British politics and what we’ve learned after the 2017 general election

Last month’s general election delivered the latest in a series of political surprises, with the Conservatives falling short of a majority when many had anticipated they would win a landslide. On 21 June the Constitution Unit hosted a panel of election experts consisting of YouGov’s Joe Twyman and academics Justin Fisher, Jennifer Hudson, Philip Cowley and Alan Renwick to reflect on what happened. Fionnuala Ní Mhuilleoir reports.

Although we have become used to political upsets in recent years the outcome of the 8 June election nonetheless came as a surprise to many, including the Prime Minister, who saw her majority disappear when she had hoped to increase it substantially. How did this happen? How did the Conservatives manage to lose the massive lead they held at the start of the campaign, and Labour out-perform all expectations? How did the pollsters do after they had failed to call the 2015 election correctly? And what does the result mean for the government’s position in the new parliament, and for Brexit and beyond? These questions were all discussed at a Constitution Unit seminar held on 21 June, chaired by the Unit’s Director Professor Meg Russell. The panel included YouGov’s Joe Twyman, Professor Justin Fisher from Brunel University and Professor Philip Cowley from Queen Mary University of London. Dr Jennifer Hudson and Dr Alan Renwick from the Constitution Unit completed the line-up.

Joe Twyman

Joe Twyman opened the seminar with a brief post mortem on YouGov’s 2015 general election polling, which had predicted that the Conservatives would be the largest party in a hung parliament. The Conservatives went on to win 330 seats, securing a small but workable majority. YouGov subsequently identified three problems in the 2015 polling process: the samples used by YouGov and other polling companies to measure voting intention were not representative; figuring out whether people will turn out to vote is challenging; seat estimation across 650 constituencies is inherently very difficult.

Twyman then described how YouGov has responded to these issues. First, it has invested heavily in targeted recruitment, spending more than £100,000 in the last year to identify and recruit the types of people who were underrepresented in YouGov samples between 2010 and 2015, particularly those who were not interested in politics. Second, YouGov has updated how it analyses turnout. Thirdly, it has also developed a new seat estimation model.

This seat model, as is now well known, correctly predicted a hung parliament. In the run up to June 8 YouGov faced trenchant criticism, both from established commentators and on social media. Twyman reflected on Paul Krugman’s statement after the US election results that economists and commentators ‘truly didn’t understand the country we live in’. Through the efforts of YouGov, according to Twyman, we do now understand the country we live in a little better.

Justin Fisher

Justin Fisher began his contribution by drawing the audience’s attention to how important lead time ahead of an election is for party campaigns. The national and constituency campaigns have merged, with national campaigns now supporting the constituency effort. Lead time gives parties more time to plan targeting, information distribution, spending and fundraising. In a normal election campaign the critical period is the six-to-nine months before the poll.

The snap election left no opportunity for such advance campaigning. One implication is that this is likely to have been a much less expensive campaign than usual. Another is a shift in emphasis in campaigning techniques from direct mail (which requires lead time) to face-to-face campaigning and e-campaigning, which require much less preparation time. Fisher stressed that the evidence needed to confirm these expectations is still being collected.

Though the 2017 election may have accelerated the shift to e-campaigning, Fisher argued that campaigning techniques were partly heading that direction regardless. He also warned of what he called e-campaigning myths. He debunked the myth that micro-targeting of voters had only just been invented: parties have gathered data from phone calls and indirect mail for years. E-campaigning, therefore, represents evolution rather than a revolution. A further myth is the claim that because parties are using e-campaigning it must be effective. In 2015, research found it to be electorally effective, but less so than face-to-face campaigning. This has yet to be examined for the 2017 election.

