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Britain gears up for the election

Samira Shackle London
June 6, 2017

Two days days before the UK general election, pollsters are still predicting a comfortable win for the Conservatives. However, Labour has managed to close the gap. Samira Shackle reports from London.

Kombi-Bild Jeremy Corbyn Theresa May TV-Debatte

Britain is gearing up to go to the polls on June 8 after an extraordinary election campaign. It is one that has been, all too often, overshadowed by tragedy, with major terror attacks in London and Manchester over the last month.

Campaigning was suspended on Monday, in the wake of the weekend's terror attack on London Bridge. But the ostensible suspension of campaigning did not stop Labour and the Conservatives from trading barbs. Labour criticized Theresa May's record of cutting funding for the police, while the Conservatives said that Labour would not be strong on terror.

Read more: The battle for Britain heats up

"Inevitably there will be increased discussion of security, with Labour focusing on Conservative cuts to police numbers and the Conservatives asking whether Labour is tough enough on counter-terrorism," said Tom Follett, policy and projects manager at the think tank ResPublica. "However, other domestic issues have played a significant role in this election and voters know by now that life goes on after terror attacks."

Two party politics

May and Corbyn face voters during 'question time'

The 2017 general election campaign has seen a return to two party politics, with support for smaller parties collapsing, and Labour and the Conservatives offering distinctly different manifestos. "For the first time in my adult life, it feels like there is a real choice on offer, rather than the usual race to the center-ground," said London resident Alex Jenkins.

When May called the election, it seemed that a Conservative landslide was a near-certainty. Labour trailed the Conservatives by an average of 22 points in opinion polls; now, the gap is closer to three.

"The narrowing of the gap seems to be driven by supporters of other parties coalescing around Corbyn, and by very high support among young people," said Follett. "Corbyn faces two problems: Young people historically have low turnout rates on election day, and in any case the youth vote and students are concentrated in urban areas which tend to support Labour anyway, and the UK's voting system means these additional votes won't count for anything."

Read more: UK's Labour shedding traditional voters

In recent years, polls have been notoriously unreliable, so it is difficult to make predictions about what will happen on Thursday. "The extent of the collapse in Labour's vote share was probably always over-estimated, as many of their MPs remain popular at a local level, and there are still huge emotional barriers for some people to voting Conservative - despite how much they may dislike the Labour leader," said Sophie Gaston, head of international projects at Demos.

Großbritannien Kampf um Wahlkreise in London
Labour has managed to narrow the gap to the Conservatives with young people rallying around CorbynImage: DW/S. Shackle

Brexit blues

The election was called in the aftermath of a seismic constitutional event - Britain's vote to exit the European Union. "This was meant to be an election about Brexit but has largely been fought on leadership," says Gaston. "Some issues of domestic policy, such as social care, have been in the spotlight, but the big stories have more been about how well or poorly May and Corbyn have handled these issues tactically rather than debates around the policies themselves."

Read more: Theresa May's cult of personality

Most pollsters still give the Tories a clear lead, and the general prediction is a Conservative victory - but it appears that this might not be quite the landslide that was originally expected. "This was an election that most people didn't want. We've had a general election in 2015 and the referendum last year. We're exhausted and I wonder whether all politicians will be punished for that at the ballot box," said Brighton resident Zoe Evans.

Großbritannien Wahlkampf Theresa May
Anything short of a large majority could damage May's position going into the Brexit negotiationsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/PA Wire/A. Devlin

Given that May went into the election explicitly stating that the Conservatives needed a bigger mandate to strengthen her hand in Brexit negotiations, it could be damaging if she doesn't increase the party's parliamentary majority. "The prime minister went against her instincts to call this election, and her mandate within her own party will be threatened by a performance that doesn't seem to justify the risk," Gaston said.

Whatever happens on Thursday, the election campaign has not gone well for May, who has damaged her reputation with a series of gaffes and U-turns. "May has already been damaged by the campaign, which has undermined her reputation as a 'safe pair of hands,'" said Follett. "Most PMs benefit from a 'honeymoon period' that sees high personal ratings - hers has been foreshortened by the exposure of the election."

Read more: May criticized for avoiding debates