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Great Uncertainties in UK Election Polls Suggest Fight Against Brexit Isn’t Over

A surge in young people registering to vote in the last week could heavily influence the election.

Anti-Brexit demonstrators gather outside the houses of Parliament on November 5, 2019, in London, England.

With barely one week to go until the U.K. votes in its general election, opinion polls show Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives out in front. But most of them also show that the race has tightened somewhat in the past couple of weeks. Increasingly, what once looked likely to be a multiparty free-for-all is reverting to the historic norm: a two-way fight between Conservatives and Labour for most voters’ loyalties.

Yet, even within those confines, the polls are predicting wildly varying results: The polling firm YouGov, which correctly modeled the results of the 2017 general election, is currently estimating a Conservative majority of 68 seats in the next Parliament. If that transpired, it would make it a virtual certainty that Britain would leave the EU in January.

But a poll for the Independent newspaper suggested a much smaller Tory lead, with the likelihood of a hung Parliament, meaning that no single party would command a majority after the election, and the main parties would set off on a scramble for coalition partners, presumably with two rival camps coalescing around support for and opposition to Brexit.

A number of other polls in the past few days have also suggested that the Labour Party might have succeeded in somewhat cutting into Johnson’s sizeable early lead. There are several wildcards that might well work to Labour’s advantage.

The first of these is Donald Trump’s travels to London this week. The visit, designed to mark the 70th anniversary of NATO, has focused the public’s attention on Trump’s repeated words in favor of the British prime minister. In a country where the vast majority of voters dislike Trump and his worldview, such an endorsement has long been regarded as a poisoned chalice. Indeed, aware of his vulnerability on this issue, Johnson has pleaded with Trump not to get involved in the U.K. election and not to reiterate his support for the hardline Conservative leader. Johnson seems to fear it will be the December surprise that could drive voters to vote against the Conservatives. In addition to U.K. voters largely disliking Trump, polls make it clear the U.K. voters are nervous about the future of the National Health System (NHS) — the system established after World War II that has provided free health care to four generations of British residents — if it were to be opened up to predatory post-Brexit trade deals with the U.S.

For months now, polls have shown that the two most important issues on British voters’ minds are Brexit and the National Health System — that is, whether or not to exit the European Union, and how to preserve and expand funding for and services provided by the treasured health system. When the two end up conflated, as they are when Labour focuses the public’s attention on Trump and the possibility of his imposing an exploitative trade deal on the U.K. that includes opening up the health system to U.S. companies, that can only hurt the Tories.

The second wildcard in this election season, however, is that there was a huge surge in young people registering to vote in the last week they could do so: 3 million registered after the general election was called, with over 600,000 voters joining the electoral rolls on the last day of voter registration alone. Since opinion polls are predicated on having working models of who usually votes, an abnormally high, even historically unprecedented, participation rate by this demographic may well not be fully captured in most samplings of the electorate’s mood.

Two-thirds of these new voters are under the age of 34. And young voters tend to be more pro-EU, tend to care more about environmental issues, and tend to be more supportive of immigration and of the multicultural society than is the population as a whole.

The third wildcard is the drama surrounding tactical voting, whereby people vote at a constituency level not for the party of their first choice, but for the party they think is most likely, based on polling data, to defeat the party they most dislike. True, the Conservative party seems to be polling in the high thirties or low forties, but it only has one on-the-ground ally when it comes to tactical voting: Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which is polling at three or four percent in tracking polls. By contrast, if the Labour Party, Liberal-Democrats, Greens and SNP were to manage to temporarily put aside their differences in the last week of the campaigning and urge coordinated tactical voting, their combined vote, which by a sizeable margin tops 50 percent nationally, could prove surprisingly effective in individual constituencies.

Given how many people view this election largely as a referendum on Brexit, that’s not beyond the bounds of the possible. Indeed, local tactical voting campaigns have already put a number of top Conservatives at risk of losing their seats. The arch-Brexiteer Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is seen as particularly likely to fall to effective on-the-ground tactical voting. And, astoundingly, even Boris Johnson’s seat is seen as somewhat vulnerable to a sophisticated tactical vote against him on December 12. If Johnson were to lose his seat while his party retained a governing majority, Conservative officials would have to scramble to convince a backbencher in a safe seat to resign from the House of Commons, so that Johnson could stand in a special election and try to re-enter Parliament a few weeks later. Whether he could function as a prime minister in the interim would certainly be up for debate.

The politics professor and commentator Matthew Goodwin has argued that the U.K. election is actually much closer than many of the polls are showing. He thinks it likely the race will continue to tighten in its final days, and that there is at least the possibility of a hung parliament.

There’s no doubting that Boris Johnson personally is far more popular among British voters than is Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn. But there’s also very little doubt that more voters now want to remain in the EU than to leave the organization. The question, as the final week of campaigning gets underway, is whether pro-Remain voters will put aside their dislike of Corbyn as an individual and vote tactically for the parties most likely, on a constituency by constituency basis, to beat Conservative, pro-Brexit candidates. If they do, they could, conceivably, still produce a rabbit out of a hat, generating a parliamentary majority in favor of a second referendum on whether or not to adopt Johnson’s Brexit deal and leave the EU next year. If they don’t, Britain will break from the EU in a way that will have consequences for the country’s well-being and its place in the world for decades to come.

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