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Monitor 66: The most unexpected election

The latest issue of Monitor, the Constitution Unit’s regular newsletter, has been published today. The issue covers all of the major UK constitutional developments over the past five months, a period that has included the unexpected general election result, the confidence and supply agreement between the Conservatives and DUP that followed, Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement of plans for a second referendum (later ‘reset’) and the beginning of Brexit negotiations, plus much else besides. The front page article is reproduced here. You can read the full issue at this link

Current British politics is rarely dull. Added to the unexpected result in the 2016 Brexit referendum and the subsequent Miller case regarding parliament’s role in the process (not to mention the Conservatives’ unexpected outright majority in 2015), we now have our second hung parliament in seven years, a resurgent Corbyn-led Labour Party, and a previously popular Prime Minister who appears to be on the ropes. All this following a general election that few expected, and that some even thought pretty much impossible under the 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act.

Following the successful passage of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act, authorising the trigger of Article 50 (see page 4), Theresa May surprised almost everybody on 18 April by proposing a general election for 8 June. Having started with what looked like an unassailable lead in the polls, in an election where she sought to strengthen her hand in parliament during the Brexit negotiations, she managed instead to lose her slender Commons majority and was forced into a confidence and supply arrangement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) (see page 6). Her authority within her own government is much diminished, and ministers have openly squabbled with each other over Brexit priorities. Meanwhile, Labour’s unexpected gains leave its previously fractious parliamentary party appearing suddenly united behind Jeremy Corbyn.

The results were also a blow to Nicola Sturgeon, whose Scottish National Party (SNP) lost twelve seats to the Conservatives, six to Labour and three to the Liberal Democrats. Conservative leader Ruth Davidson (who spoke at a packed Constitution Unit event during the campaign) in contrast made a strong case for the Union and gained further stature and negotiating power. Sturgeon acknowledged on 27 June that she would have to put the campaign for a second Scottish independence referendum on hold for the time being (see page 11).

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The EU referendum, one year on: public debate

Today is the first anniversary of the EU referendum. To mark this the UK in a Changing Europe Initiative and Political Studies Association have published a collection of essays titled EU Referendum: One Year OnAlan Renwick‘s contribution, focusing on the continuing weakness of public debate around Brexit and how it might be strengthened, is re-produced here. 

This month’s general election was supposed to be about Brexit. In her Downing Street statement on 18 April announcing her intention to seek the dissolution of parliament, Theresa May spoke of little else. She suggested that, without an early election, her opponents would have both the will and the ability to disrupt her efforts to negotiate the best possible Brexit deal. The vote, she hoped, would deliver a secure majority for her favoured Brexit plan.

Brexit’s low profile

In the end, however, Brexit did not dominate. It was mentioned on average 580 times a day in the main UK-wide newspapers in the week following May’s statement. But that fell below 500 for the following two weeks, then below 400 for the four and a half weeks between then and polling day – dipping to just 155 a day in the sixth week of the campaign, immediately following the Manchester bombing. When the BBC’s Andrew Neil interviewed the Prime Minister on 22 May, his questions turned to Brexit only in the last few minutes. Interviewing Jeremy Corbyn four days later, he asked nothing directly about Brexit itself, though he did enquire towards the end about immigration. The other main television debates and interviews gave Brexit more attention, but still it did not dominate.

There were at least three reasons for this. One, as just suggested, was the unforeseen and tragic eruption of terror into the campaign caused by the attacks in Manchester and London. This inevitably shifted the agenda towards the terrorist threat. It raised deep questions about both Theresa May’s record on police funding and Jeremy Corbyn’s record of opposition to counter-terrorism legislation and seeming friendship with certain terrorist organisations.

A second reason was the spectacular misfiring of the Tory campaign. Conservative strategists intended to focus on one core message: that Theresa May, not Jeremy Corbyn, was the person to provide the ‘strong and stable leadership’ needed for successful Brexit. But the Conservative manifesto introduced controversial policies – most notably on social care – that distracted attention away from that core message. The Prime Minister’s forced u-turn on social care undermined the credibility of the message. Veteran election watcher Sir David Butler tweeted (sic) that ‘In the 20 general election campaigns I’ve followed, I can’t remember a U-turn on this scale’.

