will have an almost entirely free-hand to pursue whatever agenda she’d like until 2021. How much voter opinion will impact her decisions over the next five years is an open question but if she doesn’t find time for anything beyond Brexit, she will eventually face the wrath of voters.