Six thoughts on YouGov's MRP model of the 2019 election

The headline is Conservative victory. The underlying story is Conservative vulnerability.

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YouGov have released their famous seat-by-seat model about what they think the election would like were it held tomorrow. Some thoughts:

This is broadly what we’d expect from the polls

YouGov’s MRP model was greeted with excessive scepticism last time because while it accorded broadly with the direction of travel in the polls, it ran contrary to the conventional wisdom. That has given the model an elevated status, but we should greet it as we ought to have greeted the last one: with a cautious but open mind.

In this case, what’s striking is that ultimately, the MRP model is consistent with the picture in the polls. These numbers are basically identical to what you’d expect if you just used a very crude uniform national swing model (that’s where you basically go "Ok, if the Conservative vote is up five points in Harrogate, a safe Tory seat, it is also up five points in Hackney North, a safe Labour seat, but most importantly is up five points in Harrow West, a marginal constituency" and model the results from there). It fits with the picture of better than expected Scottish Conservative resilience – which we wrote about here – and of the Conservative advance into Wales, and parts of the Midlands and North.

There are some interesting local variations (of which, more below), but one of the surprising things about British politics is that despite becoming much more varied at a regional level, the overall national picture remains what you’d expect from uniform national swing, in both models and actual elections. The Conservatives’ 2015 majority ran through Morley and Outwood not Ilford North, but it nonetheless produced the “right” number of seats on a uniform swing. The 2017 lost majority saw them hold Plymouth Moor View and lose Kensington, but still: the overall number of seats was what we’d expect.

That said, there’s still a lot we can learn from this, not least…

Realignment looks set to continue

One of the neglected longterm stories of British politics, and indeed politics throughout the democratic world, is the change in voting behaviour. The parties of the left and centre are increasingly the party of the big city working class, ethnic minority voters of all incomes, graduates and social liberals. The parties of the right are increasingly the party of people in small towns of all incomes, the old, and the socially authoritarian. The economic left-right axis continues to matter in voting behaviour but it has less of a pull than it once did.

And we can see how that change continues to work through if this model is even halfway accurate. Labour would continue to hold Enfield Southgate, Hove, Wirral South and Ilford North, all of which it had never won until 1997 and were all far up its target list – when Labour won Wirral South in a 1996 by-election, John Prescott declared with some justification that if they could win there they could win anywhere – as well as Exeter, which they had won just once prior to 1997.

They will hold Enfield North, Battersea, Westminster North, Lancaster and Fleetwood, all of which were once seen as frontline marginals. They will hold every constituency in Bristol and every constituency in Cardiff if this model is accurate.

On the Conservative side, Elmet and Rothwell, once considered a traditional marginal, looks very safe, as does Harlow. In fact, if this model is halfway accurate, it will feel like a trick of the memory that Labour seriously feared it could lose Hammersmith at the start of this decade and only four years ago believed it could win Harlow.
The realignment holds for the Liberal Democrats, too: making big forward strides in Conservative territory, but potentially losing all their Leave-voting constituencies (though one of those, Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, would be to another Remain-voting party, the SNP), with Tom Brake facing a very tough battle to hold Carshalton and Wallington.

All of that together adds up to one important fact…

First past the post really isn’t working for anyone…

The really important overarching story here is that the Conservatives are ten points ahead in the polls and yet their electoral coalition only yields a parliamentary majority of the same size as the one Tony Blair got with a 2.8 per cent one. Despite the near-religious status that boundary changes have acquired within the Tory party and the tone of dread they inspire in Labour circles, boundary changes would not make a significant difference to this – we are talking about tipping at best five to six constituencies towards the Conservatives. The longer term changes to the parties’ bases of support, aggravated but not caused by Brexit, continue to make it harder for them to win decent majorities under our system.

YouGov think that the danger zone for the Conservative party is seven points – once their lead is at that point, it is not certain they can win a majority. The significance of that is that the Conservatives’ lead according to YouGov is ten per cent – that’s right, they are only a normal-sized polling error away from being in hung parliament territory not majority territory.

And they aren’t the only party poorly served by first past the post.

The Liberal Democrats obviously are the biggest losers here – they get close to double the number of votes they got in 2017, which was their worst ever electoral performance, but they gain just one seat overall because they rack up a number of decent second places in very, very safe Conservative seats that voted to Remain. Their problem can be described using three “Ws”: Witney, Woking and Wokingham. In all three they get over 30 per cent fo the vote but they get nothing for it because of the size of the Tory majority.

But Labour’s loss of most of its Scottish constituencies means that in 2015 it has effectively switched unilaterally to a proportional system: in 2015 and 2017 it got about the right number of seats for the number of votes it got and if YouGov’s model is right they will repeat the trick again in December.

But it is the Conservatives’ vulnerability that should preoccupy us because this model also…

Suggests that the increase in Labour’s voteshare is real

Over the last week, we’ve modest increases in the Labour vote, but because of the relatively small number of polls, it’s been hard to say for certain if these are just noise within the margin of error. Thanks to this and the rest of the polls, we can say with more confidence that Labour look to be increasing their vote, albeit by a small amount.

They are not yet at what Labour would need to force another hung parliament, let alone become a minority administration or a majority one, but it is a real increase nonetheless. And because of the Conservatives’ poorly-optimised coalition, they really don’t need a very big increase for the Tories’ majority hopes to vanish.

That would worry me if I were a Conservative. The other thing that would prey on my mind is…

This is actually, in an odd way, pretty good news for the Liberal Democrats as far as seats go

The biggest and most effective card that the Conservatives deploy in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat battleground is that this is a close election. That looks at the moment to be working for them very well.

But according to YouGov’s projections, and indeed pretty much all the polls, this isn’t (yet) a close election. If you are a Remainer who lives in Winchester, Cheltenham, South East Cambridgeshire, Cheadle or Guilford, all of which are within striking distance according to this, and would prefer to switch your Conservative MP for a Liberal Democrat one, but don’t want a Labour government, then this model is a pretty powerful argument to the Liberal Democrats that they can do so safely.

I don’t know how much oxygen the popular press and the broadcasters will give to this model and how they will cover it. But if I were in CCHQ, I would desperately be working and briefing towards the most sceptical, milquetoast coverage of this model as possible and if I were Liberal Democrat HQ I would absolutely be gagging for it to be covered as if it were delivered by the Almighty on two stone tablets.

It’s pretty catastrophic for the Liberal Democrats in terms of votes

One underrated event in the 2017 general election was the 2017 local elections, in which both Labour and the Liberal Democrats did catastrophically badly, but the signal voters in the (imprecise and flabby definition incoming) social liberal-left-Remain space took from it is that the Liberal Democrats were not a viable lever to unseat the Conservatives in most of the country and they rallied around Labour.

Again, I don’t know how widely this model will be covered or the tone it will be covered in. The more credulously it is covered the more likely, I think, that it will be very different from the final result. But on the face of it, this is a sign that in most of the country if you want to get the Tories out you have to pull the red lever. People may turn out to be sufficiently opposed to the red lever that they leave it well alone – but Labour has been given the tools to say that nationwide, if you want to stop Brexit or get Boris Johnson out, the only route to do that is them. 

Potentially neither – or just one – might happen. The Liberal Democrats might gain a few more seats but Labour might tread water. Labour might advance but the Liberal Democrats stay where they are. Labour’s advance might not be enough. But the Conservatives cannot weather both – and in the Lib-Con battleground in particular this MRP is a story of Tory triumph, but of vulnerability too. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.