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2024: A look at the year ahead

5 January 2024
| by Field Team

The Field Team take a look at the challenges facing both Labour and the Conservatives in the run up to the General Election and when it might take place.

The last 15 years have given us a financial crash, a coalition, a Brexit vote that reverberated around the world, a global pandemic, two other referenda on Scotland and voter reform, and four General Elections. You’d be forgiven for wanting politicians off your screens. But I’m sorry to say if that is you, this year isn’t for you.

Before you were even able to circle back to things you said you’d do in the New Year, we’ve had Richard Tice, Ed Davey, Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak on our screens again. It’s not the just the UK but the “biggest election year in history” worldwide with billions of people going to the polls – starting with Taiwan in January which could massively affect geopolitics in Asia, to elections in India, the US, the EU and even Ukraine and Russia.

Unlike in most other countries, here in the UK the Government chooses when the election is. Labour was keen to tell everyone it would be May – partly to make it look like Sunak was bottling it if he waits until the autumn. So when the PM yesterday said his “working assumption” was an election in the “second half of the year” it didn’t take long for Labour to accuse him of "squatting in No 10", just as the Conservatives accused Gordon Brown of the exact same thing in 2007.

So when will it be and what will be the result? Let’s look at the trigger points over the year that will help us to answer that question.

Elections are often won and lost because of the pound in your pocket. Tomorrow the Autumn 

Statement’s tax cuts come into force – 2p off your National Insurance saving basic rate taxpayers £304 on average and £647 for higher rate taxpayers. Expect to see Sunak banging the drum for this relentlessly, and for taxes to be one of the big themes of the year. Expect more cuts when the Budget comes on March 6 – likely Income Tax, but also don’t be surprised to see something on Inheritance Tax either. Of all the proposed tax cuts this is the main one that Labour feels it can safely oppose as a cut for the rich.

As well as cutting tax, the Government will claim credit for inflation continuing to fall towards the 2% target. The problem is that for many people, even if prices aren’t rising as much as before, they will still be higher now than when they voted the Conservatives in. Do people feel better off than five years ago? Hardly.

Beyond the economy, one of the issues that could force Sunak’s hand into an earlier election is immigration. Whilst he survived the second reading vote in December on his Rwanda Bill, the rebels were clear that they will vote the Bill down this month if there are not further amendments to close loopholes. But on the other side, the larger One Nation Conservatives group are only backing the legislation in its current form and would not accept a stronger law. Stuck between the two wings of his party, Sunak will hope his plan to allow the ERG backed ‘Star Chamber’ lawyers to discuss with Government lawyers how to tighten the Bill without fundamentally changing it will work. If just 29 Conservatives vote against the Bill, it will be killed, and Sunak’s flagship policy would be in tatters. This could set in place a chain of events through to a vote of no confidence in the Conservative leader, and even a sixth Conservative Prime Minister in 14 years… as many as Labour have achieved in their whole history, and a cacophony for an election.

Another dangerous moment for Sunak is the Wellingborough by-election in the coming months. With an 18,500-vote majority (less than in recent by-elections they’ve lost) another big victory for Labour will just add to the idea the General Election result is an inevitability. A big factor in Wellingborough will be Reform – the party created from the Brexit Party, and before that, UKIP. UKIP came second in Wellingborough in 2015 and if they take Tory votes, it’s easy to see a path for Labour to claim victory. At previous by-elections it has already been seen that Reform’s vote share is bigger than the size of the victory.

The big unknown with Reform is Nigel Farage. If he comes back to the frontline for the general election, the party could surge in the polls, changing the result in many seats even if they win few or no seats themselves.

In May, dozens of local councils and nine mayoralties go to the polls. The Conservatives could very well lose the West Midlands, and even Teesside – while Andy Street and Ben Houchen often win elections despite the Conservative brand, not necessarily because of it, they could get swept away in a rising Labour tide.

The challenges are not just for the Tories, however far behind they are today. 2024 will bring ever more scrutiny on Labour. Already, the pressure is mounting on Starmer to tell us why Labour are really different to the Conservatives, what they’d do on taxes, how they’d fund public services without tax rises and what he actually stands for. Every time he speaks, Starmer will have to inch toward a more staked out position on all kinds of topics – whether on the economy, immigration or social issues such as trans rights – and every inch holds risk to his 18-point lead in the polls.

The Conservative election guru Isaac Levido has reportedly pencilled in the 14th November for the election. As the (very) long campaign begins in earnest, many see time, and the hope that something will come up, as the greatest ally Sunak has.

Strap yourselves in. Its going to be quite a ride.

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