Labour canvassers look for votes. Photo: Getty
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5 things that we know for certain about the next election

The outcome of the election is uncertain. But there are some things that will definitely happen afterwards, regardless of the result.

Politicos and pundits spend their lives try to predict what voters will do. Sometimes it seems like more effort is spent trying to slice and dice the electorate than to actually win people over. But often it’s actually easier to predict the behaviour of the politicians, advisers, and observers than to try and work out what might be going on in the minds of the voters who are only intermittently paying attention. After all, Westminster folk tend to be a lot more invested in the result: even the careers of supposed neutrals may still depend on their calls proving correct and their specialist subjects turning out to be important. 

In just 29 days’ time, we will know the result of the 2015 election. After such a drawn-out parliament, that might feel extremely close. But psychologically, there’s a huge distance between how we feel now and how we’ll feel after all the votes are counted. Here are five predictions for 7 May that have nothing to do with how many seats are won, or who might try to form a coalition with whom. 

It’ll all feel inevitable

It’s intellectually possible to imagine a 1992 Kinnock victory or William Hague beating Tony Blair in 2001. After the votes are counted in this election, we will still be able to say “what if”. But once an event is in the past, we submit to what psychologist Baruch Fischoff called “creeping determinism”: the tendency to think that because something happened, it was the only possible result. He demonstrated this phenomena by giving Israeli students a description of a British military campaign and asked them to estimate the odds on the British successfully completing their mission. Some students were told of the outcome, some were not. Those who were told that the British had been victorious thought this had always been the most likely outcome, while those who didn’t know the result thought that the British had a one in three chance at best.

The most devoted losers will become more fervent

In the 1950s, in a classic piece of psychological research, academics at the University of Minnesota observed a doomsday cult that predicted a Biblical flood on a specific day in December. When the flood and the alien overlords failed to arrive on time, some of the cult members moved on. But the most committed – the ones who had lost or quit their jobs for example – didn’t give up. Instead they decided that their acts of faith had averted the apocalypse, and so it was now even more important to go out and spread the word. Such responses aren’t confined to people with extreme beliefs: if you have experienced a major defeat for an ideology you are deeply committed too, one of the most reassuring things to do can be to press on and try to recruit more followers, in part to shore yourself up against painful self-doubt.

The losing side will decide that the odds were against them

Suppose your side wins fewer seats than you hoped. One way of unconsciously rationalising is, in the words of two Canadian psychologists, “getting what you want by revising what you had.” They illustrated this by giving some students a deliberately useless set of extra classes. The students believed they had made progress but when it got to the exams, their results were no better than before. To make their beliefs make sense, the students started to mis-remember how they had been doing before the extra classes and revise down their past marks. From that perspective, even standing still looked like progress. Safe to say, whichever side disappoints will be quick to flag up what difficult circumstances they started from, desperate to feel that there has been at least some progress over the last five years.

Britain will feel more divided than it really will be

Everyone has nuances and doubts to their political views, but we don’t share these feelings with those we regard as our opponents, especially during an election campaign. That means the other side often looks more extreme and more certain than they really are. In one study, pro-choice and pro-life participants were asked to give their own view on a series of potential cases and then to estimate the views of the average member of the opposing side. While obviously the two groups disagreed, they both significantly over-estimated the distance between their views. When the political heat subsides after the election, we may be surprised by how much our MPs, of all parties, actually agree on.

Politicians will struggle to keep their focus on the electorate

In 2010, Labour lost a painfully large number of votes and a considerable number of parliamentary seats. Yet the party’s leadership election focused much more on what policies the different candidates would implement in office than on a future general election campaign. On the other side, the Conservatives had humiliatingly failed to win the public’s trust despite the financial crash, expenses scandal and everything else. But their best brains immediately started focussing on how to manage a coalition and an increasingly assertive right, with relatively superficial thought being applied to the coming contest with Labour. 

Politicisation is often thought to be synonymous with short-termism but this is not quite right. Building a coalition that can win a majority at a general election is a deeply political goal but it is just as long and painstaking a task as sorting out an economy or turning around a public service. Just like savers or dieters, politicians must delay the gratification of a quick headline, an easier meeting with a backbencher or a bigger round of applause at a party conference. Behavioural economics is obsessed with “nudges” that can help people to stick to their long term goals. Spend some time with politicians and you come to realise, they are in need of these nudges just as much as voters, perhaps even more.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.