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Why the Conservatives may fall short of their hopes

April 19th, 2017

 

A guest slot by Harry Spencer

Calling an early General Election is, by definition, something usually undertaken by a government confident of winning. And with opinion poll leads well in double figures, and an utterly hapless opposition this is certainly a pretty fair assessment.

I don’t necessarily disagree with the idea the Conservatives will win a much-expanded majority, but precedent for snap General Elections is…mixed.

Defining snap elections as early elections voluntarily undertaken by a government which already has a majority, the recent precedent is as such:

If one were to expand this out to other countries there is a similarly mixed record – parties which voluntarily held elections anticipating they would strengthen their position have been mistaken not just in the UK in 1974, 1951 and 1923, but also in Australia in 1974, 1984, 1998, 2010 and in Canada in 1984 (spectacularly so) and 1997. Equally there have been plenty of occasions in which parties did strengthen their position in snap elections, although often by modest margins.

None of this means the Conservatives are necessarily making a mistake this time, and their polling position is probably stronger than in any of those precedents, but this is a reminder that politics is inherently unpredictable and plenty of astute politicians have misjudged the mood in the past.

In addition, there’s a few reasons why the Conservatives may undershoot expectations this time:

  • Election Fatigue. There is a body of literature which shows that voter turnout can suffer if elections take place too often (although the more important the elections, the less pronounced the drop-off is). Brenda from Bristol’s initial reaction of “oh for god’s sake” may well be shared by a large number of the population, which could drive down turnout. There is also some evidence that parties which call early elections are penalised. For instance, in snap elections within the UK, the change in the governing party’s share of the vote in polls over the course of the campaign has declined by more, on average, than in usual elections. This may be the case elsewhere too, but I have not been able to verify.
  • Violating a sense of Fair Play. One reason calling an early election might be penalised by the public is it can be perceived as being in the party’s interest, not the country’s. There are other events which risk contributing to such a perception in this case. For instance, the apparent refusal to take part in TV debates might create a perception that the Conservatives are not playing fair. Another story which could do so is the possible prosecution of a number of current Conservative MPs and agents over alleged election expenses fraud in 2015.
  • The Crushing of the Saboteurs. While the bulk of the Conservative vote is comprised of people who voted to Leave, roughly 15% of the electorate currently reports that they voted to remain in the EU but intend to vote Conservative. The Conservative campaign needs to be careful about not alienating these voters – if they do not turn out in the numbers expected, or switch to alternatives, then the Conservatives will not win a majority of the size they hope. More headlines like the Daily Mail’s today would be actively unhelpful for the Conservative campaign.
  • Brexit means Brexit? Calling an election campaign to secure a mandate for your approach to Brexit may make sense, but only if you actually have an approach to Brexit. There is an obvious risk that inviting scrutiny of the government’s Brexit plans may highlight the ephemeral nature of that strategy. The Prime Minister is seeking a mandate to manage the negotiations but on the basis of a dozen different priorities which may not be compatible.
  • The lack of any credible threat. The Conservative success in 2015 would not have been possible without the highly effective threat of a Labour government in coalition with the SNP and/or Liberal Democrats. This time, I don’t know a single person who thinks a Labour government is a credible possibility. Perversely that makes it easier for disaffected Labour voters to stick with the party, as it isn’t seen as risking Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister, and also makes it easier for the Liberal Democrats to sell themselves to soft Tories, something they have decades of practice doing successfully.

None of this means I think the Conservatives will fail to win – but they may not get the margin they expect.

Harry Spencer is a consultant and Electoral Analyst at Edelman Public Affairs, he writes in a personal capacity