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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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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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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Blueprint for a Constitutional Convention

In a new report published today, Alan Renwick and Robert Hazell examine options for the design of a constitutional convention in the UK. The report identifies and examines twelve key design features that need to be decided. These are summarised here.

 

Proposals for a UK constitutional convention are made by several parties in their 2017 election manifestos and have been prominent on the political agenda ever since the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. Such proposals are intended to address both widespread disillusionment with the state of democracy and deep constitutional challenges, such as those posed by Brexit and uncertainty over the future of the Union. But there has as yet been little detailed thinking about the form that a constitutional convention should take. In our new report, we seek to fill that gap. We examine the issues, explore the lessons to be learned from constitutional conventions elsewhere, and identify the pitfalls to be avoided.

Most supporters of a constitutional convention argue that it should not be a commission of the ‘great and the good’ and nor should it be composed solely of politicians. Such approaches may have been viable in the past, but expectations for democracy have moved on and more direct forms of citizen engagement are now widely advocated. Where fundamental questions about the country’s future form and direction are at stake, the voices of members of the public should be clearly heard. This attracts many to the citizens’ assembly model of a constitutional convention.

A citizens’ assembly is a body of citizens who are selected at random from the population at large. Stratification is used to ensure that, so far as possible, the assembly’s membership reflects the diversity of the population in terms of criteria such as gender, age, and place of residence.  The assembly meets over multiple weekends. First, the members learn about the options that are available and get the chance to quiz experts and discuss initial ideas among themselves. Then they hear from advocates of a wide variety of views – from politicians, campaigners, and members of the public who wish to be heard. Finally, they reflect on all they have heard, deliberate in depth among themselves, and agree conclusions. Those conclusions are written up in a report, which is submitted to government and parliament.

Citizens’ assemblies were first held around a dozen years ago in British Columbia, Ontario, and the Netherlands. The most recent official assembly of this kind is working at present in Ireland: it agreed proposals for the liberalisation of Ireland’s highly restrictive abortion rules in April and it will shortly move on to consider a number of other issues.

There is clear evidence that such assemblies work well: the quality of members’ engagement is very high and they can develop conclusions that are reasoned and coherent.  At least in Ireland, they have also done much to encourage wider public debate and shape decision-making.

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How can we improve discourse during elections and referendums?

The Constitution Unit has recently launched a year-long project, which seeks to understand how the quality of information and public discussion during election and referendum campaigns can be improved. In this blog post, Alan Renwick and Michela Palese set out the motivations and plan for their project, along with some initial findings.

Following the 2016 EU referendum campaign, concerns over the quality of political discourse have been raised by people of all political persuasions. For example, the Electoral Commission’s report on the EU referendum found that only 34 per cent of respondents agreed that the campaign had been conducted in a fair and balanced way, with 52 per cent disagreeing and 34 per cent disagreeing strongly. The most common reasons given were that the campaign had been ‘one-sided/unbalanced/biased/partial’ and that the information provided was ‘inaccurate and misleading’. Similarly, the House of Commons Treasury Committee reported that ‘The public debate is being poorly served by inconsistent, unqualified and, in some cases, misleading claims and counter-claims’. Efforts to tackle the spread of misleading statements and so-called ‘fake news’ have recently been increasing in the run-up to the UK general election on 8 June.

Despite such widespread concerns over the prevalence of misinformation and the need for fair and balanced debate, little research has been conducted on the quality, as opposed to the quantity, of electoral participation and deliberation. Our project, which is generously funded by the McDougall Trust, aims to fill this gap by examining measures for improving the quality of public discussion during election and referendum campaigns. If appropriate, we will conclude by making reform proposals for the UK.

We have begun our work by surveying existing practice across a wide range of democracies, which will allow us to identify areas and options deserving of more detailed investigation. Through this preparatory research, we have tentatively identified three sets of options:

1/ Interventions designed to prevent misinformation by directly banning campaigners from making false or misleading statements. 

So far as we are aware, the most developed application of this approach is in South Australia, where the Electoral Act of 1985 states that ‘A person who authorises, causes or permits the publication of an electoral advertisement … is guilty of an offence if the advertisement contains a statement purporting to be a statement of fact that is inaccurate and misleading to a material extent’. Similar measures can also be found in New Zealand and some US states, such as Oregon. This option gained some traction in the UK after the EU referendum. Last July, for example, 50 MPs signed an early day motion calling for the establishment of an ‘Office of Electoral Integrity (OEI) to factually verify the truthfulness of claims made during political campaigns, with powers to issue clarifications and fines where appropriate’.

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The Fixed-term Parliaments Act and the snap election

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act was supposed to have stopped Prime Ministers from calling snap general elections. But that is exactly what Theresa May seems to have done. Alan Renwick here explains what the rules say and why they have proved so weak.

We have become accustomed to a familiar choreography when general elections are called. Cabinet ministers gather to hear the Prime Minister’s decision. The Prime Minister drives to Buckingham Palace to request the dissolution of parliament from the Queen. Finally, the Prime Minister returns to Downing Street and announces the news to the world.

This time, the process is a little different. Cabinet ministers gathered. But Theresa May did not go to the Palace (we are told she spoke to the Queen by telephone yesterday, but there was no strict requirement for her to do so). Rather, following her announcement of what – interestingly – she described as the government’s intention to hold an election, Theresa May now has to seek parliamentary approval for the decision.

This is the consequence of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which was passed under the Conservative–Lib Dem coalition government in 2011. Previously, the Prime Minister could request an election whenever she wanted and the general expectation was that it would take exceptional circumstances for the Queen to refuse. Now, there are only two circumstances in which an early election can take place:

  • either two thirds of all MPs must vote for the election;
  • or the government must lose a vote of confidence and fourteen days must pass without the successful creation of a new government.

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