As I put my fingers to the keyboard on a Eurostar bound for Brussels, ultimately en route to Strasbourg to vote for or against approving the latest regeneration of the European Commission, I spied a Tweet reminding me that on Saturday in 1963 the First Doctor Who was broadcast.
I can still recall the episode vividly on my parents’ small black and white television set, the same one I had watched Kennedy’s funeral, home internationals and Noggin the Nog. It led me to consider just how quickly time passes, and indeed how it appears to pass more quickly as one travels through the years.
It also took me down memory lane of the 1964 and 1966 general elections (less clear than my recollections of childrens’ television series, they have merged into one event!) I mention all of this because I urge readers to not believe anything is as presented in a general election by the leading political parties – or the media, who often have an agenda to push or have bought into some utterly ridiculous spin on why things seem as they do. Thankfully The Scotsman has eschewed taking an editorial line on which party to support in preference to seeking out the truth. No, what appears political reality is often a mirage, a poor reflection of what is actually happening; a false paradigm that a Timelord might discover bears no relation to what is in the history books.
This is where we are in this general election. We have esteemed experts, partisan politicians and bookmakers on the make all trying to tell us what is likely to happen – and the truth is they really do not know. How many of them would take a £100 punt on what they tell us is the likely outcome? They can look at national polling, even regional polling; they can play around with Electoral calculus.com which changes the colour of constituency maps as often as a Chameleon; and they can attend focus groups to consider what biscuit each leader might be in the minds of the electorate. (I kid you not, one group was asked this question and reported Corbyn would be Hard Tack, Farage is a Garibaldi, and Boris a Rich Tea – one dunk and he’s gone!) Yet they still cannot say what will happen.
The reality I work under is that while there are national moods and regional swings there are also localised variations, and when with less than three weeks still to go a general election is as close as this one could be, it is in a small number of seats where the outcome will be decided.
Last week I met an old friend, the former MEP Tim Aker who was a UKIP general election candidate in his local constituency of Thurrock in 2015 and 2017. Tim swears that it is only because of the strong campaigning by UKIP in Thurrock that the Conservatives defeated Labour on both those occasions. The reasoning is simple but compelling, the electoral division of Thurrock is strongly eurosceptic and all the more so in Labour wards. Tim polled especially well in Labour heartlands such as Tilbury, so well that Labour lost enough votes in a three-way fight with the Tories for the Conservative Jackie Doyle-Price to hold the seat with a narrow majority.
It is what we might call the Thurrock Effect, for it is not limited to Tim Aker’s personal intervention but is repeated in a crucial minority of constituencies across the land. The Thurrock Factor is where the intervention of a third-placed challenger such as UKIP, or in today’s case the Brexit Party, takes so many votes from the Labour candidate that the Conservatives win when the expectation is they will lose.
As I wrote last week, Boris Johnson should win, but it is his to lose and Theresa May has shown how easily the Tories can fumble the ball. Thus In a time when the outcome is anything but clear constituencies, where the Thurrock effect might transpire could be the difference between a Johnson and Corbyn government. Seats such as Greater Grimsby are suddenly looking like good prospects for the Conservatives. In this Labour seat polling tells us that the Tory support has remained steady while Labour’s has declined by 18% with the intervention of the Brexit Party taking some 17% of the vote. This is a classic example of the Thurrock Effect.
Other seats could experience the same phenomenon – or at least come close to scaring the bejeesus out of sitting Labour MPs. Everyone in Bishop Auckland, even Labour voters, tell me the incumbent Helen Goodman is unpopular. The Brexit Party has a good candidate in Nick Brown who should do well and could provide an upset, but if he doesn’t then the Tory Dehenna Davison could benefit from his campaigning winning over Labour voters, leaving her to seize the day. Other English seats such as Keighley, Rother Valley, Dewsbury and Wakefield fit this format. The common factor is these are all northern seats, where the Brexit Party could win a handful of Labour fiefdoms – or make it possible for the Tories to benefit from their hard work.
So much for the Brexit Party splitting the leave vote and letting Jeremy Corbyn in – but don’t expect Boris Johnson to thank Nigel Farage for standing candidates in such marginals. Only a fortnight ago Johnson’s lieutenants were demanding Farage stand more of his candidates down.
In Scotland the existence of the independence question changes everything. With the SNP decimating Labour in 2015 and Corbyn’s party only coming third after the Tories in 2017 the debate about Brexit has less resonance than in England and Wales – but it still matters. With Brexit Party candidates withdrawing from all Tory held seats the latest polling suggests the Conservatives are doing well in Scotland while Labour could lose all but Edinburgh South. I will go further and suggest there will be a perverse McThurrock Effect – where Labour voters who cannot stomach Corbyn hold their noses and vote Conservative as the most attractive unionist party, ironically helping the SNP to retain those marginal seats.
This would be important, for seven of Labour’s top twenty target constituencies in the UK are held by the SNP. You don’t need to be a time traveller to work out Corbyn winning the general election will only exist in some parallel universe.
Brian Monteith MEP is Chief Whip of the Brexit Party in the European Parliament