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Things that nobody knows. What to watch out for in the coming election

October 30th, 2019

Nobody knows anything. The results of the last two general elections and the referendum result have all come as a major surprise to all the wiseacres (including me). So it is time for a little humility and to think about some of the things we don’t yet know about this election. Here are a few.

1) What are the people who voted in 2017 and who are now saying “don’t know/won’t vote” going to do?

In a recent YouGov poll, considered by Chris Curtis here, 23% of Labour voters in 2017 are now saying that they don’t know who they would vote for, or that they wouldn’t vote. 17% of Conservative voters in 2017 say likewise. Currently these people are excluded from the polls. In reality, most of them probably will vote. But for whom?

The single most likely outcome is that they will, despite current reservations, return to the party they supported in 2017. If so, Labour will automatically see a bump up in the polling.

It isn’t certain though. That’s a large chunk of the electorate who are proven voters and whose votes are up for grabs. They might easily decide the election.

2) Is the 2017 intake of MPs going to get an incumbency bonus?

95 MPs in the last Parliament did not hold their seats before the 2017 election.  Not all are seeking re-election, but it is normal to see first term MPs outperform uniform national swing, as they are rewarded for their individual talents by their local electorate. (MPs of longer standing do not benefit from this because the voter response to their talents is effectively already baked in after their first re-election.)

This Parliament has been both short and widely reviled – unjustly in my view, but I accept that’s the view of a tiny minority. Will this normal incumbency bonus continue to apply in these circumstances?

My guess it that it probably will, but that’s not certain. Anyway, check seats carefully and form your own views before betting on constituencies.

3) Was the 2017 realignment of seats along Leave/Remain lines a high water mark or the start of a trend?

In 2017, seats swung wildly. Some Leave-leaning seats like Bishop Auckland and Stoke-on-Trent South swung to the Conservatives while some Remain-leaning seats like Canterbury and Kensington fell to Labour. I looked at this in some detail last year here.

Will this sorting continue? There seems to be a default assumption that the Conservatives will find it easier to make progress in Leave areas and for Labour or the Lib Dems to work the Remain areas. The logic behind this thought process is not obvious.

For the same reason that second term MPs don’t get an incumbency bonus, this may already be baked into the last election result. Those voters whose votes will change over Brexit may already have changed them.

There are some suggestions that Remain areas are getting more Remainy and Leave areas are getting more Leavey. If so, we would see more sorting. Equally, it might become a self-fulfilling prophecy if the parties tailor their message based on what they think is most likely to work for their respective target groups. But if you want an uninformed guess, it’s that from this point, Leave and Remain seats will swing much more uniformly this time than last.

4) If the Lib Dem vote share rises, where is it going to rise?

The Lib Dems polled appallingly at both the last two elections. All the signs are that they will do far better this time round. How that translates into seats depends on how clumpy that increase in vote share is. This rise in Lib Dem vote share is thought to be a southern and metropolitan phenomenon.  

From a Lib Dem viewpoint, the more concentrated their increase in vote, the more additional seats they can hope to take. Their big problem is that their target list is very short of seats that are attainable. Moreover, quite a few of their nominally better targets are in areas where their anti-Brexit message is going to alienate voters rather than attract them.

The Lib Dems are in danger of getting lots of good second places. “Nearly winning here” is going to be a tricky sell. They have to think about how they capitalise on the undoubted alienation that is out there.

5) Is the Brexit party going to rise with increased attention in the election campaign, fade to irrelevance or stay roughly where it currently is?

The Brexit party is brand new. In May it topped the polls at the Euro elections.  Since then it has fallen back in the national opinion polls to roughly the levels achieved by UKIP before both the 2015 and 2017 elections. In the former, UKIP kept its vote share to polling day. In the latter, it collapsed like a purple soufflé, its voters scooped up by the Conservatives.

You can make a case from here for either of those outcomes. If the most militant Leavers decide that the priority is any Brexit, the Conservatives can hope to do the same this year as they did in 2017. If they decide that Boris Johnson’s deal disgracefully cuts Northern Ireland adrift or creates a transition trap, they will stay with Nigel Farage and hold out for a better Brexit. Indeed, if the deal falls apart under closer examination, the Brexit party could rise substantially in the polls.

I have no clear sense of what is going to happen with this group of voters. I’m not going to pretend that I do. So far Boris Johnson has successfully shrugged off the fact that he has neither done nor died.

6) What are the “Alien vs Predator” voters going to do?

To believe some commentary, you would think that Boris Johnson was an unprecedentedly popular Prime Minister. That is far from the truth. In the latest Ipsos-MORI polling on leader satisfaction ratings, 55% – an absolute majority – are dissatisfied with him. His government polls still worse: 81% are dissatisfied with it. Meanwhile, 76% are dissatisfied with Jeremy Corbyn.

There are huge numbers of voters, perhaps as many as 40% of the electorate, who regard both main choices with distaste. We have little sense as to what they regard as the lesser of two evils. Both main parties should think very carefully about calling for a mandate with so many voters in this mood: it is likely only to incite this group of voters to stop them from claiming one.

The party that most successfully keeps the dangers of the other party getting into power front and centre in this group of voters’ minds is likely to do best. 

7) What on earth is going to happen in Wales?

Recent Welsh polling is chaotic. Perhaps it will revert to the norm by the election date.  That doesn’t currently look particularly likely. Five parties will all fancy their chances in this bedlam. The outcome of that battle of five armies might yet have a critical impact on the wider UK election. As for a prediction how that will turn out, good luck.

Alastair Meeks