Britain’s General Election Is Heavy On Brexit And Disinformation

The ruling Conservative party has put up fake social media posts as Prime Minister Boris Johnson risks everything to "get Brexit done."

LONDON — British voters will battle the wind, rain and dark on Thursday for yet another general election, the third in just four years. It is the first December election since 1923 and comes at the end of a campaign dominated by Brexit, disinformation and accusations of racism.

Boris Johnson, the incumbent Conservative prime minister, can be quietly confident of securing the parliamentary majority he currently lacks. But Jeremy Corbyn, the opposition Labour Party leader, has steadily closed the gap in the polls and another hung parliament — where no party has control — remains a distinct possibility.

Is The Election Just About Brexit?

Johnson would like it to be. The prime minister has run a tightly scripted campaign around the deceptively simple message of “get Brexit done.” The relentless focus on that slogan peaked — or troughed — when he drove a digger featuring the phrase through a fake wall to show that he can smash the “gridlock” in Parliament.

The Conservative Party has calculated that British voters, whether they backed Leave or Remain in the 2016 referendum, are sick to death of the whole saga and want to move on. Johnson has pledged to pass the Brexit deal agreed with the European Union within the first 100 days of a new Conservative majority government. Following that, there is the matter of negotiating a new trade agreement with the EU. Johnson has claimed — to much derision from opposition MPs — he can achieve this before the end of 2020.

The Labour Party has meanwhile tried to run on domestic issues and reversing Conservative cuts to public services — notably health care. Corbyn has repeatedly warned voters that Johnson will “sell off” the publicly owned National Health Service to U.S. companies in any trade deal he signs with U.S. President Donald Trump. In the final days of the campaign, there were signs this message was breaking through, after Johnson refused during a TV interview to look at a photo of a 4-year-old boy who had to sleep on the floor of a hospital because it did not have enough beds.

Labour, which has a pro-Remain membership base, is promising to hold a second Brexit referendum should it win power. But some in the party are worried about losing the support of Leave voters in traditional Labour strongholds in northern England if it appears to be ignoring the result of the 2016 referendum. Party Chairman Ian Lavery told HuffPost UK that he was unhappy with Remainers who “sneer” at Brexit voters. After much public agonizing, Corbyn has said he would remain neutral if he becomes prime minister.

The 2019 campaign has also been characterized by accusations of racism. Corbyn has repeatedly had to deny claims that he has allowed anti-Semitism to flourish within Labour on his watch. Meanwhile, Johnson has been accused of ignoring Islamophobia in the Conservative Party and has been attacked for his own previous comments about black people and other ethnic minorities. Multiple candidates from various parties have been found to have made racist or sexist comments on Twitter and Facebook in the past.

Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, left, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, during a debate at the BBC TV studios in Maidstone, England, on Dec. 6, 2019.
Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, left, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, during a debate at the BBC TV studios in Maidstone, England, on Dec. 6, 2019.

Another thing this campaign will be remembered for is disinformation. The Conservative Party renamed its Twitter account “FactcheckUK” during the first TV debate between Johnson and Corbyn. Johnson’s party also selectively edited a video of Labour’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer to make it look like he had been unable to explain his party’s position. Government documents released by Labour appear to have been leaked by a Russian interference operation. The smaller pro-Remain Liberal Democrat party was accused of misleading voters by delivering leaflets disguised as newspapers and producing polling charts that overstate the party’s chances of winning certain seats.

What Do The Polls Say?

Johnson went into the final full day of campaigning looking to win “every vote” after a new poll suggested that a hung parliament could still be in the cards.

YouGov’s constituency-by-constituency poll released on Tuesday evening predicted the Conservatives are on course for a 28 seat majority — but the margin of error and unknown impact of tactical voting means the party could fall short.

The pollsters, who have analyzed more than 100,000 voter interviews over the past week, predicted the Conservatives will win 339 seats and Labour 231. A 28-seat majority would be the best Conservative result since Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1987 — but it is down from the sizable 68-seat victory that the same YouGov-style poll had been predicting only two weeks ago.

While predictions have improved for Corbyn’s Labour Party, 231 seats would mean a loss of 31 seats compared to 2017’s outcome — its worst result since the 1980s.

What Happened To Nigel Farage?

In reality, as leaders of the two main parties, only Johnson or Corbyn have a chance of becoming prime minister.

But there are several other, smaller parties involved in the election, including the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Liberal Democrats. If the result is close, these two pro-EU parties could hold the balance of power in the Commons.

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage sips a hot drink whilst on the General Election campaign trail in Hartlepool, England, in November.
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage sips a hot drink whilst on the General Election campaign trail in Hartlepool, England, in November.

Yet it is Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party, which was only launched in April, that could have the most decisive impact. Farage, who has played a huge role in pushing the Leave cause, had threatened to ruin Johnson’s chances of securing a majority by running candidates against the Conservatives up and down the country. But in a climbdown, he decided to withdraw from over 300 of the 650 constituencies, which has been credited with uniting the Leave vote behind the Conservatives, significantly boosting Johnson’s chances of victory.

Jo Swinson, the head of the Lib Dems, admitted to HuffPost UK that Farage’s retreat had a “pretty big impact” on the contest. She has downgraded her hopes of exploiting the division and picking up “hundreds” of seats to simply attempting to prevent Johnson winning a majority.

When Will We Know The Result?

Voting beings at 7 a.m. local time on Thursday morning. The first key moment of the election night will be the exit poll released by broadcasters when voting ends at 10 p.m.

Exit polls have been used in British elections for decades, with varying levels of success. In 2010, the poll accurately predicted the Conservatives would be 19 MPs short of a majority. In 2015, it said the Conservatives would fall short by 10 MPs, but in the end, the party won an unexpected majority.

Results from individual constituencies will start to be announced at 11:30 p.m., with Sunderland or Newcastle usually the first to declare. The bigger than expected Leave vote in Sunderland in the 2016 Brexit referendum was the first sign that things had gone badly for the Remain campaign.

Results will really start to flood in around 1 a.m. on Friday, and most seats will be declared by 6 a.m. However, some will be announced throughout Friday morning until lunchtime. If the election is tight, there is always the chance of a last minute twist.

Analysis From HuffPost UK’s Political Editor Paul Waugh

The U.K. has historically welcomed American imports, from Hollywood movies and TV shows to the rise of trick or treating and high school proms. But this British general election has included two additional U.S. habits that have unnerved many: Trump-like “fake news” and presidential-style campaigns that focus on leaders more than parties.

The Conservatives have deployed fake Facebook, Google and YouTube ads that doctor opponents’ and journalists’ words, while Twitter has become a place where their lies spread swiftly. Labour once thought the online battle would help it reach beyond reactionary British newspapers, but instead it’s finding that the unregulated space of the internet can be just as hostile.

Most importantly, Johnson is a formidable presidential-style candidate, targeting working class men in particular with his claims that Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn is a “terrorist sympathizer.” Crucially, Johnson claims Corbyn is also blocking the Brexit that many post-industrial towns voted for three years ago.

The most telling and repeated comments in the election have come from Labour voters saying, “I’m voting for Boris and Brexit, not the Tories.” If he wins — as the polls predict — that will be why.

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