Election replay with the experts: looking back at the 2019 general election

luke_moore1_500x625_0.jpgThe 2019 general election is now complete, but there is still plenty to say about the campaign, the rules that governed it, and the new parliament it has produced. Luke Moore summarises the contributions at our final seminar of 2019, where Unit staff were joined by other experts to dicuss the lessons of the election.

On Monday 16 December the Constitution United hosted an event entitled Election Replay with the Experts, at which four leading political scientists, including the Director and Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, looked back on the 2019 general election. The issues discussed included polling, women’s representation, the rules of the electoral game, and the effect of the election on the new parliament. The event was chaired by Unit Research Associate Lisa James

Ben Lauderdale – polling 

Ben Lauderdale, Professor of Political Science at UCL, started the evening by discussing the performance of polling at the election. During the election campaign Lauderdale had been involved in producing the much-discussed ‘MRP’ (multilevel regression and post-stratification) polling used to predict constituency results. His central message was that after two general elections — in 2015 and 2017 — in which some of the polls proved to be significantly out of step with the results, polling for the 2019 election is largely a non-story, as most pollsters were on target in their predictions. Further, the accuracy of the polls meant that the media was (in retrospect and in Lauderdale’s view) discussing the right topics during the election campaign. The most important of these was the prospect of a Conservative majority, but also the specific demographic and geographic weaknesses of the 2017 Labour coalition. While the terminology was a bit reductive and silly, it was not wrong to have focused on the vulnerability of Labour’s ‘red wall’ and Conservative appeals to ‘Workington man’. 

The success of the polling at this election was in part aided by being able to use the results from the 2016 Brexit referendum to model voting. In response to questions, however, Lauderdale struck a note of caution as he commented that by the time of the next general election (expected in either 2023 or 2024) the remain/leave divide may have been significantly diminished as a means to model voting intention.  

Sofia Collignon – women’s representation 

Sofia Collignon, who is a lecturer in political communication at Royal Holloway, University of London, spoke about parliamentary candidates with a particular attention on women’s representation. She started her presentation by highlighting how various prominent female MPs have stood down because of harassment and abuse. The data from the 2019 election however suggests that this has not deterred candidates putting themselves up for election, as a record number of both female candidates and overall candidates stood. Women represented 37% of candidates – a significant increase from previous elections – but this still means that women are, from a descriptive perspective, underrepresented. The proportion of female candidates varied significantly between parties with only 20% of Brexit Party candidates being women, while the Conservatives had 31% female candidates and the Labour Party candidates being the best party for women’s representation with 53% of candidates. This translated into a record number of female MPs being elected. For the first time ever one of the main two parliamentary parties, Labour, is majority female. In contrast, however, only 87 out of 365 Conservative MPs (24%) are women.

Despite the positive news about the overall increase in women’s descriptive representation in parliament, the presentation ended with worrying findings about harassment of parliamentary candidates. This used research conducted among candidates standing in 2017, which found that nearly half of female candidates experienced harassment during the campaign – significantly higher than the equivalent figure among male candidates. If this trend continues it is likely to lead to more experienced female MPs standing down at the next election as well, which could have detrimental effects on the substantive representation of women in parliament. 

Alan Renwick – the rules of the electoral game 

Alan Renwick, Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, spoke next, focusing on the rules of the electoral game in relation to the both the electoral system and the campaign rules. 

Regarding the electoral system he argued that the First Past the Post (FPTP) system did what was it was designed to do, in manufacturing a secure majority for the winning party in the House of Commons. This was the first election to deliver a strong majority since 2005. In a broader historical perspective, however, the election was typical: the largest party has won 40–44% of the vote in eight of the last 11 elections and, except in 2017, won a majority of seats on the back of that. In terms of proportionality, the result was less proportional than in 2017 (which, with the return to two-partyism, had been the least disproportional since 1970), most still more proportional than most other elections in recent decades. However, the election produced something of a skew in terms of Brexit preferences: parties favouring another referendum gained 52% of votes, but a minority of seats. Finally, Renwick considered how the electoral system performed in terms of voter choice. The parties’ positions in the 2019 election presented voters with a choice between anti-Brexit parties on the left and pro-Brexit parties on the right. This created large gaps in the system for voters who were either pro-Brexit but on the left or anti-Brexit and on the right. 

Turning to the campaign rules there was considerable talk during the election about the regulation of online campaigning and campaign funding. Despite recent pressure, no legal reforms have been made on either of these fronts. The tech companies themselves have acted, introducing ad libraries or, in Twitter’s case, banning all political advertising. Despite this, the problem of misinformation, particularly online, persists. 

Meg Russell – parliament 

The Director of the Constitution Unit, Meg Russell, was the final speaker; she addressed how the election will affect parliament. She started by stating that with a Conservative majority of 80, including many new and presumably loyal MPs, and a demoralised opposition, the Commons looks likely to become far easier for the government to manage. 

However, parliament may still present some challenges to the government. In the Commons, the Conservative wins in the previous ‘red wall’ Labour seats mean that many MPs are entering parliament who may have been unexpected and relatively unchecked by the party leadership. This is similar to what happened in 1997 with Labour, and such members could potentially prove an unknown challenge to the whips. A greater challenge to the government might come from House of Lords, which often feels emboldened when the Commons is weaker. This will be the first time since the Lords reforms of 1999 that there has been a solid Conservative majority in the Commons. A potential restraint on the Lords, however, may be the fear of retribution, as some in the government have previously mooted creation of hundreds of new peers to strengthen its hand in the upper chamber. Despite the best efforts of bodies such as the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House, prime ministerial appointments to the Lords unfortunately remain unregulated.

Future events of note in the new parliament include the passage of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. Its content on parliamentary oversight of the next stage of the Brexit process remained unknown at the time of the seminar (but has subsequently been clarified  – and significantly weakened since the pre-election version of the bill). There will be also be a range of other Brexit-related bills which need to be passed, including the Agriculture, Fisheries and Trade Bills. Further, there may need to be a  reorganisation of select committees in both chambers. In the Commons, if the government abolishes the Department of Exiting the European Union (DExEU) this would lead to the abolition of the DExEU committee (previously chaired by Hilary Benn), affecting both how the Commons oversees the Brexit process (with such reorganisation possibly causing delays to the timetable for the elections of the select committees). In the Lords, there could potentially be major reform of the select committee system, as the EU Committee is at the centre of the existing system. 

Meg Russell ended her talk by touching on the controversial page 48 of the Conservative Party manifesto regarding wider constitutional reform. She argued that many of the proposals – including abolishing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and changing the balance of power between the executive, parliament and the courts – were sparked by perceived problems with minority government in the 2017–19 parliament. With the those problems now over, there is a question of how much priority will be given to such reforms. Russell suggested that a key lesson of the 2017 parliament is that we need to learn to do minority government better. 

This blog is a brief summary of the presentations and does not address many of the points made during the later discussion phase of the event. You can watch a video of the complete event, including the Q&A, on our YouTube page.

If you enjoy the Constitution Unit blog, sign up for updates in the left sidebar, join our mailing list for news of our events and research, and support us through a one-off or regular donation. Donations are crucial to funding the blog, and the Unit’s research.

About the author

Luke Moore is a Teaching Fellow in British and Comparative Politics at UCL.