Will the surprise election surprise?

Don’t you have anything to say about the general election? I’m sure my adoring readers are all asking themselves. Well, honestly I don’t have much. Soon after it was called, I laid down some of the reasons I absolutely despair at the prospect of five years of Prime Minister May, but since then events have moved too quickly for me to ever get ahead of them and feel like I have something incisive to post.

I made earnest starts on quite a few posts. The Undemocratic Election, The Theresa May Party and 2016/17 – Zombie Parties all sit in my drafts folder, glass half full, but Theresa’s absolute train wreck of a campaign has called into question the basic premises of all three; that she’ll win a thumping majority without clear competency, policies or vision, that disassociating herself from the Conservative brand and having MPs run as “Theresa May’s candidate” was a wise electoral strategy, or that Labour under Corbyn is in terminal decline, and taking the political opportunities of the left with it.

Add to that not one but two devastating terrorist incidents, and what remains to be said about this election? What remains to be felt?

The party landscape

At this point, May is left with almost no credibility outside her party, and less and less by the day within. Corbyn might actually be doing something that leftwing political groups have been trying to achieve for decades – inspiring the young to turn out and vote for their future. UKIP has been absolutely destroyed by the triad of succeeding in its self-identified mission, having the core of its policies adopted by the Conservative party and inheriting a leader with all of the slimy nastiness of Farage but none of his charm or authenticity.

The mass public conversion of the ‘Re-leavers‘ – those who voted Remain but who want to continue with Brexit – is check and mate to the Lib Dem’s strategy of opposing Brexit at every turn and insisting on a second referendum. Between that social trend and Corbyn, hopes for the Green Party must be at their lowest in a couple of decades. Unlike UKIP, however, they should hang onto their sole MP, Parliamentarian par excellence Caroline Lucas.

In Scotland, opposition to a second independence referendum is coalescing support behind the Conservatives, leading even lifelong Labour voters, in areas that have never been Conservative, to state that they’re planning to vote blue. In Northern Ireland, can Sinn Fein translate their recent surprise majority in the Stormont Assembly elections into gains at Westminster? In Wales, an astonishing early surge for Conservatism melted away to nothing in just a fortnight, and Labour are on track to win handily there.

Change in party support over two weeks in Wales at the 2017 General Election showing huge increase in Labour voteshare
Source: WalesOnline, May 22nd

The Young gain political voice?

9th May 15th May 22nd May 30th May 5th June
CON 46.8% 47.8% 43.3% 43.1% 41.50%
LAB 30.2% 29.7% 34.3% 37.3% 40.40%
CON Lead 16.6% 18.1% 9.0% 5.8% 1.1%

Table from Survation

From a universal 16-20 point lead for the Conservatives (Blair in 2001 levels of support) at the start of the campaign, the average Conservative edge is now around 7 points, spreading from a high of 12 to a low of 2 and a YouGov seat forecast on May 31st predicted: hung parliament!

The wide disparity is almost entirely explained by how much different companies trust young people (18-34 year olds) to follow through and vote on the day. Across the board they appear more engaged, and many more have registered to vote before the deadline this time around than in 2015, but while my age group love an online survey and have their opinions to share, they’ve always struggled to make it into the polling station.

This blog post over at Survation explains their methodology and why they’re optimistic that in 2017, young people will finally find their political voice and deliver it in a way that cannot be ignored – at the ballot box. I hope that my generation realise that whilst no-one’s talking about a Labour majority, and so in that way they don’t have quite the voting power of the over 65s, they will be the difference between a Conservative majority of over 100 MPs, and a hung parliament.

Cabinets

Exactly a year ago I published a post in which I heavily criticised Corbyn, and since then I’ve written many times about the concerns I have about Theresa May. I also don’t think Tim Farron is the right leader for the Liberal Democrats. But if you despair, like me, at the lack of leadership in English politics, don’t look at the second and third rows. The supporting cast are truly distressing.

