Reasons to be cheerful?

Sunday 24th November
I confess, I was expecting the polls to have picked up by now. Labour’s share of voting intentions has been stuck in the 29%-30% zone for a week or more. It’s a lot better than where they started – and the weighted average is 30 rather than 29 – but it’s not election-winning territory, not by a long way.

Will the polls be wrong? Almost certainly. Wrong enough for the party on 30% of the polls to form the next government? Almost certainly not – if things don’t move quite a bit in the next seventeen days, it’ll be goodnight Vienna.

But do Labour need to be polling in the 40s to form the next government? Definitely not. On a uniform national swing, with adjustments made for Scotland and Wales, the Tories will not have a majority if they finish less than 4% ahead of Labour, as indeed they didn’t in 2017; it will also be difficult for the Tories to get a majority if their vote share falls below 37% (or below 39% if the Lib Dems do well). Labour could end up as the largest single party on as little as 36% of the vote, as long as the Tories’ vote was even lower. All of these scenarios seem a fair way off at the moment, but they’re considerably more achievable than putting Labour on 42% and the Tories on 30%.

Moreover, I think there are a number of factors at work in this election which will work to Labour’s advantage, and may well see a party polling in the mid-30s punching well above its weight. In no particular order:

The Brexit Party
Farage’s party has done the main thing it set out to do, which was to pump up the Kipper vote and then give the Tories a boost by handing it back to them. But that still leaves the small matter of candidates standing in nearly 300 seats, most (but not all) of which are held by Labour or the Lib Dems. What, we have to wonder, are they playing at? What can they realistically achieve? There must be some thought of harking back to the glory days of the 2015 election, when UKIP candidates took 10% or more of the vote in 400+ seats – but two-thirds of those seats were and are held by Conservatives, which by sheer arithmetic means that a good half of the seats where they’re standing in 2019 are very long shots indeed. (Interestingly, the Tory/Labour ratio is different with respect to the much smaller number of seats where UKIP got over 20% of the vote in 2015 – 39 Labour out of 69. It’s not entirely a myth, there are Labour seats out there with a good, solid chunk of far-Right voters (several of those seats had had substantial BNP votes in 2010); there just aren’t very many of them.)

Evidence of UKIP’s spoiler capacity in 2015 – and hence BXP’s spoiler potential in 2019 – is very limited. While there were 78 Conservative-won seats in 2015 where the majority was smaller than the UKIP vote, suggesting that UKIP may have stolen votes – and seats – from Labour, there were also 63 Labour seats where the same was true. If, rather than assume that the entire UKIP vote would otherwise have gone to the Tories – or, even less believably, to Labour – we assume that only 2/3 of UKIP voters would have been available, the numbers are even more evenly balanced. In 2015 there were 46 Conservative seats where the UKIP vote was 150% of the Conservative majority or more – and 45 Labour seats. If UKIP were equal-opportunity spoilers in 2015, all they did was hand one group of (what would otherwise have been) Tory seats to Labour and another, similarly-sized group of Labour seats to the Tories – and if they weren’t equal-opportunity spoilers, they hurt the Tories more than they did us. All of this, moreover, was on the basis of a rising tide of UKIP support, not a dying fall of BXP concessions and withdrawals, with polling numbers in the low single figures.

Of course, even if BXP are polling 3-5%, that effectively means they’re polling 6-10% in the seats where they’re standing. This time they won’t be an equal-opportunity spoiler; they will effectively lend votes to the Tories in Conservative seats, while still stealing votes from Labour in Labour seats. At least, that’s the theory. I wonder how effective this will be; I wonder what proportion of the voters attracted by slogans about Getting Brexit Done will have been drawn away from the Conservatives rather than from Labour, even in Labour seats. (Ware the ecological fallacy! Not every working-class voter in a Labour seat is a working-class Labour voter.) As for the Conservative no-show seats, I wonder how many natural Brexit Party voters will, in the absence of a Faragist candidate, go back to voting Conservative on the day – and how many will stay at home, meaning that the advantage BXP votes have given the Tories in the polls will melt away in the poll that matters.

At the end of the day, the Brexit Party benefits the Conservative Party most when it doesn’t stand, or campaign, at all. With the Tories on 42% and BXP on 5%, that effect is in the bag; now we move on to campaigning. BXP/UKIP in campaign mode don’t win anything and never have done; they’re wrecking parties, and naturally tend to do most damage to the Conservative Party (even stealing a couple of its MPs for a while). At worst, I think the effect of the Brexit Party on the actual result will be small; at best, it may actually be to Labour’s benefit.

