What’s Up With That UK Election Thing?

Back in 2010, electoral politics in the UK seemed fairly consistent.  Labour had a small but steady majority in Parliament, the Tories were the minority and the Liberal Democrats were the fringe.  But then the Tories took power in 2010 and formed a majority with the Liberal Democrats.  Labour dropped precipitously.

After five years of Tory rule, the Conservatives seemed on the brink.  But, thanks to the rise of the nationalist UKIP and David Cameron’s brilliant move to support a vote to leave the EU, conservatives rocketed to a majority and vastly outperformed the polls.  Two years later we have seen the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour splitting, Brexit, and the fall of David Cameron.

Most recently, due to a slate of polls and new Tory Prime Minister Teresa May’s need for a mandate to cement her position in upcoming Brexit talks, a general election was called for next Thursday (June 8th).

That was then.  This is now.  What looked like a sure thing for the Tories to bolster their majority has turned into anything but.  The Tories have dropped from leading in the polls 20 plus points to less than five (mostly outliers) in some.  So what has changed.

Partisanship Still Matters

Partisan polarization extends outside the United States and exists in the UK.  Unlike in neighboring Germany, France and Spain where political parties rise and fall or the two major parties forming a governing coalition (Germany), clear partisan differences are found in the UK.  As a result, voters form strong partisan preferences as a result.  For example, in 1983 when Labour was massacred for positing a party manifeso that was called “The longest suicide note in history,” they still won 209 seats and 28 percent of the vote.

There are many, many, popular Labour politicians in constituencies (districts) across the UK.  Millions of voters have supported Labour since they first cast a ballot.  It’s easy for a Labour voter to tell a pollster they will not support their party because they dislike Corbyn but when push comes to shove are they really going to sit out the election or vote Tory after witnessing policies be espoused they oppose?  Are they really going to vote against their local MP they like?  Probably not.  In essence, some sort of reversion to the partisan allegiance mean was likely always going to occur.

A Good Campaign (And Policies) Matter

Jeremy Corybn still leads a fractured party.  He and his supporters are far to the left of other Labour voters and the nation in general.  But, contrary to predictions Labour would disappear, they remain fairly relevant and their party manifesto offers clues why.

Labour has fused left-wing policies like nationalization of  U.K.’s rail, water, energy, and mail companies (which are politically popular but policy disasters) with more centrist policies like raising taxes (modestly) on the rich, strengthening the NHI, renewing the Trident nuclear submarine program and recommitting to hitting the two percent NATO defense spending target.

The Tories, contrary to their initial beliefs, have not found their sweet spot.  For the most part, the Tory manifesto is popular with voters.  But, as with the risk of any manifesto with many policies, one bad policy can dominate the news cycle.  Well, that’s exactly what happened.

The Tory Manifesto proposed changing the way home healthcare visits are paid for (passing on more costs to the elderly).  In the media this became known as the “dementia tax” and the Tories suffered.  The damage was made worse by two factors.  First, a party reliant on older voters does not benefit from scaring them and second the party was done no favors when May withdrew back the policy but said she did not.

That brings us to Corbyn and May themselves.  Both are horrible on the stump.  But where Corybn is loathed in policy circles due to his leftiness, May fits right in.  But, on the stump, Corbyn pitches a form of genuineness in his beliefs.  May, by contrast, seems to just go through the motions and seems to want to return to Parliament as soon as she can.  These candidate qualities might make a difference only to partisans and at the margins but right now (if the polls are right), the margins are where a good and great night for the Tories will be decided.

For Once, Instability Might Be Helping Labour

Labour has suffered of late with the rise of third-parties.  The Liberal Democrats took swing constituencies from Labour in 2010.  In 2015, the rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP) made Labour an after thought up North.  UKIP’s rise in local elections the same year and general election shook blue-collar Labour voters loose from their traditional moorings and handed dozens of constituencies to the Tories by large margins.

