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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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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