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Although it is too early for a very detailed analysis of which groups voted which way in the UK election, here is a quick overview of my impressions of the campaign.
The election was called because the omens seemed favourable: the Conservatives were well ahead in the polls. Their cover story about the need for a strong hand in Brexit negotiations was plausible, but their timing was obviously opportunistic. In effect, a prediction about voting behaviour was taken as a chance to strike a blow against a weak enemy.
Once the election was announced, the polls continued to be favourable, and it looked like being the dullest election on record. As the weeks went on some cracks started to appear. The Conservative repetition of “strong and stable”, a necessary incantation in the ancient age of newspapers and television, became a joke in a multi-channel world used to getting varied messages and a continuing dramatic story. Their main character, the Headmistress in Blue, showed no character development. Meanwhile, the rival Grandpa in Red began to morph into a pop star. He loved the limelight, the debates and the chance to lap up applause. Campaigning in safe seats, he was pictured among large loving crowds, an impression that was widely shared and circulated in marginal seats. The Headmistress in Blue was less visible, and said little of note to enthuse people. She made a feeble anti-Corbyn joke about imagining him naked. He avoided personal attacks. Advantage Corbyn. He also changed his mind at the last moment and attended the main debate. The Prime Minister sent an under-study. Snooty.
Behind the scenes, it appears that the Conservatives went for a precisely targeted advertising campaign, while Labour spend their smaller sums more widely, and went for the sharing of a more varied, jokey stream of content. Crucially, they had apps to facilitate the young to register to vote, with an additional feature showing if they could swing more constituencies by voting at home or in their university constituency. Crafty. It probably won them many marginal constituencies.
Almost as an afterthought, the parties released their manifestos, which are normally not read by anyone other than the research departments of rival parties. The Conservative manifesto was a responsible company report about cost cutting; the Labour manifesto a cheerful list of spending on healthcare, schools, the police, public sector pay rises, pensions and free university tuition, the extra cash to come from taxes on corporations and high earners. In the battle of counter-claims the Conservatives came off worse, having to reverse their policy on the funding of old age care. Damaging on two grounds: they were cast as being nasty, and also in disarray.
The British electorate, for centuries accustomed to free beer during elections, drank Labour. Young voters drunk most deeply. Accustomed to primary and secondary education being paid by others, it seemed logical to them that the third stage should also be free. More deeply, they were offered protection in an uncertain world, where home ownership seemed unattainable. Hope is a powerful drug, and the Conservatives peddled little of it. A Conservative MP who failed to be re-elected named the causes as “lots of complacency and a terrible manifesto”.
For once, some pollsters got it right, and there was far less herd behaviour among them than last time. The Conservative vote stayed roughly the same, the Labour vote rose progressively. Pollsters who assumed that young voters would turn out to vote predicted the outcome more successfully. Labour managed the social media campaign better, with a more communitarian movement of “likes” and “shares” of varied political jokes than did the Conservatives, who went for more traditional ads which did not gain as much personal traction. A friend repeating a joke is more powerful than yet another annoying ad which interrupts a personal conversation.
So, for anyone interested in the prediction of human behaviour, there is much to learn. The political wisdom had always been that: the polls taken before the election were the best indicators of the outcome; that the campaign and the debates did not matter much; that elections were won before they were announced; that terrorist attacks favoured the Conservatives who stood for law and order, that the old voted, the young were more likely to stay in bed; that slogans needed to be repeated endlessly; and that attacking the competence of the other side was always a good strategy.
All these nostrums have been proved wrong in this instance. Labour built its share of the vote by the nature of its campaign, and the British always love an under-dog. Attacking Corbyn’s past did not resonate with an electorate facing uncertain personal futures and mostly too young to remember the IRA bombing campaign. The economy was barely mentioned, so it was not “the economy, stupid” other than the oblique sense of “personal calculations of future job prospects and home owning” which of course depends on a flourishing economy, but these considerations did not favour the Conservatives, as they usually do. The Conservatives, wanting to show they could deliver, failed to over-promise. The United Kingdom Independence Party vote did not go back exclusively to the Tories, but many Labour voters who had voted Leave to stop immigration (most of which had resulted from the previous Labour government) went back to Labour, once they too said they had cooled on immigration. The young disproportionately voted Labour either because A) they were ignorant of history, and were bribed or B) the older generation had cheated them and they wanted just recompense.
One nostrum proved to be correct. Wiser political operators have noted that the electorate always needs to be bribed, and the skill lies in doing it adroitly, without it being too obvious. Excusing student debt (at the cost of £11.2 billion) may not seem to be a bribe, but it worked. The Conservatives failed to bribe anyone very much, not even farmers, traditional allies who would have liked reassurance that Brexit would not mean an end to farming subsidies.
After Brexit, Remainers said disparagingly of Brexiteers that “they had voted to return to 1954”, the year before mass immigration began. Looking at the Labour manifesto, it could be said that their supporters “voted to return to 1945” the year of Labour victory and mass nationalisation. In my view both these intended historical insults miss the point. The only real argument against policies which have been tried before is that they have been shown to have failed. If the electorate want less immigration, or nationalisation of industries, they can vote for it now. Evaluating whether those policies worked in the past would be sensible, because there is much to criticize in both policies, but the past is another country, particularly for the young.
As you will know from my previous posts, I am tired of journalists claiming after elections that “the country is split”. Elections reveal existing differences, which is what they must do as part of the electoral process. People have different opinions, and are swayed by different arguments. The detailed results have yet to come out. Typically, Steve Sailer already has good data from post-election opinion polls, but we await true exit poll results. Meanwhile, the percentage intending to vote Labour next time has gone up.
The very last constituency to declare its results, after three recounts, was a battle between two women Councillors, one Labour, one the sitting Conservative MP, both known to me. As a Councillor, the Conservative had helped me with a local development issues; the minority Labour councillor did what she could to support me in another campaign on behalf of residents. Different perspectives, but both involved with, and attentive to, the needs of residents. Against prediction, the established Conservative MP lost by 20 votes. As it should be, politics is a rough business, and as a (Liberal) former Deputy Prime Minister observed when he was defeated after a 12 year parliamentary career: “if you live by the sword you die by the sword”. They may get a second chance soon.
Another nostrum was proved correct, though it was ignored by the Prime Minister’s advisers. Avoid calling elections unless you really have to. Politics is not that much of a popular pastime in Britain. The British do not like the sight of adults arguing in public, particularly in summer, when one is on the lookout for a few moments of good weather in which to have a picnic with the family. This wisdom about not bothering people with politics was enunciated by Brenda from Bristol:
To the dismay of this redoubtable lady, and probably to most of the electorate, we will probably be getting more elections before 2022.
Oh no, not another one!