Tomorrow the UK will head to the polls once again to vote in the 2019 General Election, with the campaign so far having been as exciting and exasperating as could have been expected. This is nothing new for UK elections, which are always full of high and low points. However, there has been a new phenomenon developing this year: campaigning has focused almost exclusively on the prime ministerial candidates.
While it is true that there has been a long-term trend emerging in the UK with party leaders becoming increasingly important, this election has bordered on presidential at times. The introduction of leaders’ debates and politicians’ use of social media have gradually increased their importance in recent years, but this election has taken this to a new level. Despite the publication of each party’s manifesto in recent weeks, all anybody wants to talk about is the personalities of the leaders.
Campaigners from all parties agree that responses on the doorstep revolve around Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson and their respective backgrounds rather than the policies they intend to implement. Voters are far more likely to bring up Johnson’s Etonian upbringing and alleged Islamaphobic slurs, or condemn Corbyn’s allleged terrorist sympathies or feeble response to anti-Semitism, than they are to bring up the nationalisation of the national grid or tougher sentences for violent crime.
Perhaps this should not come as a surprise, with both Johnson and Corbyn being natural campaigners who thrive on public attention. Both figures enjoy something of a cult of personality among their supporters, and are never more comfortable than when they are holding a rally. Both men have consciously put themselves in the foreground of the campaigns, and whoever wins will see it as a personal mandate to lead the country.
The two leaders in this election are undoubtedly better suited to a presidential campaign than Theresa May was when she attempted it in 2017. On that occasion Conservative leaflets emphasised her name, but May’s ‘robotic’ personality led to a rejection of the party. Nevertheless, candidates for both the Labour Party and the Conservatives have made their respective leaders prominent on their campaign material, and will be hoping that it pays off.
What will be interesting is how the personal nature of the election campaign affects the workings of government after the election. Given that the election will be won by the most popular leader, he will claim a mandate to push ahead with his own personal agenda. If he faces opposition from inside his party or the House of Commons, he will be able to cite the personal endorsement he has received from the electorate and claim that his opponents are blocking democracy.
It is intriguing that, on a vote which was effectively supposed to be a single-issue decision on Brexit, personalities have taken precedence over policies. Brexit will undoubtedly have a lasting impact on our politics, but this election could have implications for the very nature of the British political system.
Will 2019 signal a move towards presidential politics in the UK, or will it cue a reversion to more traditional party campaigning? There will certainly be no shortage of subjects to discuss over Christmas dinner this year, as Britain digests the election along with its turkey!
By Mark Docherty