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EVEL won’t worry the new government – but the West Lothian question may well do

Following the election result some pundits have suggested that English votes for English laws might be an obstacle to the government, given its reliance on support from non-English MPs, whilst others have suggested the procedures might provide the government with an enhanced English majority. In this post Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny explain that neither of these possibilities is likely to occur. However, the territorial balance of the new Commons could cause the West Lothian question to come back to the fore – though not solely in relation to England.

Amidst the swirl of punditry and opinion unleashed by this month’s general election result, attention has once again turned to the ‘English votes for English laws’ reform (otherwise known as ‘EVEL’) recently introduced in the House of Commons. EVEL aimed to address concerns about the capacity of MPs from outside England to exercise a determining vote on England-only legislative matters. Some pundits have suggested that it may well represent an acute obstacle, of the Conservatives’ own making, to the prospects of Theresa May’s minority government given its reliance on support from MPs outside England. Others, by contrast, have wondered whether EVEL might give her the enhanced majority she needs to govern England. In fact, neither of these possibilities is likely to occur.

Indeed, some of the more outlandish claims in circulation about EVEL supply yet more evidence of how poorly understood this set of procedures still is. In our in-depth analysis of its first year of operation – Finding the Good in EVEL, published in November 2016 – we argued that the EVEL procedures should be simplified, made more transparent, and be better explained by government. But, although EVEL itself is unlikely to greatly hinder this minority government in parliament, some of the wider issues underpinning the ‘West Lothian Question’ (to which EVEL was a very belated answer) may well resurface, and it is worth pondering those at this particular moment.

EVEL and the West Lothian Question

The arithmetic of the new House does mean that questions of territorial representation could well become divisive and difficult for Theresa May, and these may add to the formidable set of challenges ahead of her. But to understand these, we should first remind ourselves of the iconic West Lothian Question posed by the late Tam Dalyell in response to proposals for devolution in the 1970s. Dalyell raised two distinct issues. His central complaint was that, were devolution to be implemented in only certain parts of the UK, MPs who represented seats where devolution applied could, in principle, determine outcomes for those who lived in non-devolved parts of the UK, whilst MPs representing the latter could not do the reverse. Implicit within this, however, was a second observation: that devolution might legitimise the idea that any UK administration needed a ‘mandate’ to introduce legislation for territories where it was not the majority party.

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After the general election: what’s next?

Just two days after the general election, Professor Meg Russell, Dr Jennifer Hudson and Dr Alan Renwick of the Constitution Unit spoke at UCL’s It’s All Academic festival about the constitutional and political fallout. Michela Palese summarises what they said.

Theresa May called for a snap election on 18 April in order to increase the Conservative Party’s majority in the House of Commons and give herself a strong personal mandate for the upcoming Brexit negotiations. The election took place on Thursday 8 June, and its results caught both the Prime Minister and the general public by surprise. No party secured an overall majority of seats and the United Kingdom has its second hung parliament in less than a decade. The Conservatives are left relying on the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to form a government.

On the morning of Saturday 10 June the Constitution Unit hosted an event at UCL’s ‘It’s All Academic’ Festival. In this atmosphere of uncertainty, the Unit’s Professor Meg Russell, Dr Jennifer Hudson and Dr Alan Renwick provided some initial analysis of the results and explored some of the likely challenges facing the new government.

The Unit’s Alan Renwick (left), Meg Russell (centre) and Jennifer Hudson (right)

Candidates and campaign

Jennifer Hudson analysed the election from the point of view of campaigning and the composition and diversity of the new parliament.

She argued that, contrary to the Prime Minister’s expectations, it was hard to make the case that the election was about Brexit. In fact, according to a survey that she had conducted in early May, most people did not seem to have strong feelings towards the Brexit negotiations or leaving the European Union without an agreement.

Figure 1: Feelings of the British electorate on Brexit

As shown in the diagram, around 25 per cent of respondents felt either depressed or angry about the negotiations and the prospect of exiting the EU without a deal, but the general feeling on the topic was of relative indifference. This may reflect a shift in the debate on Brexit, with a majority of ‘remainers’ accepting the result and wishing for negotiations to proceed, and only around 20 per cent continuing to claim that the UK should remain in the EU and that there should be a second referendum.

