An Introduction to the 2017 UK General Election

This Guest Post was written by guest contributor Nathan Wurtzel

The effort to end Conservative-led coalition governance began to go horribly wrong for British Labour as Big Ben struck 10:00 P.M. on May 7, 2015.

The consensus of public opinion polling had indicated a hung Commons was to come, with enormous regional gains by the Scottish National Party enabling a resurgent Labour and its leader Ed Miliband to form a coalition government. By the time the first major seat Labour was expected to win, Nuneaton, instead reported a 3% swing in favor of the Tories, it was clear Prime Minister David Cameron had defied the stated odds, drawing in just enough soft Liberal Democrat and United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) voters to win an outright Commons majority.

2015 General Election Results. Blue= Conservative, Red= Labour, Yellow= SNP

The British Polling Council dutifully published a report (PDF) suggesting sample construction and weighting error were the primary causes of the polling miss – some added the practice of “herding” to the list of mistakes, causing at least one polling company, by its own claim, to fail to release its final poll, which turned out to be incredibly accurate.

However, another widely-available polling result, from Opinium, had turned out to be both accurate and indicative – many more voters wanted David Cameron to be Prime Minister than wanted Ed Miliband. While the result was duly reported, it was widely-ignored when making seat projections.

Recognizing a change was needed, Miliband stood down from his role as Labour Party leader. The ensuing leadership election, however, produced a paucity of inspiring candidates.

On September 12, 2015, the union-backed Jeremy Corbyn, MP for Islington North since 1983, was elected leader. Corbyn was opposed by former Labour Prime Ministers Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, as well as respected former Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw. Corbyn was unpopular with the Labour establishment because of his persistent, possibly record-breaking opposition to party policy.

For example, Corbyn supports a “maximum wage” and allowing the Bank of England to print money unsecured, policies far to the left of even the pre-Blair Labour Party. He supports re-privatizing British Rail and energy companies. Corbyn believes Hamas “is dedicated towards the good of the Palestinian people” and says labeling it as a terrorist organization is a mistake. He was widely criticized for siding with the Irish Republican Army in 1984 just weeks after they attempted to assassinate Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Brighton.

Although initial polling showed the Corbyn-led Labour Party slipping over ten points behind the Conservatives, they recovered to pull within three points by April, 2016.

By mid-spring, normal partisan British politics were frozen as the campaign for the United Kingdom European Membership Referendum (BREXIT), began in earnest. Prime Minister Cameron had promised this referendum on whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union to lure just enough UKIP-leaning voters to win the 2015 General Election.

The BREXIT campaign crossed normal partisan lines. Cameron, Corbyn, a majority of Conservative MPs, all but 7 Labour MPs, and all the Liberal Democrats joining together to campaign for “Remain,” while UKIP and a minority of Conservative MPs campaigned for “Leave.”

Public opinion polling indicated a narrow “Remain” win, but on June 23, 2016, 35 million voters, four million more than voted in the 2015 General Election, narrowly voted “Leave.” This was not the enormous polling miss some partisans have asserted, but nonetheless the perception that populist action overcame elite opinion was reinforced.

2016 Brexit vote from Wikimedia Commons. Yellow= Remain, Blue= Leave

Following Brexit, Labour’s polling began to falter. Corbyn was overwhelmingly defeated in a no-confidence vote, yet the ensuing leadership election again produced no inspiring alternative candidates. On September 24, 2016, Corbyn was restored to leadership with a larger margin than the year before.

Nonetheless, the support for Corbyn is not extending beyond the party’s core faithful. New polling by Ipsos MORI shows new Prime Minister Theresa May leads Corbyn 61-23 on who would make the most capable Prime Minister, a record margin since they began asking this poll question in 1979. Even 62% of the Labour Party believes May is more competent than its own leader. In addition, Corbyn’s personal favorability rating is 27% positive and 62% negative.

This sets the stage for potentially historic Conservative gains in the June 8 election. At dissolution, the Tories held 330 seats, just four more than needed for outright control, while Labour was on 229. The Scottish National Party held 54 of Scotland’s 59 seats, while the Liberal Democrats remained mired at nine after 2015’s disaster when they lost 49 of their 57 seats.

Recent polling shows the Conservatives in the mid to high forties, with Labour in the mid-twenties to thirty, the Liberal Democrats rebound a small amount to just over ten percent, and UKIP losing a good third of its support from 2015. In addition, Scottish polling shows the Scottish National Party somewhat off its 2015 margin (along with “YES” for Scottish independence declining), with Conservatives running a strong second. Welsh polling shows a strong likelihood of Labour losing its majority there for the first time in nearly 100 years.

As in every UK general election, it is far from certain how these broad national and regional poll numbers will translate into seats won, should they turn out to be more accurate this time. Nearly three dozen seats were decided by less than 3% in 2015, so even small swings resulting from demographic shift or a particular strong local campaign can make a difference.

The concept of uniform swing is largely a fiction; should one be inclined to watch classic BBC coverage of general elections, one will find discussions lamenting the lack of uniform swing across the country in each of them. Nonetheless, there are now Swingometer-type applications like the ones herehere, and here, with which one can easily spend the better part of a day experimenting with various polling combinations and added features.

Should the Conservative polling gain stem largely from disgruntled unionist Labour and populist UKIP voters in Wales, Scotland, and the English interior running from Birmingham through the Midlands, Yorkshire and the Humber, and the North, they could approach or even surpass their recent record of 397 seats won in the 1979 election. In this instance, the Tories will gain nearly 20 in Scotland and Wales, and dozens more in the Midlands, Yorkshire, and the North, for a net of 70 or more seats. It is also possible a disproportionate amount of the polling gain is in constituencies they already hold in the South, South East, and South West of England, and thus the gain would be a more modest, but still impressive, 40 seats.

Labour is likely to be battered from the populist side in Wales, the Midlands, and the North of England, while losing support from the Blairite Left in London suburbs and the South. It’s possible they may pick off a Conservative seat or two in London and in marginal constituencies like Brighton Kemptown that voted “REMAIN”, but those opportunities will be few. They will be very fortunate if they stay over 200 Commons seats. The Liberal Democrats have a chance to regain some ground at Labour’s expense and might regain a handful of seats they lost to the Conservatives, again in heavily “REMAIN” areas, but this likely will be a limited gain.

It is unlikely we will see constituency polls in volume, as Lord Michael Ashcroft’s ambitious 2015 effort resulted in no better predictive accuracy than national polling did. Often the best predictor of a close race is where the party leaders are campaigning. Of course, with a positive rating of only 27%, it’s difficult for Jeremy Corbyn and Labour to find many constituencies where this will be helpful, but the certainty May will be returning as Prime Minister may blunt her campaign advantage, as there will be no reason for a strategic vote from UKIP or Liberal Democratic voters in some constituencies.

Nathan Wurtzel is a Washington, DC-based political consultant. You can follow him on Twitter: @NathanWurtzel