Here in Blighty, we’re having a General Election in prime panto season. Voting on December 12 means polling stations bumping elbows and butting heads in village halls across the country with Buttons, Mother Goose, and sundry pantomime horses. Shouty ex-Speaker John Bercow — now that he can no longer impose himself on the House of Commons — may be considering a star turn as Widow Twankey, or rather, “Widow Wanky.” Panto may be high-spirited fun and Bercow a laugh-riot but December in Britain is cold and dark. It means party activists canvassing at night while sunset this Thursday in Birmingham — roughly the middle of the country — is at 3:51pm.
Billed as the most significant election since Clement Attlee’s 1945 Labour landslide, the outcome will determine not only the form Brexit takes, but whether it happens at all. It will see 150 Labour MPs and three Liberal Democrats fighting to hold Leave seats while 80 Conservatives run in Remain seats. It also pits genuinely different political visions against each other in a way not seen in these Islands for decades: the days of Blair-Cameron technocratic politicians with identikit policies are over.
British voters are increasingly “up for grabs,” shopping around the political marketplace like first home-buyers. According to the British Election Study, around 35-45 per cent of all voters switched parties at each of the last two elections. “Rusted on,” tribal voters — “my family votes Tory so I’ll vote Tory” — while not yet an endangered species are becoming harder to find. Ironically, ever since Britain voted to leave the European Union, our politics have started to look more European, as in, our once stable two-party system has imploded. In addition, Scotland and England now have different political battles over entirely different issues. Scotland’s most popular political party, the SNP, doesn’t run candidates south of the border, and probably can’t.
Since 2016, a succession of polls has shown that most voters consider their identity as Leave or Remain far more important than their party identity. Yet, in 2017’s general election, this phenomenon seemed not to matter: the two majors got their highest joint share of the vote for many years. But this flattered to deceive. Both saw the composition of their vote change. Labour under Jeremy Corbyn did better among middle-class voters than Tony Blair did in 1997, advancing in the South. Meanwhile, the Conservatives got their highest share of the working-class vote since the 1960s and gained ground in the North and Midlands. Relatedly, the sharp division between Leave and Remain is strongest in England and Wales; Scotland’s existential polarisation is over “Yes” or “No” on the question of independence.
Survey after survey shows a majority of the British population agreeing with the statement “parliament does not represent or listen to people like me.” British political historian Stephen Davies observes that one of the worst things about membership in the European Union is that its rules on trade, freedom of movement, and state aid make both socialism and national populism politically impossible. “It’s not healthy,” he points out, “for a democratic society when the views and feelings of a large part of the electorate do not find expression.” In that sense, the 2016 referendum result was a catalyst for people to cast around for political alternatives.
That said, the parties themselves are now also changing. Their respective leaderships have come to appreciate the extent to which the divisions in the House of Commons and the labels “Conservative” and “Labour” no longer represent divisions present in the electorate. The Conservatives in particular are engaging in a significant internal reorganisation where they keep the name but become quite a different party. This last happened 100 years ago, when they stopped being an aristocratic and landed party and became instead a party of business and commerce. People who think Brexit and the Tory programme are all a cunning plan by “dark money” to bring about a free market revolution are in for a shock. The price of Conservative victory in traditional Labour seats like Wrexham and Don Valley will be a much more active and interventionist state. A couple of weeks ago, Boris proposed that, after Brexit, the government’s commissioning and procurement decisions should be used to assist British firms, something not permitted under EU rules. Corbyn suggested exactly this a year ago and the Tories rubbished him. How times change.
Labour, meanwhile, is still playing both ends against the middle, attempting to hold its electoral coalition together: that is, working-class Leavers in the North, Wales, and Midlands plus middle-and-upper-middle-class Remainers in London and various university towns. This is why its Brexit policy is utterly bonkers: negotiate a new deal and then (maybe) campaign to reject it in a second referendum. As should be reasonably obvious, the fudge is unsustainable and during the last month Corbyn has made a determined effort to move Labour’s campaign away from Brexit and onto redistributive economics and the NHS.
