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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The EU-Turkey refugee deal only succeeded in one thing

It swept the humanitarian crisis under the carpet.

The Greek island of Chios is a picturesque holiday resort, and home to some 50,000 Greek residents. The occasional cruise boat moors alongside the fishing boats which populate the main harbour of the island. Tourism and fisheries make up the majority of the island’s economy.  A 7km stretch of sea separates Chios from Turkey. It is so close that you can look across the water and see the lights come on in houses in Çeşme as night falls. This beautiful island is also one of the scene of an unfolding and largely untold humanitarian disaster. It is evidence that the EU-Turkey deal in March, intended to stem the flow of refugees, has failed. 

Chios is home to more than 3,000 asylum seekers. Refugees, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, make the perilous crossing from Turkey every day. Smugglers launch tiny rubber boats in the middle of the night, over capacity to a dangerous level, to attempt the crossing. One Syrian boy told us that the smuggler on the boat counted down from 10 to calculate when the best time was to purposefully puncture the side of the boat in order to escape the Turkish coastguard, but be rescued from drowning by the Greeks.

As a result of these cavalier strategies, this scenic stretch of water has become the grave of thousands. Those who are rescued by the Turkish authorities rather than Greece are often detained. Such high stakes has not deterred the refugees - one family we knew of had tried 17 times to get to Chios from Turkey. 

The main camp on Chios, "Vial", is at the end of a dusty track and is housed in a disused aluminium factory surrounded by barbed wire. G4S, the private security firm, guards the entrance to the European Asylum Support Office compound. It looks more like a prison than a place of refuge. The majority of the refugees live in metal containers. The camp was constructed to hold 1,100 and now holds approximately twice as many.

Most of the migrants and refugees who arrived in Greece before the EU-Turkey deal have been moved to the mainland, nominally in the hope of relocation elsewhere in Europe. More recent arrivals on Chios (and those simply left behind) have been subject to the hastily-adopted Greek Law 4375/2015, which allows for the lengthy detention of asylum seekers on arrival.

While camps on other Greek islands operate as de facto prisons, on Chios, the police allow refugees to travel around (but not leave) the island. A bus service is provided between Vial and the island’s main city, to allow those housed in unofficial camps to come to Vial for appointments. This is a tacit acknowledgement that makeshift camps are needed for those who cannot be accommodated in Vial’s limited facilities. Thus, the entire island is turned into an open prison camp, with asylum seekers unable to leave until their claims are determined, a process taking upwards of six months. During that time refugees, many of whom have fled from unimaginable horror, are left in an endless waiting game.

In May 2016, a Human Rights Watch report called the refugee “hotspots” on the Greek islands, such as Vial, “unsanitary and unsafe” . By September, when we arrived, the situation had not improved. The conditions in the camps around Chios were shocking. Violence was a daily event - both between asylum seekers and from the frustrated local population. Children, at risk of sexual exploitation and abuse, would simply disappear. We would spend hours searching the camps, armed with lists of unaccompanied minors, asking everyone we saw if they had seen this or that child. Some had already become desperate enough to risk their lives in the hands of human traffickers, in order to escape from the very place where they initially sought sanctuary. Shortly after we left Chios we heard that seven people had suffocated to death in a fridge trying to reach the mainland. Isis were known to be recruiting in the camps. 

Unaccompanied children were left to live together in overcrowded containers, often without enough beds. They would take it in turns to stay awake on guard. Food was often inedible. Access to medical treatment was limited. In Vial, the medical facilities were located inside the disused aluminium factory. To be able to speak to a doctor, you first had to get the permission of the police officers manning the entrance gate. People were sometimes left waiting there for days in the baking heat of summer.

It is no surprise that most of the refugees we met were self-harming, severely depressed and suicidal. It is also no exaggeration to say that everyone we interviewed said they would rather be dead than live in this limbo on Chios. Many of the refugees who arrive in Greece are already seriously traumatised. Large numbers of them are victims of torture, or bereaved or wounded by the Syrian war. Almost all have been forced to flee their homelands because of incomprehensible suffering. The reception they receive in Europe only reinforces their trauma. “I didn’t expect Europe to be like this," a Kurdish Syrian refugee aged 18 told us. His entire family (26 members) had been killed in one bomb blast and he had been subjected to horrific torture under the Assad regime.

