Thursday 15 June 2017

Learning from the General Election

So… about that General Election, then. It didn’t quite work out as most people thought, and it certainly didn’t go down the way Prime Minister Theresa May (above) hoped it might. When we started, a huge Conservative landslide looked on the cards. By the time it was all finished, the Conservatives had lost their majority, their momentum – and a lot of their self-confidence. We hold no brief for Mrs May, of course, a Prime Minister who it is hard to define amidst the cloud of wordy vagueness and nasty devils-in-the-detail her team have always put out in lieu of a coherent programme. But this was against our expectations – and forecasts – too. So we have to take a look at how reality caught up with our projections.

Our main working assumption was that British voters would never warm to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. We didn’t just come up with this idea off the top of our heads. That’s what the evidence said. He is the only British political leader to have never had a positive rating. His polling numbers started bad, worked their way down to appalling, and then disappeared through a trapdoor. So did Labour’s. Actual elections were, if anything, even worse for Labour. The 2016 locals, which were Labour’s worst in Opposition for thirty years. The 2017 local and mayoral votes, which were so bad that Labour supporters all feared that the party could be wiped out in short order. The by-elections – Witney, Richmond, Sleaford – in which Labour could record only pitiful scores. And most of all, Copeland, the worst by-election for an Opposition on some measures for over a century.

All the evidence pointed in one direction. We reported it. We explained what it meant: that Labour was dicing with a terrible defeat. So on one level there will be absolutely no eating of humble pie here whatsoever. Let others eat the crow. If anything, we were repeatedly far too bullish about Labour’s prospects. We thought that they could not possibly come third in the 2016 elections to the Scottish Parliament. They did. We thought that Mr Corbyn’s Labour could not conceivably lose Copeland. They lost it. We weren’t convinced that they would lose hundreds of councillors last May. They lost over 300. Our main regret? We didn’t shout louder, longer and more persistently about how badly Labour were doing. We failed to keep up with the shocking scale, scope and speed of their political implosion, a chain reaction which continued unabated until about a month before polling day.

There is all the difference in the world between regretting that your forecasts weren’t borne out, and apologising for them. The latter implies bad faith, deliberate misinterpretation, statistical cherrypicking. But there was none of that. We hunted high and low for evidence that we were wrong – something that we admitted was quite possible. We looked atlocal by-elections: a persistent swing against Labour. At opinion polls: historically, a Labour Opposition’s worst ever. At Liberal Democrat performance: rising, inevitably, after their victory in Richmond. We listened to rumour. We read about Labour’s own canvassing and its private analysis. It was all like a searchlight in the sky, and it was shining on a sign saying: Labour’s in dire trouble here.

The worst case scenario did not transpire. Labour went forward, by 30 seats and nearly ten per cent in their share of the vote. We are indeed very sorry that all the evidence proved to be worthless as a pointer to the final result. But apologies are not the point. Anyone can write ‘I was wrong’ – before writing a load more columns full of confident predictions. The really necessary thrust is explanation. Why did nearly every single piece of data that came in for eighteen months not accord with the final result when it was revealed by the exit poll a week ago? This blog will attempt to pick out a few reasons, in no particular order, as our contribution to that debate.

One last point, though, before we dive in: this analysis should be made to work in two directions. That is to say, Mr Corbyn’s supporters also have to take a good, hard look at themselves and ask: why didn’t we win? Why are we still 64 seats from an overall majority, and 60 MPs from a working majority? What parts of our analysis were wrong, or came up short of right enough – the comeback in Scotland (where Labour picked up six new MPs), young people’s renewed enthusiasm for politics, their attempt to attract ‘traditional’ Labour voters back from UKIP? Because although some of this does seem to have happened last week, it wasn’t enough to put Labour in power – always and forever the only hallmark of actual success. Labour actually seems to have gone backwards among working class voters, at least relative to the Conservatives, who did well with this part of the electorate. A bit of humility is always a good thing. Everyone should join in.

Anyway, here’s our six reasons why Labour outperformed our expectations at this election. They’re in no particular order, except perhaps the first one, and they also end with a lesson. Everyone needs lessons. Learning is better than apologising.

