By Aiden Hawker
Boris Johnson has laid down the gauntlet to Jeremy Corbyn, challenging the Labour leader to a general election in December. This is the first time that a general election has occurred in the month of December since 1923. Yet the PM is prepared to take such an unprecedented step and depart from the usual springtime electoral season as he, like his predecessor in 2017, hopes an election will strengthen his parliamentary position and improve his prospects of successfully achieving Brexit. The motivation for such an election is believed to be his desire to capitalise on his widely publicised Brexiteer credentials. Nevertheless, there are other less obvious reasons why a winter election might be favourable to Boris Johnson.
All ten general elections held since 1979 have been held between April-June when the weather, at least by UK standards has been relatively pleasant. This has enabled widespread door to door campaigning which has almost become synonymous with a general election campaign. However, whilst all the political parties engage in such campaigning, Labour tends to excel in this area as its policies are often better communicated and received face to face. In addition, Labour has an advantage in door to door election campaigning as it can mobilise an extremely large group of grassroots supporters unavailable to other major parties. As the weather in the winter is much worse and the days are far shorter, Labour would likely see such an advantage reduced. People are generally less amenable to opening doors and engaging with campaigners during dark cold evenings. Equally, the campaigning from Labour activists themselves would likely be subdued. One Labour MP stated “Do I fancy shivering on doorsteps in December trying to explain our Brexit policy? What do you think?”. Boris Johnson probably senses this opportunity to gain an advantage vis-à-vis the Conservatives usual starting position against Labour by holding a winter general election.
Postal votes are also important to Boris Johnson’s strategy. It has been shown across a range of comparable elections (i.e both council elections) held at differing times of the year, that when held in winter, postal votes constitute a higher proportion of the total votes cast. This is due to physical voter turnout falling whilst postal votes remain constant, making them more significant in the ultimate outcome. As postal votes are on average more likely to come from elderly individuals who are more likely to vote for the Conservatives, Boris Johnson may be hopeful that he could steal a marginal advantage. In reality, the importance of this general election might provide additional incentive for people to vote in spite of poor weather, diminishing the significance of the postal vote.
A final hidden motive, that has less to do with the weather, is that an election in December might reduce the number of students able to vote. Although the Prime Minister would never publicly state such a reason, statistically students tend not to vote for the Conservatives. Equally, with many surveys such as those conducted by Lord Ashcroft suggesting that young people (in particular students) prefer the option of remaining in the EU, Boris Johnson might struggle to gain much traction with student voters. Therefore, by holding an election in December before some students have been able to register their new addresses, there might be a slight shift in the typical voting patterns, handing him a potentially important advantage.
Boris Johnson’s December election is however a risky one. The NHS is more of an important topic for debate within the election due to the strain put on the NHS during the winter months. This wouldn’t be to Johnson’s advantage. Debates around the NHS usually favour Labour and this would also detract from the PM’s main campaign focus of Brexit.
Nevertheless, Boris Johnson has got an election in December. The decision for the last December election in 1923, by the then Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, massively backfired as he lost his majority. Boris Johnson will hope a similar fate does not await him.