The Liberal Democrats
A lot of people seem to have left Labour for the Liberal Democrats recently, for two main reasons as far as we can tell: clarity over Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn. Now, there are two ways of quarrelling with that statement, only one of which I’m going to entertain: I’m not going to put any weight on suggestions that there’s no substance to these issues, that nobody seems to know what they actually don’t like about Corbyn or that Labour’s position on Brexit is actually clearer than the Lib Dems’. I could make a case for either of those, but there wouldn’t be much point; the fact is, those defections happened and for those ostensible reasons, around the time of the European election (which was also when the Brexit Party hit the big time). And, unlike the growth of the Brexit Party at the expense of the Tories, they haven’t yet been reversed.

Well, not entirely. Back in March the two main parties were each polling around 35%, with the Lib Dems and Greens on 15% between them; at the European election in May, the Conservatives and Labour were on 9% and 14% respectively, while the Lib Dems, Greens and Change UK took 35% of the vote between them. Today’s averages – Conservatives 42%, Labour 30%, Lib Dems plus Greens 18% – look a lot more like the first set of figures than the second; any argument that Labour, unlike the Tories, hasn’t made back the losses of the European election has to be qualified.

Nevertheless, we haven’t made those losses back as completely as the Tories have; a good 5% of voters do seem to have dumped Labour for the Lib Dems, and 5% of voters is a lot of voters. The question is what effect that will have. The short answer is, probably not very much of one; even if the Lib Dem vote isn’t squeezed any further (which is unlikely, as it has been inching downwards), 15% is well below the threshold at which the party – or any third party – can make serious gains.

As for what difference that extra 5% of ex-Labour voters will make, an awful lot will depend on where they are. I know personally quite a few people who are (a) rock-solid Remainers and (b) dubious at best about J. Corbyn Esq; they’re also members of the Labour Party, but never mind that now. More importantly, all those people live in a safe Labour seat. I wonder if the “internal opposition” mentality (as encouraged by e.g. Tom Watson) tends to flourish in safe Labour seats, where it’s possible to kick up about everything the leadership gets wrong without any risk of opening a flank on the Right – and, if so, whether the same can be said of those people who go the extra step of abandoning the party altogether. In short, I wonder if that extra 5% of Lib Dem voters, the ones who swung away from Labour at the Euros and then stuck, is actually an extra 10-15% in half or a third of the constituencies – specifically, the safe Labour seats. In all honesty there’s nothing to support this speculation; if it is the case, though, the effect will be that Lib Dem votes will count for even less at the election than usual (Labour would just take those seats with 45% of the vote instead of 55%).

Nature and arithmetic abhor a vacuum, so the knock-on effect of Lib Dem votes counting for less is that Labour (and Tory) votes would count for that bit more. Imagine 10% out of the Labour vote share shifting to the Lib Dems in 65 seats without affecting the result – that “winning on 45% instead of 55%” scenario repeated 65 times; imagine 5% in 130 seats, if that’s more believable. Either way, you’ve just dropped the Labour national vote share by 1%, without any decrease in the number of seats won. If it was going to take N% to win M seats, thanks to those defections to the Lib Dems it now only takes N-1%.

Who gets polled and who votes
The Graun reports that there are 56 seats where the number of potential first-time voters exceeds the winner’s majority in 2017 – and 28 where the number of voters aged below 35 is ten or more times the size of the 2017 majority. Thanks to the appalling state of electoral law at present, an estimated nine million potential voters are currently unregistered, but that number looks like being considerably smaller by the time registration closes at midnight on Tuesday.

Simply, we don’t really know what the demographic makeup of the electorate is going to be, although we do have reason to believe that it’s changed noticeably in the last few days; 670,000 people aged below 35 have registered to vote in the past week. Moreover, we don’t know what turnout is going to be like in particular groups – and, when political polarisation varies as much between age groups as it currently does, differential turnout can make a huge difference. All that polling organisations can do is make assumptions about the likely makeup of the electorate, assemble the most representative panel they can – a panel which is likely to be undersupplied with people aged below 35, let alone 25 – then weight the results to achieve representativeness, then weight them again to match turnout assumptions. And that’s a lot of assumptions – there’s many a slip between sample and result.