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The performance of the electoral system: strengthening or weakening the case for reform?

In this post Alan Renwick assesses the performance of the first-past-the-post electoral system at last week’s general election. Focusing on eight criteria, he concludes that the problems generally associated with FPTP were milder in this election than in other recent elections. However, by failing to produce the single-party majority government that its proponents argue is a major advantage over proportional alternatives, the case for FPTP was nonetheless weakened.

Amidst all the profound issues affected by the election results – not least Brexit, the governance of Northern Ireland, and the sovereignty question in Scotland – the performance of the electoral system is not perhaps the most pressing. Nevertheless, a routine health check is in order. Did the electoral system perform better or worse this time than in other recent polls? Did this election strengthen or weaken the case for reform?

Any analysis of performance requires some assessment criteria. Many criteria could be used. In this post, I shall focus on eight of the most important.

1/ Single-party majority

The House of Commons is elected by first past the post (FPTP). While acknowledging its imperfections, supporters of FPTP argue that it has at least one crucial advantage over its proportional rivals: it generally produces single-party majorities, which, they say, help deliver (to coin a phrase) strong and stable leadership.

Clearly, that did not happen this time. Indeed, this was the second election in three that failed to perform as FPTP backers expect. Political scientists pointed out long before the first of those elections, in 2010, that the decline of the UK’s traditional two-party system since the 1970s had made such outcomes more likely. It is noteworthy, therefore, that this time we have a hung parliament even though two-party politics appears resurgent: the vote share of the two largest parties, at 82.4 per cent, is higher than at any election since 1970, and 17.4 percentage points up on the low of 2010. But though multipartism has declined, it has not disappeared: the minor parties still hold over 10 per cent of the seats – a higher proportion than at any post-war election before 1997. Unless things change dramatically, results such as this are likely to become fairly normal.

2/ A government with popular support

The flipside of the coin of so-called ‘manufactured’ majorities is the possibility that FPTP can give power to a government that commands only minority support among voters. Concern about this possibility reached its height in 2005, when Labour secured majority power on only 35.2 per cent of the votes cast and, given low turnout, just 21.5 percent of the eligible electorate.

This time, the Conservatives won 42.4 of the vote. Despite the failure to secure a majority of seats, that is one of the highest vote shares since 1970: only Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and (very marginally) 1983, and Tony Blair in 1997 did better. Theresa May’s party captured the votes of 29.1 of the eligible electorate. While this is the highest share secured by any party this century, it is lower than the share of any winning party between 1945 and 1997 except Labour in October 1974, owing to diminished turnout.

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Why democrats should welcome a hung parliament

Much commentary has presented the hung parliament that resulted from last week’s general election as a source of damaging instability. In this post Albert Weale argues that democrats should in fact welcome a hung parliament, where a parliamentary majority approves measures on the basis of the merits of the arguments rather than on the basis that they were included in the majority party’s manifesto.

The UK now has a hung parliament. Does that mean that British government is no longer strong and stable but weak and wobbly? To listen to much commentary, you would think so. But for democrats there are good reasons for welcoming a hung parliament.

The prevalent view of parliamentary democracy in Britain runs something like this. General elections are occasions of accountability of governments to the people. Parties stand on their manifestos, and if they secure a majority of seats, their democratic responsibility is to implement what they have promised. Through the Salisbury convention, the House of Lords will not frustrate measures promised in the manifesto. If the people do not like what the governing party has done, they have the opportunity to get rid of that party at the next election.

In this way of thinking, the first-past-the-post electoral system occupies a crucial role. It may not deliver a fair representation of political opinion, at least as judged by the test of proportionality, but it does secure stable government. It magnifies a simple plurality of the popular vote into a majority, often a large majority, of seats in the Commons. With such a majority, a government has no excuse for not implementing the programme for which it has received a mandate. That is simply democracy.

If politics were simply a matter of a contest between left and right, with the two major parties drawn towards the centre ground, this view of democracy might have something to be said for it. In the real world it has nothing to be said for it.

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