We volunteered in the camps on Chios providing legal aid. Any hopes we had on arrival of facilitating the speedy settlement of refugees in Europe were quickly dispelled. The structures in place on Chios for the processing of asylum applications were at breaking point. A tiny team of under-resourced and overworked staff from the Greek Asylum Service and European Asylum Support Organisation try to work through the mammoth backlog of cases, but with officers only conducting two asylum interviews per day each, the process moved at a glacial pace. Every day of infuriating bureaucracy is another day vulnerable people are left in appalling conditions. During this indeterminate period of delay in an individual’s protection claim being processed, the authorities failed to take any steps to disseminate information or timescales which would have minimised the psychological harm caused by the never-ending uncertainty.

So what can be done? A French legal NGO collected the accounts of 51 residents in the camps and applied to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) to oblige Greece to take interim measures to safeguard the refugees from the risk of serious and irreversible harm. This application was quickly dismissed, with the residents being asked to wait (yet again) and abide by the usual procedures (yet again). The case of Raoufi and others v Greece, brought on behalf of several asylum seekers challenging their detention in camps in Greece, is pending before the ECtHR and doesn’t look likely to change the position for refugees in Europe any time soon. 

Some have placed their hopes in the controversial agreement between the European Union and Turkey, signed in March of this year. The heart of the EU-Turkey deal is the return of so-called "irregular migrants" to Turkey. Syrian refugees who reach Turkey are expected to make their asylum claims there and await relocation to Europe. Turkey will then, on a one-for-one basis, take migrants from Europe who have not patiently waited their turn. The supposed lawfulness of such a deal comes from the suggestion that Turkey is a "safe third country" to which to remove refugees. 

The attractiveness of this agreement to the EU, which comes at a cost of several billion euros, is that it may deter refugees from undertaking the dangerous (and politically inconvenient) crossing into Europe. While the European Commission has insisted that the numbers of refugee arrivals has fallen, their assertions are contradicted by aid agencies who point out that the temporary drop in arrivals following the EU-Turkey deal was short-lived. Refugees continue to arrive in large numbers on Chios, to face appalling conditions on reception. Few are returned to Turkey and the promised funding has not yet been provided to Turkey’s satisfaction.

Our experience on Chios was that the EU-Turkey deal is not only not working, it is fundamentally unworkable. Most of the refugees with whom we worked had passed through Turkey on their way to Greece. Almost all had stories of mistreatment in Turkey. In particular, we were told of guards on the Syrian border shooting and wounding at desperate people – including women and small children – attempting to cross into Turkey. Once in Turkey, arbitrary arrest and detention was the norm. Those migrants most likely to be returned to Turkey (because they cannot be returned to their country of origin) are Syrians, for whom Turkey is clearly not a "safe third country". Turkey’s systematic refusal to allow refugees fleeing Syria to cross its border is a clear breach of international law mandating the reception of refugees. Those refugees who manage to slip through into Turkey are left without meaningful protection or support. Kurds are systematically mistreated by the Turkish state while migrants in general face abuse by police, army officials and criminals. Turkey simply is not a safe third country for refugees, as is underlined by the tiny numbers of people found appropriate for return. 

The EU is seeking to resolve its refugee crisis by returning vulnerable people to inhuman conditions in breach of EU member states’ obligations under international law. The assessments as to whether the refugees are returnable to Turkey, are meaningless. Thousands of refugees are waiting for months for these assessments and yet a tiny minority have been found to be appropriate for return. 

In the meantime, a humanitarian disaster unfolds. The physical and mental health of those trapped in the camps deteriorate. Children are left without schooling or proper protection. Violence breaks out. Self-harm rises. Lives are irreparably damaged. Further delay, for political, economic or legal wrangling, is not an option. As long as the European Union fails to act, it remains complicit in these human rights violations. 

Miranda Butler, Maria Moodie, Bryony Poynor and Saoirse Townshend are barristers who recently volunteered in Chios, providing legal aid to refugees.