How much do we know? Photo: Getty.
Show Hide image

5 things you need to know about the next election

Is this election unpredictable? Are the main parties in good shape? We expand on Biteback's election guide.

For daily election news, analysis and predictions, explore our elections site, May2015.com.

The Politicos Guide to the 2015 General Election (ed Iain Dale; Biteback Publishing, 2014)

Earlier this month Biteback Publishing released a thick paperback guide to the next election. Its dozen chapters range from overviews of the parties to recent election results and profiles of individual constituencies.

It's an expansive and engaging introduction for any reader trying to make sense of the next 192 days.

We thought five ideas stood out. Here is a further reading guide for "politicos":

1. How unpredictable is this election?

For Iain Dale, the book’s editor and Biteback’s director, this election is the “most difficult to predict for twenty years”.

We took a look at why this is last week.

Now that we are more likely to vote for other parties than either of the major two, we can’t easily use “uniform swing” to turn national polls into actual constituency results.

To approach the detail forecasters have in US elections, we need regular marginal polls of the 150 or so seats that matter.

Lord Ashcroft’s polls are the closest thing we have. He has polled 76 seats across seven batches of polls so far. We have begun to cover them in depth here:

• "Will the Tories win any of Labour’s seats in May 2015?"
• "Ashcroft’s latest polls: Labour ahead but any majority likely precarious"

The public service he’s providing is invaluable. But he has only covered half the seats we need, and he hasn’t returned to the majority of them. Yet it will have already cost him nearly £1 million.

To approach the detail forecasters have in US elections, we need regular marginal polls of the 150 or so seats that matter.

In lieu of more polls we can use demographic data, as well as local and European election results, to get an idea of how specific seats might pan out. The recent Roberts, Ford and Warren Fabians report did this to show exactly where Ukip could threaten Labour.

And we can also keep a close track of national polls, even if they are of limited use.

• Our "Poll of Polls" keeps a rolling four-day average of all the latest polls from the UK’s eight major active pollsters live on our homepage.
• We are also regularly studying specific polls in-depth to explain and challenge surprising headlines.
• Looking at how polls have moved in the past can help too – our database has nearly 4,500 polls dating all the way back to August 1970.

In other words, it’s a little strong to suggest that “no one knows” how the Lib Dem’s collapse, or Ukip’s rise, will play out.

This election is complicated but we’re not clueless. But Dale is right – without more billionaires, predicting British elections will remain a mixture of extrapolation, implication and guesswork.

2. Labour and the Tories’ messages are apparently really clear

The Tories now have “clearer messaging and [more] hard-headed strategy” than in 2010, and Labour’s “campaign has a clear strategy, theme and message”, a pair of chapters tell us.

Someone let the voters know.

Not only are more of us now planning to vote for “other parties” than either of the main two, but the number of voters who do not identify with any political party has now doubled in the past thirty years.

Party activists may be reassured by their new campaign teams, but there’s little data to suggest either party is winning this election yet, and what either campaign’s ‘clear message’ is.

3. If they are clear they haven’t been convincing

The two main parties’ problems are detailed in Lord Ashcroft’s forensic essay in one of the book’s best chapters (available here).

As we argued on launch last month, Ashcroft suggests “too many people” still think the Tories exist “to benefit the few”.

“In government it has had the chance to show it is for those who want to get on, or just get by. The need for austerity and genuinely tough choices have made it a harder test to pass – but for the Tories to blame being in coalition would be a cop-out.”

This is why they still trail despite leading on economic competence and leadership. Their intentions are still mistrusted.

Lord Ashcroft’s forensic essay is one of the book’s best chapters.

As for Labour, Ashcroft argues they have not only failed to win back economic trust but have “refused to hand in their homework” by opposing every cut while complaining the deficit wasn’t falling fast enough.

His analysis highlights an under-discussed point. If Labour win this election it won’t be because voters that they lost between 2005 and 2010 have swung back to them. It will be because the Lib Dem vote collapsed and they held on.

4. Get ready for the Ukip posters

Ukip’s head of press, Gawain Towler, authors one chapter, in which he promises a “hard-hitting poster campaign” at the start of election season.