Chancellor Philip Hammond – Utterly powerless, sidelined in decision making, and not even trying to address the biggest issue that is coming up for our economy, namely the rise of automation and artificial intelligence which will lead to massive job losses across every sector. When he did make one small attempt to guarantee future revenue streams from an increasingly self-employed workforce, with his National Insurance rise, his back-benchers set up the barricades, and May quickly capitulated and overruled him.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd – Has absolute contempt for the judiciary, the rule of law, and the basic human rights enshrined in our constitution. From suggesting that employers should keep a public database of how many foreign workers they employ, to failing to condemn attacks on the High Court judges for their impartial judgement on the law of Royal Prerogative, to implying that a digital encryption expert is someone who “knows the necessary hashtags“, she has proven herself to be completely out of her depth in this (and possibly any senior political) role.

Justice Secretary Liz Truss – Joins Amber Rudd in not understanding her role or the department she purportedly heads whatsoever. The current and former most senior judges in the land have all severely criticised her failure to defend their judgement on need for Parliament to trigger Article 50.

Education Secretary Justine Greening – Is still trying, desperately, to implement May’s grand plan for more grammar schools. The plan and its stated aims of increasing social mobility is opposed by 97% of head teachers, and all academic research.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt – The only cabinet minister to keep his job in May’s summer 2016 reshuffle, prompting the question; HOW DOES THIS MAN STILL HAVE A JOB?! Much like his namesake in Peep Show, Jeremy shows absolutely no leadership skills, is atrocious at public communication and actively ignores evidence when it contradicts the worldview he has dogmatically adopted. In the most recent and most thorough research, operating all parts of the NHS 7 days a week is not associated with improved patient outcomes, but the increased working hours required to cover it will likely impact care on every other day of the week. Rolling it straight out nationwide, while opposed by such a significant majority of health professionals and researchers, rather than through regional trials and review is just straight up bad politics.

International Trade Secretary Liam Fox – Or, as Jonn Elledge entitles him “the disgraced former defence secretary“, was fired from his previous government post as defence secretary in 2011, having held it for just 18 months, for allowing his close friend and business partner Adam Werrity into MoD meetings, having Werrity manage his dairy and accompany him on official foreign visits, including business deals. This was never disclosed and Werrity never obtained security clearance. Fox now travels the globe signing trade deals on behalf of Her Majesty, and us. Who needs accountability when you’ve got patience and friends in high places, eh?

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling – A man in the mould of Jeremy Hunt, but with significantly less competency even than Jez. After two and half years as Justice Secretary, in which he instigated some of the most idiotic and justice-obstructing policies imaginable, and oversaw prison outcomes falling to their lowest level in 10 years, Grayling now ‘manages’ our transport system. His achievements include refusing to allow Transport for London (well run, having requested it) to take over the atrociously badly run Southern Rail because he “would like to keep suburban rail services out of the clutches of any future Labour Mayor“. He also displays a deeply concerning lack of basic knowledge of his department, not realising that when there isn’t a cycle path, as there isn’t outside his place of work – The Houses of Parliament – bikes will pass cars on the inside. Nor does he have the decency to help the cyclist he just struck, by opening his car door without first checking, or to leave contact details, before hurrying off. Grayling’s lack of personal or political responsibility knows no bounds.

Communities Secretary Sajid Javid – At least Sajid was demoted in May’s reshuffle, although he deserved to be completely relieved of responsibility. While Business Secretary, through his active lobbying interventions at the EU, Mr Javid opposed all attempts to penalise China for their distortion of the steel market through government subsidies, bailouts and regulatory laxness. As a result, Tata Steel almost closed down it’s plant at Port Talbot, putting 15,000 jobs at risk, and production has only been kept up at the moment through significant job losses, government subsidy and pension guarantees. How not to run industrial strategy 101.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson – Consistently over budget on every major spending decision in his 8 years as London Mayor, he was routinely late for meetings, and lets not forget the ease with which his snake’s tongue slithered out lie after tantalising lie during the referendum campaign. As Foreign Secretary, to some extent I admire his candor and energy, but the job does also require tact and diplomacy, which he lacks completely. The two admirable policies that he endlessly takes credit for as Mayor are the ‘Boris bikes’, set in motion by Ken Livingstone, and the London Olympics, also won and pioneered by previous mayor Ken.