Punching voters in the face. The single most important fact about this election is that the Conservative campaign was dire. In fact, it wasn’t just dire: it was so bad that it amounted to professional negligence. Every day you watched and wondered whether Mrs May was a Corbynite sleeper agent. Not a single outside consultant should get paid for this one if Conservative HQ can avoid it. The whole thing was a total stinker. First the Conservatives emphasised Mrs May’s own rather dour character as a national leader. Fair enough. She was pretty popular. But then they blew up the whole thing on the launchpad by announcing plans for elderly social care that their core voters hated, and which forced her into a humiliating u-turn that she said changed nothing. Voters don’t like being taken for fools. They already suspected that the snap election was designed just to crush Labour (it was). Now they were being asked to view this fiasco as ‘strong and stable leadership’. The bonds of loyalty and admiration snapped, over just a few days. Take a look at YouGov’s famous (and vindicated)seat-by-seat model if you don’t believe us. Before the manifesto: a goodly-sized Conservative majority. Afterwards: a Hung Parliament. In some ways, that’s the whole story, right there. Conservatives, of all people, came sniffing round the value of older voters’ houses – just about the worst possible thing you can do in a country that has no religion but house prices. Voters didn’t like it. So the Tories junked the whole thing and said they never meant it – without saying what they’d put in their place. Funnily enough, you don’t win many elections poking voters in the eye with a stick, and then telling them you might do it again – at the price of promising that you might not gouge their other eye out quite so hard.

Campaigner Corbyn. We could just leave it there, with a defiant raspberry to Corbynite critics. But that would be entirely disingenuous. It would not truly examine what has gone on, nor reflect on what we have got wrong. What we didn’t see, or overlooked because of our prior assumptions. Here’s the next element in this astonishing turnaround: Jeremy Corbyn is a very good campaigner. Not amazing, but impressive. He knows how to seem accessible, avuncular, cheery, on the crest of a wave. He knows how to address the crowds, in his own inimitable style. He looks for all the world like a man of principle, a beacon of authenticity in a complicated world just full of people who’ll play you false. He makes every other public figure – Andy Burnham, Owen Smith, Theresa May – seem like just what they are: politicians, worried about saying the wrong thing in case they contradict one of their colleagues… or themselves. Yes, Mr Corbyn is a man of principle all right: an anti-poverty campaigner content to leave the working poor suffering under their welfare cap while he bails out high-income graduates; a career politician who was against NATO before he was for it; a man whose electoral gains were powered by Remainers, voters whose cause he deliberately betrayed in 2016; a human rights paragon who refuses to single out Presidents Putin or Assad for criticism; an 'unspun' leader whose advisors grope for a form of hyper-spun wordery about protecting everyone when he comes under pressure about national security; a leader, in short, who serves up a main course of humbug with a side-order of slightly sinister historical revisionism. We’re not going to let up on his actual views, by the way: once you see the trick involved, like one of those pictures that’s a vase and also two faces, it’s hard to unsee it. But one thing’s for sure: all those rallies? They looked like gold on television. They worked. Mr Corbyn is easy in his skin, and growing in confidence. He looks and speaks like a human being. Mrs May doesn’t. Therein lies another part of the tale.

No-one watches the qualifying rounds. You don’t need us to tell you that Labour’s been in a state for nearly two years. As farce followed drama, and imbroglio built on embarrassment, it just got worse and worse. Who can forget the constant Shadow Cabinet reshuffles that never were, and sometimes never even ended? The PR disasters, the gaffes and the u-turns? The resignations, the confusion, the rows over anti-semitism, the suspensions, the lists of friends and enemies left in the bar? Oh yes, it was all there. But here’s the thing: no-one was really watching. Your common-or-garden political obsessive (that’s you we’re talking about) watched the whole thing, and every day shook their head while saying ‘they’ll never, ever come back from all this’. Most normal people? They didn’t really care. They got the overall impression that Mr Corbyn and his party were quarrelling and incompetent, but that was about it. By the time they started paying attention, Labour’s top team had been left to it by MPs who thought they could safely trust them to mess it all up. They looked a bit more united. And Mr Corbyn had cut his hair, bought a new suit and honed his debating technique. Voters took a whole new look at Labour and its leader – and they quite liked what they saw. Most importantly, they had gained the impression that Mr Corbyn would come in, trip over his shoelaces and then smash his head on the stage. When he came over as quite interesting – musing over any issue you cared to explore with him, with a dash of humour and self-awareness – they thought ‘this guy’s not so bad’. Yes, it was a low bar. But he cleared it. As Mrs May’s numbers crashed, his rose and rose, until the two lines met in the middle and then passed each other. He’d neutralised his leadership problem: the Conservatives had helped him reduce the problem’s previously-gargantuan size, but he’d shrunk it down himself too.

