Calamitous May, Innovative Polling, and the Young Vote: On The 2017 General Election

Amid the uncertainty of a hung parliament, what can hardly be overstated about the 2017 general election result is just how much of a disaster it represents for Theresa May. Having called an unnecessary election believing herself in a position of barely-precedented strength – despite repeatedly vowing no snap election, with her spokesman reiterating the point less than a month before her brazen-faced reversal – she has lost seats and reduced her party to a position of minority government.

The sole purpose of the election was to win for May and the Conservatives an overwhelming, opposition-crushing majority. They were defending a working majority of 17 seats. After the snap election was called on 18 April, early polling suggested as much as a 21-point Conservative lead over Labour, and the prospect of a majority somewhere between 200 and 150 seats.

Even as the Tory campaign faltered, with a couple of weeks to go Lord Ashcroft was still projecting 396 seats for the Conservatives, for a majority of 142.  And with less than a week until the day of the election, most of the major polling companies were predicting a Conservative majority in excess of 60 seats.

Only YouGov – who utilised an innovative multi-level regression and post-stratification (MRP) model, which relied on big data in the form of 50,000 interviews each week, analysed key demographics to project outcomes on a constituency level, and adjusted to obtain a nationally representative sample – and Survation – who also boast an MRP model, but based their most publicised projections on a combination of online and telephone polling – were proved more or less correct.

With one week remaining until Thursday’s big date, YouGov had the Conservatives on 317 seats, and Labour on 253 while the rest of the pollsters had the opposition lingering in the low 200s. And while they skewed slightly too far in Labour’s favour come their final forecast – projecting 302 seats for the Conservatives and 269 for the opposition – YouGov keenly outlined both the trend and the reality of the final result. Meanwhile Survation – the most accurate polling company of 2017 with a polling error of less than 1% – in their final projections gave the Conservatives a polling lead of a mere point.

A high turnout and an apparent voting surge from young people seems to have confounded most of the pollsters, with only Survation taking the young – most of whom are drawn to the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn – fully at their word. As part of #GenerationVote, the National Union of Students and related campaigners helped to encourage more than two million young people onto the electoral register.

On the surface Theresa May’s campaign seemed proactive, her schedule targeting Labour strongholds in Aberdeenshire, Cornwall, Yorkshire, and Lancashire. But she emerged as a poor speaker and a slow thinker, unwilling to engage with the general public or local press, her campaign tightly controlled while she stuck to parroting slogans, the inane repetition of ‘strong and stable’ and ‘coalition of chaos’ in the end subjecting her to even more scorn than her seaside struggle with a cone of chips.

Far from a strong Thatcher-esque leader, May increasingly appeared a case of the emperor’s new clothes, domineering but lacking in substance, unable to countenance much less cope with an off-the-cuff remark or dissenting point of view. Her manifesto brought prolonged agony for the Conservatives, initial misgivings over the scrapping of free school lunches for infants and a vote on fox hunting exploding into a fiasco over ‘dementia tax’ which saw their poll lead plummet over the course of a weekend.

May might have better survived what swiftly became a crisis had she not embarked upon yet another stunning U-turn while refusing to own up to the fact. Inserting a cap on lifetime social care costs where none previously existed suggested a manifesto shrouded in secrecy and ultimately ill thought through.

It showed a lack of nuance for matters of policy and presentation, and allied to the proposed means testing of winter fuel payments and scrapping of the pension triple-lock, remarkable complacency with regard to the Conservatives’ core constituency, the ageing and already old. But the general public might have been more forgiving if she had not insisted ‘nothing has changed’, proving herself both contemptuous and the most stubborn of cheats.

As she stumbled on the campaign trail and fell headlong closer to home, May still found time to tussle with Jean-Claude Juncker and the European Union, and eventually sought to hunker down amid the cosy confines of Brexit, leave votes, immigration and ‘control’. Yet whether through sickness or scepticism, at this election the explicit mention of Brexit has not won votes. The Liberal Democrats no doubt did the left a service by resolutely attacking the vacuous May, but their focus on the ‘Remain’ side of the equation won them a paltry 4 seats, when last time they lost 49.

On the other hand, talk of a Scottish National Party collapse north of the border has surely been grossly overstated. The general election has tapped in to stark differences over the matter of Scottish independence, with those against seemingly grouping together in some cases to deprive the SNP of seats. But before 2015 they held only 6 seats in Westminster, and after dismantling Labour last time round, 35 from 59 seats in Scotland is still a respectable total, leaving the question of a second referendum very much on the table in the long term.

Perhaps Nicola Sturgeon’s call for a second independence referendum had something to do with the snap election, but most likely it was a simple case of political opportunism gone wrong. The idea that Theresa May needed a strong mandate for Brexit negotiations – faced with an utterly compliant parliament and a European Union with quite discrete negotiating concerns – never carried much weight. An election in 2020 always seemed unpalatable for May, who will be under siege from all sides at a time of transitional arrangements and economic instability as Britain ekes its way out of the EU.

Now however she has hastened her own demise more than any other Prime Minister. She was at least set for four more years. Instead by the early hours of Friday, Boris Johnson was reportedly on manoeuvres, and George Osborne was gleefully decrying a ‘catastrophic election’ and ‘one of the worst manifestos in history by a governing party’. Anna Soubry said that May should ‘consider her position’, and though MPs soon began tempering their criticisms with the onset of Brexit negotiations in sight, May’s future looks tenuous at best.

Jeremy Corbyn on the other hand is more settled than ever in his position as Labour leader, brimming with confidence and basking in the rosy glow of an unexpected result. It was Corbyn, not May, who was supposed to be out of a job after the election. Instead he has proven his capacity for invigorating young voters in particular, and has gone some way towards reshaping the argument on the economy, away from austerity and towards the need for spending and wage increases.

The thought still lingers: what might he and Labour have achieved without a year and a half of the press and senior members of his own party adamantly insisting – policy be damned – that he was simply impossible to elect? In the end we are still likely to be left with a Conservative government, buttressed however controversially with Democratic Unionist Party support. Even if all of the left-leaning parties – Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, and Caroline Lucas who did a fantastic job in Brighton Pavilion, increasing her majority as the solitary Green MP – banded together they would still not hold enough seats to form a tenable government.

But the tide has slackened if not yet turned. Against the incessant right-wing logic of austerity, chest-thumping over sovereignty, and the demonisation of immigrants and the EU, there finally seems space for other arguments and gestures. Perhaps there will be another election before the year is done. Right now it is worth basking in the sunny spot where Theresa May’s overweening ego once cast its shadow. Even Donald Trump’s presidential bid last year contained more in the way of ideas than her sorry election campaign. This was politics reduced to a cult of personality, only with a leader who possesses none.

 A version of this article was originally published at The Shimmering Ostrich.