Voters in Rotherham, where Roberts et al. think Ukip could threaten Labour despite a near 30 per cent majority, got a sense of what that might mean this week with this poster, which played on the Labour-run council’s failure to counter child abuse.

Two other ideas stood out.

First, what do Ukip believe in? Towler argues they are “classically liberal”, believing society is “best governed when least governed”.

Labour will seize on pronouncements like this, using it as evidence in northern seats that Ukip are more Tory than the Tories: will such libertarianism protect the NHS?

Labour's attempt to paint Ukip blue has fallen flat in more working class seats like Heywood & Middleton.

Towler is resolute. He suggests the party’s “core messages matter more to the blue- rather than white-collar worker”. Labour can argue otherwise, but so far their attempt to paint Ukip blue has fallen flat in more working class seats like Heywood & Middleton.

Second, will theoretical Ukippers actually vote for the party in May 2015? As Towler says, the party’s greatest problem has always been a “credibility gap”. Voters can use by-elections to send signals, but they may revert to the main parties when choosing a government.

But recent data is encouraging for Farage and co. Ipsos MORI’s most recent monthly poll for the Evening Standard showed the credibility gap is closing.

If it did, the party could poll even higher. Yesterday’s fortnightly Opinium/Observer poll suggested 31 per cent of voters would vote Ukip if they thought the party could actually win their seat (although hypotheticals mean little if real numbers never match them).

5. What else do we know? By-elections, polls, Scotland and Twitter…

The book’s overview of by-elections is more of a description than an analysis. We analysed them here – "Labour have performed as badly as the coalition in by-elections since 2010" - and used past results to predict Heywood & Middelton would be far closer than the polls suggested.

Anthony Wells’ overview of the polls since 2010 is invaluable. Here’s a look at how the numbers have moved each year. Anthony’s data powers our historical polling graphs – you can read his polling thoughts on his site.

Is this the first “internet” election? We can add two ideas to Jay Singh’s overview. Demos’ Centre for the Analysis of Social Media looked at “7 ways Twitter will shape the next election” for us earlier this month, and the New Statesman profiled Labour’s new digital campaign team over the summer.

The book’s chapter on Scotland anticipates the renewed wave of Scottish polling we about to get, with YouGov releasing a Scotland-only poll this week and Survation soon to follow.

We expect this week’s Scottish polls to reinforce our findings on the rise of the SNP.

Last week we picked up how well the SNP are consistently polling in YouGov’s sub-polls. In 2010 they won 20 per cent of the vote, compared to Labour’s 42. A year ago YouGov’s sub-polls suggested little had changed. But now, in post-referendum Scotland, the SNP are polling in the early 40s and Labour have collapsed to around 25 per cent.

We expect this week’s Scottish polls to reinforce our findings, which could mean Labour loses dozens, rather than a handful, of seats north of the border.

Finally, the back half of the book is filled with stats, from election trivia, to demographic data and short constituency profiles.

The demographic tables, which show things like which seats have the oldest voters or most migrants, highlight how we could connect the way seats vote with the types of people who live in them (as our maiden index on the quality of jobs attempted).

"The Politicos Guide to the 2015 General Election" is available from Biteback Publishing for £13.99 in paperback and £9.99 as an e-book.

Explore May2015.com.

May2015 is the New Statesman's new elections site. Explore it for data, interviews and ideas on the general election.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

What the tragic case of Charlie Gard tells us about the modern world

People now believe medical science can perform miracles, and many search for them online.

If Charlie Gard had been born 40 years ago, there would have been no doubt about what would, and should, happen. Doctors treating a baby with a rare genetic condition that causes the body’s organs to shut down would have told his parents “nothing more can be done for him”. Charlie – deaf, epileptic, his muscles wasted, his brain probably damaged – would have died peacefully and unremarked. If an experimental US treatment had given such children an estimated 10 per cent chance of survival, his parents would not have known about it. Even if they had, they would have sorrowfully deferred to British doctors.

