Olympics bounce: Cameron may be wrong to play down his chances

Rule one of politics: never assume people are "sensible".

David Cameron is probably right to play down an Olympics polls bounce, but the reason why is not as obvious as he makes out.

The Financial Times reports that the PM told colleagues:

People are too sensible to confuse a sporting event with their day-to-day lives.

Which is just not true. New rule of politics: never assume people are sensible.

A 2010 paper by political scientists Andrew J. Healy, Neil Malhotra, and Cecilia Hyunjung Mo (via WonkBlog), titled Irrelevant events affect voters’ evaluations of government performance, shows just that:

Does information irrelevant to government performance affect voting behavior? If so, how does this help us understand the mechanisms underlying voters’ retrospective assessments of candidates’ performance in office? To precisely test for the effects of irrelevant information, we explore the electoral impact of local college football games just before an election, irrelevant events that government has nothing to do with and for which no government response would be expected.

We find that a win in the 10 d[ays] before Election Day causes the incumbent to receive an additional 1.61 percentage points of the vote in Senate, gubernatorial, and presidential elections, with the effect being larger for teams with stronger fan support.

The authors also find that the more surprising a win, the stronger the incumbency affect; that the effect seems to occur because the happier people feel, the more likely they are to vote for the incumbent; and that if they are made conscious of their reasoning, the effect of irrelevant events diminishes.

So the real question for Cameron isn't whether people are "too sensible" to confuse a sporting event with their day-to-day lives; it's whether the sporting event makes them happier, and, if it does, who they attribute (subconsciously) that happiness too.

The former question is something we'll have to wait until the end of the games to properly answer. The Opening Ceremony, certainly, resulted in a tremendous outpouring of goodwill nationwide, and while it is still a bit too early to tell (literally – the morning rush hour has not yet begun as I write this), it seems unlikely that the much-feared transport chaos will hurt too many people. Partially, admittedly, because many, fearing the worst, have already gone on holiday/arranged to work from home/told their bosses they are planning to contract smallpox for a couple of weeks, so don't expect them in, OK? But also because most of the nation does not actually live in London, and is experiencing most of the games as a televisual event with no real downsides.

National pride will also play a part in any Olympics boost. If Britain wins a lot of medals, then expect at least some people to wander around feeling a lot cheerier than they might otherwise.

The latter question, though, is harder to answer. If the Olympics does make people happier, is it going to be on such a subconscious level that they just attribute it to whoever's in charge? But unlike most sporting events, there is actually some political relevance to consider. It was, after all, Labour who chose to bring the games to London, and who ensure the bid was a success. But it was the Conservatives who oversaw the high-stakes final stretch. And does more of the credit go to the successive Mayors of London, or to the Governments who were ultimately in charge?

Ultimately, the goodwill effects of the Olympics are likely to be too small, too diffuse, and too unclear in provenance to give Cameron much of a boost in the polls. But the reason for that is emphatically not because people are too sensible. Cameron's just lucky he's not being blamed for a tornado.

A spectator walks past the Olympic Stadium. But is she happy? Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.