By Mike Phipps
A recent YouGov poll predicts a comfortable Conservative majority, but in reality it’s impossible to forecast the outcome of this election. The polls have been wrong for the last two elections, for a variety of reasons.
Normally the campaign itself makes little difference to the outcome of an election, but of course, in 2017 Labour gained 20 percentage points during the campaign. That election also saw record levels of voter volatility. Traditional social factors that once determined voting behaviour, especially class, have been declining for a long while, but this has been exacerbated in recent years by the way issues that cut across party allegiance – for example, immigration or Brexit – have disrupted traditionally political loyalties.
But the dominance of such issues is usually temporary. Immigration, so important in 2015, fell way down the ratings in terms of issue salience in 2017, perhaps because we no longer had a leadership pushing “controls on immigration” mugs as part of its election wares. Of course, Brexit, as an expression of nationalism, may transform everything for a long time. Scottish nationalism appears to be doing this in Scotland. If the major divide is Independence, represented by the SNP, and Union, most plainly expressed by the Tories, then inevitably the Labour vote gets squeezed. And of course, the strength of the SNP north of the border has a lot to do with the long term inadequacy of Labour through the Blair-Brown-Miliband years.
Are the fundamental drivers of electoral behaviour changing in England and Wales? News that Labour is failing to gain ground in key Leave areas is concerning, but there is also evidence that people are seeing beyond the binary choice of Leave or Remain.
Record levels of younger voters are registering and this could make a significant impact. YouGov also report that whereas a month ago only 33% of 18-24 year olds said they were absolutely certain to vote, now 58% say this. Among voters over 65, it’s 71%: the gap is narrowing.
Some polling organisations have corrected their estimates to take account of this, by around 3 percentage points, but there is not much evidence of their sampling methods changing. For example telephone polls still tend to be to landlines, in order to get geographical balance, but very few younger voters use these nowadays. It’s also worth adding that once reputable polling organisations are increasingly putting themselves at the service of big money and the Tory party. There’s quite a good dissection of the weekend Opinium poll’s inaccuracy here
Labour’s much bigger membership will also count in this election both in terms of doorstep conversion, identifying Labour voters and knocking up Labour promises on the day. There’s also Labour’s formidable social media campaign – one in four UK Facebook users saw a Momentum video in 2017 – as well as tools such as My Nearest Marginal, a Momentum app that was used by 100,000 activists last time. Older, less educated voters, especially outside the urban centres are much more reliant on traditional media, especially the Tory press, for their opinions, compared to younger, urban voters. The Sun of course had been on the winning side of every election since 1979, but we should also recognise that its readership has more than halved since then.
The broadcast media is more problematic, given their pretensions to neutrality, but their evident tendency to follow the agenda and narrative of many of the Tory tabloids. There’s a detailed analysis here, and while it’s a concern, it’s also increasingly a constant feature of all general elections.
We can’t expect Labour to gain 20 points in five weeks this time around. Normally, the smaller the gap between elections the less change in how voters vote, but it’s also worth noting that the winning post for Labour is different from the Tories. Johnson needs a majority. Corbyn could get in with a hung parliament and a deal with the SNP. Not perfect, but workable.
Whatever happens, one thing is clear: there’s no turning back from the path the Labour Party has taken over the last four years. The old guard have nothing to offer – that’s been clear since the leadership election of 2015 – and what’s more, it is we who are now setting the political agenda. This is true not just in policy commitments, but ideologically. Our redefining of private commodities as public assets, for example, higher education and broadband, will have a lasting impact.
How important will allegations of anti-semitism be in affecting voting behaviour? According to a survey in 2010, Jewish voters were evenly split between Labour and Conservative. In 2015 Jewish support for Labour fell to 15% in that year’s general election. In 2017 it climbed to 26%. This is remarkable give the two years of hostile headlines about Corbyn on this issue, but perhaps the real loss of support occurred under Ed Miliband, when more voices in the Party, including the leadership itself, were critical of Israel’s policy in Gaza. But, it should also be understood that the Chief Rabbi’s attack on Corbyn yesterday was not addressed to his flock, so much as being an appeal to non-Jews on why Corbyn was supposedly unfit for office. Not for the first time, it’s Corbyn’s personal integrity that is being targeted – but that’s because his lifelong commitment to principle over office is such a central asset to our campaign.
My feeling is our campaign is going well, better than the Tories’. There have been a few attacks from Blairite diehards (Blunkett, for example) and their media champions, but nobody seems to take Blair himself very seriously anymore. In contrast, Labour’s manifesto is genuinely transformative across all fronts – far better than 2017’s, which at the time was a real game-changer.
There also seems to be real enthusiasm in all the canvassing and other activity that I have been involved in. Having done this for nearly 40 years, I can say it feels less like a chore this time around, rather something to savour. When else would it be possible to knock on doors and have political conversations with total strangers about policies you feel truly enthusiastic about? The whole Party feels a lot more united than in the 2017 campaign too and Corbyn continues to remain popular on the campaign trail. I really think we can win.