Labour’s worst nightmare, and the Tories biggest wet dream, was that Labour would shed voters of all stripes to various parties.  Liberal Democrats would get the centrists and the Tories would get blue-collar and rural voters.  UKIP would also peel some blue-collar voters from Labour.  But this has not happened or at least not to the extent the Tories envisioned.

Consider UKIP’s stated reason for existing has been accomplished (Brexit).  Even Labour has come on board to the idea (though they had to be dragged kicking and screaming).  As a result, UKIP as a party now faces an existential crisis with its major policy issue accomplished.  Further, UKIP is bleeding support all the way down to around five percent in the polls.  Even if former UKIP supporters split 30/70 for Labour and the Tories, Labour gets the better end of the deal and the polls are reflecting this.

The latest ICM poll proves the point.  The tracking poll finds of former 2015 UKIP supporters 34 percent back the Tories, 20 percent split between Labour, UKIP and 18 percent don’t know.  Even if the don’t knows go clearly to the Tories, Labour will have picked up needed votes in hostile constituencies demographically (margin constituencies).

There is only one major party left in the UK that wants to stay in the EU; the Liberal Democrats.  This was supposed to give them something to campaign on but instead it has made little difference.  The reasoning was solid.  A solid minority, 48 percent of voters, wanted to stay in the EU and these voters were supposed to be ripe for the plucking.

Two problems exist with this theory.  First, Remain voters were far less passionate about their position than Leave voters.  Secondly, a large number of Remain voters sit in regional party controlled constituencies (paging the SNP).  Yet another reason is Brexit has now been decided in many voters minds and as a result a large number of voters are deciding on issues of more immediate importance.

Much like UKIP, the Liberal Democrats now face more questions about their future than answers.  The party’s hope of reaching or surpassing their 2010 totals of 23 percent and 57 seats is now a pipe dream and they are now simply hoping to hold the number of seats they currently have.

The Polls Could Be Wrong

Now the good news for the Tories.  Recent results have not been kind to the polls or their general consensus (in the US as well as the UK).  Polling had Labour and the Tories tied in 2015 when the Tories actually beat Labour by six percent and dozens of constituencies.  Last year, the polls pegged Brexit failing by a tiny margin.  Instead, Brexit won by a clear four percent majority.  In the United States, all I need to say is Trump!

Polling is currently flummoxed by a doozy of issues that are not going away.  The biggest is that education is becoming a big driver of vote preference (not just in the US) but also the UK.  College educated voters are more likely to answer polls and as a result the polls are likely to skewed to the left leaning party of the day (Labour).  This is especially true because college educated voters are likely to be younger (the newest and biggest dividing line in UK politics).

This means historically the polls have underestimated Tory performance.  This would be especially true if former 2015 UKIP supporters come home to the Tories.  Many marginal and traditionally Labour constituencies could fall like dominoes.

Finally, consider this.  Unlike here in the US, polling is not done district by district or state by state.  Only national polls are taken and then the data is aggregated down to the district level.  This could be good and bad news for the Tories.  They could rack up big and meaningless margins in safe constituencies or they could over perform in areas ripe for gains.

The aggregate distribution of the polling also matters because of who is expected to turn out.  The newest and biggest divide in the UK is age.  A younger electorate benefits Labour and an older electorate Conservatives.  So, who the polls expect to turn out certainly will change the top line and down-ballot numbers quite a bit.

Some Sort of A Tory Victory Is All But Certain

Short of an epic meltdown the Tories should have a decent night next week.  But, it is likely to fall far short of what May and party leaders hoped for seven weeks ago.  The Tories have led in every major poll of the contest and Labour might be benefiting from polling bias.  But, making a Tory majority a near certainty is Labour’s fall in crucial areas like Scotland and its lingering weakness in blue-collar areas in the heartland of the UK.  Still, considering where Labour was in March when the election was called this might be a comfort to party leaders who worried it might take them a decade or more to recover from the losses of this election.



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