For many types of error you would expect different pollsters to err in different directions, so that their errors would cancel one another out, but in this case it wouldn’t be at all surprising if multiple companies made the same good-faith assumptions about the demographics of registration and turnout – nor would it be surprising if those assumptions turned out to be incorrect. And the likeliest effect of all these errors is an underestimation of the votes cast by younger people – who are much, much more likely to vote Labour.

The polls, notoriously, were wrong in 2017. Looking back at the data preserved at UK Polling Report, it turns out that they were wrong in a particular way: they clustered around figures of 44% for the Tories and 36% for Labour. In other words, they over-estimated the Tories by 2% – and underestimated Labour by 4%. There’s a chunk of salt to take the polls with. Of course, the polling companies carried out post-mortems – nobody wants to be wrong – and made changes, many of which (ironically) consisted of reversing adjustments they’d brought in to correct errors identified after the 2015 election. So maybe they’re on the money now. Or maybe the same thing’s going to happen again – or (perhaps most probably) something different is going to go wrong this time. Ci vedremo.

The ground war
If you go to the Website https://events.labour.org.uk you can find details of nearby canvassing sessions; all welcome! (I recommend it – you get to meet some interesting people and hear their stories, and it’s great exercise.) As I write it’s Sunday evening, and the Website lists 31 different events taking place tomorrow. (Which, as you may have worked out, is a weekday.) Labour has a lot of members, and we are doing a lot of canvassing. It’s a good thing to do. Where people have issues they feel strongly about, we can explain how Labour would help them; where people have negative preconceptions about the party or its leadership, we can offer alternative ways of looking at them; where people simply don’t want to know about ‘politics’, we can be there as a reminder that they have got a vote and they can use it.

Even a membership of half a million isn’t going to be able to knock on every door in the country, of course – but that’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re not focusing on safe seats (with all due apologies to everyone currently stranded in safe Conservative seats) – and safe seats is what most seats are. Personally I don’t expect to be spending much time in Stretford & Urmston or Tatton, as nothing’s remotely likely to happen this time which would make those seats change hands. But there are marginals in the Manchester area, and I’m going to be flying the flag for Labour down their streets – listening to what the people have to say about disability assessments and Brexit and parking permits and academy schools and anti-semitism, nodding and smiling when they say they just don’t like Jeremy Corbyn, sympathising and agreeing where I can, arguing where I have to, and generally being the friendly face of Labour. (Two people this afternoon thanked me for stopping to talk; one said I was the first political campaigner who’d knocked on the door in “years and years”.) I’m going to be doing that, along with lots of other people, over a period of nearly three weeks. A lot of people in those marginals are going to end the campaign with a very different view of Labour from the one they began with – and, perhaps, a very different view of Labour from the national picture, which is to say the one that gets into the opinion polls. It certainly can’t hurt.

So there’s quite a lot going on that doesn’t make the polls. The makeup of the sample consulted in the polls may not reflect the makeup of the electorate, while the turnout assumptions applied to polling data may not be reflected by actual turnout patterns; indeed, for Labour, ensuring that turnout patterns are different is a standing challenge. If the Brexit Party polls 5-10% in Labour seats, those vote shares may well come out of the potential Tory vote and make those seats that much safer. If the Lib Dems poll 15%, that’s unlikely to win many seats, and a substantial element of the 15% may run into the sand in safe Labour seats. And, even if the national results suggest that the Tories ought to come out ahead, the work that Labour volunteers are doing in marginal seats may be enough to swing them, and swing the overall result, our way.

As a Labour Party member I’m hoping that all of this will be academic, as Labour will be polling two per cent ahead of the Tories by the 12th of December. But if that’s not the case, it may be that climbing a smaller mountain will be enough to get the job done. 30%? Nowhere near enough. 35%? You might be surprised. (After all, it was good enough for Tony Blair…)

One Comment

  1. metatone
    Posted 25 November 2019 at 08:18 | Permalink | Reply

    On polling – it isn’t evenly balanced, so it doesn’t cancel out, but there’s definitely some kind of bimodal split (we don’t know around which assumptions) between the “Tories ahead by about 16” and the “Tories ahead about 11” pollsters…

    Going to be very interesting to see which is correct. One thing that is depressing watching poli-sci talk on Twitter is that it becomes very clear that “what happened with the polling in 2017” very much didn’t get the attention it deserved. The big defence now is “well, that MRP close to the final day got it right” – as opposed to pondering how months of polls portraying a massive lead for TMay might have distorted our politics pre-election…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: