From regional swing to the appeal of the centre ground, this election has torn up the campaign rule bookby Peter Kellner / June 9, 2017 / Leave a comment
That ripping sound you hear is political scientists tearing up their textbooks. Gone is the notion that election campaigns have only a limited effect. Gone is the notion that the most English constituencies and regions swing between Labour and Conservative in broadly the same way. Gone is the axiom that the only way to make big gains in votes is to fight elections from the centre.
Some of the old verities had frayed in previous elections—notably the way Scotland drifted, psephologically, away from England and Wales in 2015. But now the rulebook must be comprehensively rewritten. To take those three points in turn:
1. The campaign effect
It looks as if the Conservatives enjoyed a 44-29 per cent lead over Labour across Great Britain in the days immediately after Theresa May called the snap election. (I have adjusted the polling averages to take account of the way most of them understated Labour support in their final surveys earlier this week.) Immediately before the Conservatives launched their manifesto, their own vote was around 47 per cent, against Labour’s 33 per cent, as both gained from the decline of smaller parties. Then the Tories’ social care fiasco produced an almost instant three-point swing to Labour, to bring the vote shares to 44-36 per cent.
Then, in the final fortnight, Labour kept climbing, as The Lib Dems slipped back further, the SNP slipped in Scotland, Ukip finally collapsed and—possibly—Green supporters in key seats switched to Labour. Thus the final division: 44-41 per cent. The Tories ended up where they started: gaining from Ukip, and losing to Labour and other parties in equal measure. The final upshot—a 12-point campaign gain for Labour—has been far greater than in any previous election going back to the start of UK polling in 1945.
2. Regional swing
The variety of constituency and regional swings is also unprecedented. Scotland produced a 13 per cent swing from SNP to Conservative, while London saw a six per cent swing from Tory to Labour. The rest of England and Wales swung 2-3 per cent from Conservative to Labour. Thus the general election mirrored last year’s referendum in producing three distinct geographies: then, we had pro-Remain London and Scotland at odds with pro-Brexit provincial England and Wales.
As for individual seats, contrast Mansfield, a seemingly safe Labour seat lost on a 6.7 per cent swing, with Ealing Central and Acton, where Labour’s Rupa Huq was defending a knife-edge majority of 274 and ended up enjoying a majority approaching 14,000. In general the swing to Labour was greatest in pro-Remain areas and least in pro-Brexit areas (Ealing was 71 per cent remain; Mansfield, 71 per cent leave), but even here individual seats varied enormously.
3. The centre (ground) cannot hold
Labour’s 12-point campaign gain was self-evidently associated with the party’s most left-wing manifesto since 1983. Previously, when Labour seemed on course for a vote share in the mid-thirties, I argued that an equally good campaigner standing on a more centrist platform might do even better, and actually lead Labour to victory. But the party’s eventual 41 per cent vote share leaves that argument looking shaky.
On the other hand, Labour did still lose the election, and one reason it climbed to 41 per cent is that England, at least, has returned with a vengeance to two-party politics. This means that the winning post, which since 2005 has been 36-38 per cent, is now around 45 per cent in terms of Britain-wide vote share.
An outstanding campaign by Jeremy Corbyn, a truly dreadful campaign by Theresa May—and Labour still fell short. If there is another election in the next few months, can Labour gain the 1.5 million more votes it needs to win a majority? Or has a left-wing prospectus reached its ceiling in circumstances that are unlikely to be as favourable again as they have been in the past six weeks?
That is a genuine question: after the dramas of the past 24 hours, I don’t know the answer.