Where, then, does this leave us? It’s a truism that people love information about the future but it’s only really possible to know about the past. This means anyone in the business of predicting election results needs to engage in a fair bit of epistemic humility. Telegraph cartoonist “Matt” captured this superbly in 2017 (after every pollster in the UK save two fell spectacularly on their faces), when he drew two little kids catching fish and chatting. “My dad’s an opinion pollster,” one said. “I hope he never loses his sense of wonder and surprise at election results.”
This has not been a particularly high voltage election campaign, and in the final days, the Conservatives are hoping they can keep it that way. The polls have narrowed a little, so Boris Johnson’s party is now between nine and 12 points ahead of Labour. Meanwhile, analytics outfit Datapraxis have done an MRP poll, which suggests a working Tory majority of 38. “MRP” stands for “multilevel regression and post-stratification” and it’s designed to compensate for the UK’s historically poor-quality individual constituency polls. MRPs poll a very large, demographically representative voter sample across the four home nations. They then use census data to look for patterns in responses across constituencies that have similar demographic characteristics, and work out the implications of those patterns for each constituency. The system isn’t perfect, but YouGov managed to predict both the hung parliament and 93 per cent of all constituencies using this method in 2017.
A majority of 38 is roughly what most Conservatives started the campaign hoping they would get if they were lucky, but many of the seats they need to win to secure this majority are on a knife-edge, and after the 2017 experience, no one is going to relax until the exit poll. Datapraxis CEO Paul Hilder has also taken care to point out that there are a large number of people who have told pollsters they plan to vote but are still undecided. “We have never seen as many undecided voters this late in the campaign,” he says. “As many as 80-90 constituencies are still up for grabs. A much larger Conservative landslide is still possible — but so is a hung parliament.”
Some of this uncertainty is thanks to widespread dislike for the two leaders. While Boris Johnson is ahead (he’s about as popular as a national bout of diarrhoea), Jeremy Corbyn has plumbed new depths of unpopularity. The Financial Times had to insert a new line in its graph just for him — and he’s roughly on par with cancer as the most unpopular leader of a major party heading into an election since data was first recorded. At least some of this is in spite of the low-wattage campaign and not because of it; Labour generally and Corbyn personally have been dogged by accusations of anti-Semitism for what seems like months, even years.
Labour’s anti-Semitism problem is of a very distinctive sort; former Labour members have noted only some of it has roots in support for the Palestinian cause. Much of it is closer to what sociologists and historians call “the cultic milieu,” where a range of conspiratorial ideas present in a kind of subterranean, countercultural intellectual world have bubbled up and become more-or-less mainstream within a major political party. When the Jewish Labour Movement’s closing submission to the Equality and Human Rights Commission leaked last week, it disclosed a worrying crossover between Rothschild conspiracy theories, David “the Queen is a lizard” Icke, and bizarre fantasies of world domination. People expected infighting over a potential Labour government’s support for Israel or selling arms to Saudi Arabia. Instead we’ve got cranks that have set about reanimating the “blood libel.”
That said, although he may be personally unpopular, Labour’s overall position actually strengthened in the polls after Corbyn’s car-crash failure to deal with anti-Semitism in an interview with leading BBC journalist Andrew Neil. I suspect that next day poll bounce is what led the Conservatives to decide the broadcast media are surplus to requirements, with Boris refusing to submit to a similar Neil grilling. If nothing else, this is a reminder that the UK system is not (yet) presidential, with people holding their noses and voting for their party, if not its leader.
Given the country’s current political divisions, there will be a great seat sort with many constituencies changing hands. The LibDems will gain seats from the Tories. Labour will gain seats from the LibDems. The Tories will gain seats from Labour. The Tories also hope the Brexit Party in combination with First Past The Post doesn’t lead to yet another hung parliament. The SNP, meanwhile, are no longer a good bet to win every seat in Scotland because Scottish unionists are exceptionally good at tactical voting.
The end will only come with a majority government that can impress its will for long enough that a reversal of its policies after its eventual defeat would be impracticable in the medium-term (like Margaret Thatcher managed to achieve with economic policy, for example). For that to happen, someone has to win a majority on Thursday.
If no-one does, we can look forward to at least another year of Brexit panto.