The big bazooka. On top of all that, Labour came out with a manifesto that most people liked. Nationalising the railways? Popular. Abolishing tuition fees? Also popular. Keeping free school meals for infants? You’ve guessed it – popular. Social care for the elderly? Don’t worry, Labour’s got it covered. Just ask yourself this: if you were a middle aged couple with two children who wanted to go to university, and you were worried about two sets of elderly parents who might need nursing help at home, why would you not vote Labour? What we’re talking about here is the Government handing over £50,000 in free university fees, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of pounds of the capital gain built up in parents' houses. From this point of view, it’s astonishing that every single middle income person in the country didn’t queue up outside Labour HQ asking to be granted four or five votes. Labour should have got 80% of the vote. Amidst all the talk of young people and students coming out to vote in unprecedented numbers, what is being missed is the massive movement of thirtysomethings over to Labour – a trend that was especially pronounced amongst women, who of course often have to do all the work of caring for elderly relatives if no-one wants to pay for it. Young people’s turnout was up, but not to the extent that rumour made it: and there are nowhere near enough young people to win it for anybody, even if they all voted. The middle aged and the middle incomed did it for Labour, and they did it because Labour was brave enough to take a punt on middle class universalism. All kudos to them: they spotted the gap in the market and they ran with it. Labour: it’s better than being poked in the eye with a stick.

A menu without choices. For Labour’s voters to finally desert the party, they had to have somewhere to go. For a few moments over the winter, that looked like just such challengers were getting their boxing gloves sorted out. The Liberal Democrats thought that they could ride a wave of pro-Europeanism, gobbling up loads of angry Remainers from among Labour ranks. The United Kingdom Independence Party thought they could take chunks out of the Labour vote from its other flank, peeling off socially conservative Leavers in traditional Labour constituencies across Wales, the Midlands and Northern England. Well, now we know that those plans have ended in failure. The Liberal Democrats edged up for a while after their triumph in Richmond Park back in December: it did look for a moment like they could bring over liberal and cosmopolitan social liberals to their banner. Then? It all went wrong. They did poorly in this year’s local elections, as the blue tide of Conservatism carried all before it. Their momentum stalled. They started to look irrelevant, and then at the crucial moment their (now ex-) leader Tim Farron got embroiled in endless questions over his personal moral views. He regained his composure later in the campaign, even landing some blows of his own, but the Liberal Democrats never felt the wind at their backs again. Remain voters looked at them and said to themselves: could they really help us slow or stop Brexit? Once the answer was no, any sort of general breakthrough was beyond them. As for UKIP, well, two words: Paul Nuttall. Labour skewered him at the Stoke Central byelection in February – even more than he managed to skewer himself, which is saying something. UKIP never proved they had any sort of point beyond Brexit. Their vote collapsed as soon as Mrs May emerged as the champion of a tough approach to leaving the EU, and they never came back. Labour voters gradually and reluctantly coalesced around their ‘home’ party, providing a sound, solid basis for the later Labour surge on the back of both Lib Dem Remainers and Ukippy Leavers. Dislike the Tories? There didn’t seem to be any alternative but Labour.

Mind your language. What all the above says is: everything depends. We thought Labour doomed to terrible defeat, and almost every single day brought data that backed up just that case. But then Mr Corbyn decided to put in a late effort, making a deep if sudden impression on voters who had absorbed only the vague concept that he was a bit rubbish. His team went for broke with some really, really big spending pledges. And if Labour was going to get hammered, it needed opponents to perform the beating. The Conservatives’ campaign disappeared down a rabbithole. The Liberal Democrats and UKIP never even got that far. That reveals an important constant that we should have taken more care over: context is all. The closed nature of the language we originally used to describe the likelihood of Labour’s retreat is striking in this respect.  We said in September 2015 that ‘Labour under Corbyn will be lucky to drag its boats off the electoral beaches in a Dunkirk-style electoral disaster’. They’d probably return only 180 to 200 MPs, we said. Well, if that language had been more sensitive, more contingent, more focused on the ifs and whats and maybes, that would have been a perfectly respectable judgement. But you need to build in a sense of possibility, to say things like ‘unless the Conservatives collapse in division, or there’s a huge recession’, or some other qualifying clause that sounds like a cop-out, but only reflects uncertainty. Advice to self: next time, make sure you say that it is most likely to go down like this, that and the other, but that there are clear and discrete situations – that we can specify and imagine – in which the course of events might go off in a different direction. Historians should understand the nature of politics, as against the structural factors beloved of some other disciplines. We lost sight of some of that. The last few weeks have changed the end result, despite the very strong likelihood even at the start of the campaign that Labour was going to get an awful mauling. There’s a lesson there.

These are just a few random jottings towards a more fully worked-out version of the story. Views will evolve. We’ll cover some more factors – falling wages, declining house prices, the role of social media – next week. But the gap between forecast and endpoint is fascinating. It tells us a lot about how modern campaigns might now work, confounding our expectations about mid-term performance and eventual vote share. Figuring out how to reassess everything now will be an absorbing task. It’s more important than blame, apology or positioning. It should also be, well, great fun.