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1 November 2019

Four misconceptions about the 2019 election

Although the contest is young, these four talking points are common – and perhaps mistaken. 

By Stephen Bush

The election has barely begun, and a lot is in flux. However, there are some ideas that I think are in danger of becoming received wisdom and dominating the election narrative that are, perhaps, unhelpful.

“According to an average of the polls” – the polls are showing two very divergent pictures

The problem with averaging polls together is it is a lot like blending different types of red wine together – you will end up with something better than the worst bottle, but also something worse than the nicest bottle. But at least you’ll end up with something the right colour.

The thing is, at the moment, the polls aren’t all presenting us with different types of red wine. We have one group of pollsters showing Boris Johnson with a big lead that is extending to the point where all of the talk about his fractured coalition, and the increasing difficulty of winning majorities, becomes redundant – and thanks to our first-past-the-post election system he wins a big majority.

We have another group of pollsters showing a Tory lead that is not big enough to guarantee a Conservative victory. Averaging these two groups of polls together tells us very little unless two things are true: 1) both sets of polls are wrong, and 2) they are wrong in ways that cancel each other out. It could be that both sets of polls are wildly understating the Tory lead or wildly overstating it. In this case, we might be blending together red and white wine – which doesn’t give you rose, it just gives you something that’s utterly useless. The poll average may very well be doing the same thing. 

“Boris Johnson has this in the bag” – the election is unpredictable and the campaign is long

The most important thing the polls show at the moment is that Boris Johnson leads Jeremy Corbyn on almost every metric you care to name: he leads on “preferred Prime Minister”, he leads on competence, he leads on running the economy, and the Conservatives lead the Labour party.

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But British voters are incredibly volatile and much more inclined to try different parties than ever before, our electoral system is very poorly designed to handle that, and thanks to the Electoral Registration and Administration Act of 2013, the contest will run for six weeks. A lot of things could go wrong.

“The election is unpredictable” – nonetheless, you’d rather be Johnson than Corbyn right now

That said, you’d rather be Boris Johnson than Jeremy Corbyn. His position is a lot like a football team being 2-0 up with ten minutes played. Sure, he might win, and yes, it would be pretty embarrassing if he were to lose or even simply to draw: but football teams capitulate at 2-0 up all the time and no self-respecting football commentator would declare “game over” with ten minutes over. Nonetheless, they wouldn’t necessarily describe the state of the game as it stands as “finely balanced” either.  

“Can Boris Johnson do better among Labour Leavers than Theresa May?” – he doesn’t need to

The Conservative campaign is essentially a better-managed reboot of the last one, in which the big wheeze is to unify as much of the Leave vote behind the Conservative banner, and leverage this to win seats that have been held by Labour for decades.

There’s a lot of focus on whether or not Boris Johnson can pull this off – Theresa May, for all her flaws as a candidate, had the major asset that she seemed more “normal” than David Cameron and was thus well-placed to pick up Labour Leavers. But she was still unable to pick up more than a handful of Labour seats in heavily Leave territory. Surely, Johnson can’t do better than her?

But he doesn’t need to. Johnson can many more seats with fewer votes provided he does a better job of holding together Theresa May’s 2017 coalition than Jeremy Corbyn does of holding together his 2017 coalition.

Take, say, Gareth Snell’s Stoke-on-Trent Central seat. Let’s say that Jo Gideon gets 11,000 votes – 2,000 votes less than her predecessor as the Conservative candidate, Daniel Jellyman, got in 2017, with the Brexit party the main beneficiaries. It doesn’t matter if the Liberal Democrats recover to say, midway between their 2005 and 2010 position and get around 6,000 votes at Snell’s expense: he’d still lose by 1,000 votes. If the Greens also improve, again, at Snell’s expense, he’d lose even without shedding a single vote himself to the Brexit party.

So talking about the loyalty of Labour’s Leave voters to the Labour party may be besides the point if Labour’s Remainers look elsewhere.