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Let’s talk landslides

November 23rd, 2019

Boris might well be on for a 100+ majority

Even the balloons looked forlorn and listless; remnants of a celebration party no-one really expected to need and now mockingly reminding the few left of those misplaced hopes, as they swayed aimlessly in unseen aerial eddies.

The signs had been there for weeks of course – months, even – but for one reason or another, they’d continuously been ignored. The local government by-elections, the Westminster by-elections, the leader ratings, the constituency polls, the general voting intention polls: all were there for people to see and yet no-one had really grasped what they all meant. Not properly. Somehow, a consensus had cloaked opinion in a belief that elections only produced hung parliaments or narrow majorities these days and data that didn’t fit that was sidelined. Not for the first time, the consensus was rudely jolted from its complacency.

Through much of November, the polls had given the Tories a double-digit lead, including one period of eleven successive surveys with them at least 10% ahead, seven of which had been 14% or more. That should have been a warning. But the memory of 2017 was strong enough to continue to believe in last-minute swings and in the polls being wrong. Well, truth was that the polls in Britain at election time often were wrong and often to the benefit of the party behind but not always, and not now.

Other polls in late November should have set the scene. This was being seen as an important election by more people than for a long time – turnout would be high – and that meant the groups where turnout dropped in 2017 would be back in abundance: the middle-aged and elderly. Further, the Brexit Party was eating into Labour’s Leave vote at a far greater rate than into the Tory one; sufficient to produce an additional pro-Con swing in Leave seats where they were standing.

Coming on top of the 42-28 split in the vote, the effect was carnage. The scene was set in Houghton and Sunderland South – regaining its place as the first seat to declare – which Labour won by just 1859 votes. That huge anti-Lab swing had been put down to the shambles of Sunderland council compounding the effects of a strongly Leave seat but while there was some truth in the analysis, the local effects there turned out to be much smaller than Labour activists believed at 11.15pm.

A UNS swing of 5% would, by itself, have seen the Tories gain dozens of seats and a majority into three figures. What pushed that through the roof was the Brexit effect. True, some Remain seats swung against the Tories, with the Lib Dems making gains from the Tories in London (though they made even more from Labour), but that was more than offset by the Conservative gains deep into Labour territory. Most iconic, although far from being the biggest majority overturned, was the defeat of Dennis Skinner in Bolsover, his graceless concession speech inadvertently catching the moment perfectly.

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Will it play out like this? It’s obviously far too early to be sure but it’s also late enough that we should be taking it seriously. The polling figures quoted are all taken from recent surveys so if it isn’t to happen then we must assume that either the polling industry as a whole has it wrong (although that has happened before), or that there will be a swing to Labour in the next three weeks. That could of course occur but with the exception of the Tory manifesto – to be released this weekend, we assume – most of the big set-piece potential game-changers have already taken place. Some gaffe or other unforeseen event could still collapse the Tory lead but could equally work the other way (Labour’s vote is less firm that the Tories’, going by a recent Mori survey).

However, the spate of recent polls putting the Tories 10% or more ahead, combined with a lot of supporting data that suggests that’s no bubble score, means we should think of anything less than that as a good Labour performance, and that the Tory lead could be some way beyond. We should not let the recent set of close election results overly influence what we think is possible in a world where party identification is becoming ever weaker.

My guess, for what it’s worth, is that Labour will struggle to close the gap. On the one hand, Corbyn will probably peg back his awful approval ratings a little; on the other, Labour’s full-fat socialist manifesto runs enormous risks of looking unworkable, immensely expensive and counter-productive. Assuming that CCHQ has learned the lessons of 2017 and will promise nothing too radical in the Tory manifesto – and the signs so far are that this will be the case – it will be very hard for Labour to proactively close the gap. Possibly Johnson might do something stupid but that’s what Labour is relying on now.

The markets for the number of Con seats or size of majority look quite under-developed but as they come on streeam, I expect the value to be to go high on Con. I think Johnson could well end up sitting pretty with the biggest Tory majority since at least 1983.

David Herdson