Now people believe that medical science can perform miracles and, through the internet, search the world for them. Yet they do not trust the knowledge and judgement of the medical profession. They rally public support and engage lawyers to challenge the doctors, as Charlie’s parents unsuccessfully did in the hope of being allowed to take their child for experimental treatment in America, despite warnings that it would be ineffective and distressing for him. This is a strange situation, the result of medical progress, social media, globalisation and the decline of deference. It causes much heartache to everybody involved but, like Charlie’s death, it is probably unavoidable.

Mogg days

A few weeks ago, Jacob Rees-Mogg was a 50-1 outsider for the Tory leadership. Now, as I write, he is third or fourth favourite, quoted by the bookmakers at between 6-1 and 10-1. For a few days, he was the second favourite, ahead of both Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond and behind only David Davis, the clear front-runner. Perhaps Davis organised rich friends – of which I am sure he has a few – to flood the market with bets on Rees-Mogg to frighten Tory MPs into rallying behind him.

But do not write off the man dubbed “the honourable member for the early 20th century” – generously, in my view, since he looks and behaves as though he has stepped off an 18th-century country estate and he actually lives on a 17th-century one. Rees-Mogg, a hard Brexiteer, would be an appropriate leader if we left the EU with no deal. Having excused ourselves from the world’s largest and most cohesive trading bloc, our best prospect for earning our living would be as a giant 18th-century theme park. Who better than Rees-Mogg to front it?

The royal revenue stream

Princess Diana is the gift that keeps on giving. TV companies produce documentaries on the anniversaries of her death and marriage. New tapes, photos and letters are unearthed. Anyone who cut her hair, cleaned her windows or sold her a frock can make a bob or two from “my memories of Diana”. Most important, Diana guarantees the future of the royal family for at least another half-century. In an ITV documentary, Prince William spoke movingly and sincerely (as did his brother, Harry) about losing a mother. Even the most hard-hearted republicans must now hesitate to deprive him also of a throne.

Strictly newsreading

I am a BBC fan. I regard the requirement, imposed by the Tories, that the corporation publishes the names and salary bands of employees paid more than £150,000 a year as an attempt to exploit “the politics of envy” of which Labour is normally accused. But I wonder if the corporation could help itself by offering even more transparency than the government demands.

It could, for example, explain exactly why Gary Lineker (£1.75m-£1.79m), Jeremy Vine (£700,000-£749,999) and Huw Edwards (£550,000-£599,999) are so handsomely paid. Do they possess skills, esoteric knowledge or magnetic attraction to viewers and listeners unavailable to other mortals and particularly to their women colleagues who are apparently unworthy of such lavish remuneration? Were they wooed by rival broadcasters? If so, which rivals and how much did they offer? Have BBC women received lower offers or no offers at all? The BBC could go further. It could invite a dozen unknowns to try doing the jobs of top presenters and commentators, turn the results into a programme, and invite viewers or listeners to decide if the novices should replace established names and, if so, at what salaries. We elect the people who make our laws and the couples who go into the final stages of Strictly Come Dancing. Why shouldn’t we elect our newsreaders and, come to that, Strictly’s presenters?

Mail order

A tabloid newspaper, founded in 1896 and now with its headquarters in Kensington High Street, west London, obsessed with the Islamist terror threat, convinced that it speaks for Middle England. An editor, in the chair for a quarter-of-a-century, who makes such liberal use of the C-word that his editorial conferences are known as “the vagina monologues” and whose voice is comparable to that of “a maddened bull elephant”. Sound familiar?

Two weeks ago, I wrote about Splash!, a newly published satirical novel about a tabloid newspaper from the long-serving Daily Mail columnist Stephen Glover. Now I have had early sight of The Beast, due out in September, also a satirical novel about a tabloid paper, written by Alexander Starritt who briefly worked on the Mail after leaving Oxford University. Like Glover, he pays homage to Evelyn Waugh’s classic Scoop, where the main characters worked for the Daily Beast, but there the similarities end. Glover has written what is essentially a defence of tabloid journalism. Starritt offers a fierce, blackly comic critique, though he cannot, in the end, quite avoid casting the editor Paul Dacre – sorry, Charles Brython – as a heroic, if monstrous, figure.

How many other journalists or ex-journalists are writing satirical novels about the Mail? And why the presumed public interest? Newspapers, with fewer readers than ever, are supposed to be dying. Fiction publishers seem to disagree. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue