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The not-so-general general election by Daniel Argent

Friday, May 26, 2017

 

The general consensus among politicians and the media is that this general election is about two things: Brexit, and the contrast between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn as potential Prime Ministers. Voters across previously safe Labour seats are considering turning towards the Conservatives because of their dislike of the Labour leader, and their respect for Mrs May both personally and for her determination to get on with the job of Brexit. The only areas where her party is expected to lose seats are those that voted to stay in the EU, where the Liberal Democrats’ anti-Brexit message will appeal.

The problem with this idea, however, is that it ignores the fact that a British general election is in fact 650 different elections. When voters go to the polls, they are choosing a Member of Parliament (MP) to represent their constituency in the House of Commons. However, the party (or coalition of parties) that has a majority of MPs then forms the government which runs the country. Voters therefore have a potential conflict between choosing a local representative, and their preferred Prime Minister or ruling party. This can produce surprising results in some constituencies, which buck the national trend. One constituency that may spring such a surprise in 2017 is my own, Thurrock. 

An unstable seat

For most of its history, Thurrock (in south Essex, just east of London) has been a safe Labour seat. However, in 2010 it was won by the Conservative candidate, Jackie Doyle-Price, with a majority of just 92 votes. Labour were expected to take it back if they had any hope of winning the 2015 general election, and an added complication was the rise of UKIP. Thurrock was full of UKIP’s core support base, people who were concerned about increasing immigration and the effect of globalisation. UKIP’s candidate, Thurrock resident Tim Aker, was widely tipped to take the seat. However, Doyle-Price surprisingly held on, by 500 votes over Labour and 1,000 over UKIP- making the seat that rarest of beasts, a three-way marginal. In the EU referendum in 2016, Thurrock voted to leave by a margin of 72-28%. Surely this seat would be fertile ground for Theresa May’s message that a vote for her will strengthen Britain’s hand in Brexit negotiations, and Doyle-Price would be expected to increase her majority? 

Things are not as simple as that, however. The voters of Thurrock are not focusing on May’s mantra that a vote for a Conservative candidate is a vote for her team, for a strong and stable national government. Instead, they are looking at Doyle-Price’s record as a local representative over the last seven years- and finding her wanting. 

Thurrock has a long record of independent-minded MPs who do not always toe the party line, and instead try to work for their constituents’ wishes. Doyle-Price, on the other hand, is viewed as a typical ‘machine politician’, brought in from outside to fight a winnable seat, and seeking to advance her career within the Conservative party. Certainly, she has rarely rebelled against her party’s leadership, and in 2015 was rewarded with a job as a whip, ensuring other MPs voted how the leadership wanted them to. 

Not in my back yard


Doyle-Price herself as defended her record in opposing things that would be bad for Thurrock, such as a proposed new bridge across the river Thames that has been in the pipeline for years. This would cut through a swathe of Thurrock, knocking down homes and bringing even more traffic, to that caused by the existing Queen Elizabeth II Bridge. Despite fierce local opposition, the government announced recently that the option to go through the middle of Thurrock would go ahead. Doyle-Price says she will continue to fight it, but voters highlighted how she had promised in the past that she already had effectively stopped it. This election could not have come at a worse time for Doyle-Price- and Labour and UKIP are making her suffer. 

Both parties have chosen local candidates- Labour’s is former Thurrock Council leader John Kent, and UKIP’s is the returning Tim Aker. Both are running as local champions who will stand up for Thurrock and against the crossing. Aker also makes much of the fact that he is a Brexit supporter at heart, where Doyle-Price supported Remain in the referendum. At this stage, the election in Thurrock remains too close to call, and an illustration of the fact that, much as the party leaders may wish to define an election around certain issues, the voters often have different priorities. 

About Daniel 

Daniel ArgentI live in Thurrock in Essex and have a degree in Politics and International Relations from Cambridge University. 

My interests include American and British politics, especially elections and political philosophy from the 18th century to today.



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