The shadow cabinet hopefuls arrayed behind Jeremy Corbyn are united in one binding trait; their loyalty. They’re just about the only one’s still supporting him in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). Almost none have any record in government (which some might find an asset, but will certainly make the first 12-18 months of a Corbyn government inefficient and error-prone), but their performances in the short time most have been in their posts don’t inspire confidence. In the interests of brevity I won’t line them up and call them out like I happily have for the current jokers in charge, and while I despair at Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbot, I’ve a lot of time for Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer.

A Natural experiment

Until the Manchester bombing on May 22nd, this election was shaping up to be a very useful natural experiment, which might finally provide some conclusive evidence on two long-held electoral assumptions. After two terrorist attacks, however, which must influence voting intention, it’s going to be very difficult to draw meaningful conclusions about the first. As for the second, I’m hopeful that it can be done, but concerned that in appealing so conspicuously to the utopian, urban young, Jeremy Corbyn will push just as many older, world-weary and pragmatic Labour voters into the arms of Theresa May.

  1. Campaigns don’t matter.
    The broadly held view is that voters’ minds have already been made up by the accumulation of snippets of information from the months and years before campaigning begins, and that both campaigns cancel each other out. Polls taken 6-8 weeks before the start of election campaigns begin tend to predict the final results with uncanny accuracy.
    I noted on Facebook after the local elections on May 5th that the vote share then (CON:38%, LAB:27%, LIB:18%) was the Conservative’s floor, and every other party’s ceiling. This in an observable trend of rebellion in ‘lesser’ elections, and final risk-averse deference to the party in power on general election voting day. The job for May was to build on that 38%, and for the other parties to keep as much of their vote share as possible. After a fortnight of campaigning, on Monday 22nd, when May u-turned while insisting “nothing has changed“, we could have begun to seriously think that the result on June 8th is going to be radically different to that on May 5th, and conclude that campaigns absolutely matter.
    However, after two terrorist incidents, leading to national reflection and mourning, pauses in campaigning and radical shifts in message and, one assumes, public sentiment, how much of the eventual result will we be able to attribute to the policies and actions of our politicians on the campaign trail?
  2. Increasing turnout increases all turnout.
    In 1999, two American political scientists reviewed the literature and summed up that “simply put, voters’ preferences differ minimally from those of all citizens; outcomes would not change if everyone voted.” In American elections since then, it’s definitely changing, and low turnout is strongly felt to have been a contributing factor in Trump’s victory last November.
    In British elections, however, enthusing an under-represented group to vote just doesn’t seem to work, and instead raises turnout as a whole, helping the opposition just as much as your own side. Just look at voting in the EU referendum. Turnout was the highest since the 1992 general election at 72%, and while 64-6% of under 50s voted, a marked increase on the 2015 general election, 90% of those over 65 did – a similar increase from the norm.
    It remains to be seen then, whether Cobyn’s financial offer of free university education, combined with May’s threat to take the homes of pensioners to pay for their care, will be able skew these turnout numbers and disprove this ‘rule’.

Chance Of surprise: Low

There’s another rule I haven’t mentioned, the phenomenon of Shy Tories. This effect, observed even in years with widespread Labour support like 1997, means that compared the polls a couple of weeks out from election day, the Conservatives should be expected to exceed expectations by 3%, at a 3% cost to Labour – a swing of 6-7%.

As a result, I’m downbeat to apathetic about this election. The likeliest result, in my eyes, is a moderate Conservative gain of 30-50 seats, an internecine power struggle within the Labour party that, after his campaign performance, Corbyn is by no means fated to lose, and five crappy years of falling living standards, crumbling public services, an acrimonious divorce from the EU, and little prospect of anything different after 2022.

For those seeking drama, Stephen Bush over at the New Statesman has written up a list of the key seats to watch, and the times you’ll need to be awake to see them declare. I’ll be staying up to hear the BBC exit poll at 10PM, and about half an hour of commentary on that, then aiming to sleep until ~3.30, by which point we should have a clear idea which way the winds of democratic change are blowing.

 

And don’t forget to vote!

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