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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle