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 future of electoral reform: the importance of the personal dimension

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On 26 July the Constitution Unit held a launch event for a new book by Alan Renwick and Jean-Benoit Pilet on the ‘personalisation’ of electoral systems. At the event Alan Renwick outlined the book’s key findings, which were then discussed by electoral experts Justin Fisher, Darren Hughes and Roger Scully. Zander Goss reports on the event.

There is a well-known trend in contemporary democracies towards so-called ‘personalisation’, through which increasing attention is given to individual politicians and candidates rather than political parties. In a new book published earlier this year by Oxford University Press – Faces on the Ballot: The Personalization of Electoral Systems in Europe – the Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, Dr Alan Renwick, writing with Jean-Benoit Pilet of the Université libre de Bruxelles, offers detailed analysis of one aspect of this phenomenon: the personalisation of electoral systems. At a launch event on 26 July chaired by the Unit’s Dr Jennifer vanHeerde-Hudson, Dr Renwick was joined by a panel of electoral experts consisting of Professor Justin Fisher (Brunel University), Professor Roger Scully (Cardiff University), and Darren Hughes (Deputy Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society), to discuss the book’s findings and its implications for electoral reform in the United Kingdom.

The ‘personalisation’ of electoral systems

Alan Renwick began the seminar by outlining some of the book’s core arguments. He defined the personalisation of an electoral system as ‘the degree to which voters under that system can express preferences among individual candidates and the degree to which those preferences determine which candidates win election’.

In order to examine trends in such personalisation, the book analyses changes in electoral systems in European democracies since 1945. It finds that electoral reforms changed fundamentally in the late 1980s. Whereas, before that time, there was no trend towards more or less personalised electoral systems, since then, many European countries have shifted their electoral systems towards greater personalisation. Furthermore, the processes underlying these reforms have also changed. Before 1989, electoral reforms were primarily driven by parties and political elites, while public opinion received scant attention. Since 1989, by contrast, reforms have often been motivated – at least in large part – by a desire to respond to public disengagement from or disillusionment with political parties in particular, and politics more generally. Thus, while political elites continue to hold the reins when electoral reforms are enacted, they have grown more responsive – or, at least, have sought to create the impression of being more responsive – to public opinion and voters’ desire for change. Yet the book also finds that these reforms have had only limited effects. There is some evidence that voters are now using opportunities to express candidate preferences in greater numbers, and these preferences are affecting who gets elected to a greater extent than before. But if reforms were intended to tackle rising dissatisfaction with democracy or reverse growing disengagement from electoral politics, there is no evidence that they have done so.

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Reforming party funding by stealth and compromise may have longer-term consequences

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Since the 2015 general election the government has introduced two measures –proposals relating to trade union political funds and cuts to Short money – that have the potential to affect the funding of at least some political parties. Justin Fisher argues that reforms such as these that have an asymmetric impact on parties could have longer-term consequences by causing a future government to exact ‘revenge’. That would do little for the prospects of reaching consensus on the vexed question of party finance reform.

The phrase ‘stop-go’ has become a useful means by which one can characterise Britain’s approach to party finance reform since 2000, when the wide ranging Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act  (PPERA) was passed. Despite PPERA, the ‘problem’ of British party finance has refused to go away and, in the relatively short period since its introduction in 2001, there have been two subsequent government sponsored inquiries, both of which have recommended significant further reform but have failed to see their proposals implemented. The result is that Britain has developed a stop-go approach to reform, whereby reviews are entered into with reforming zeal, only for the ensuing proposals to be shelved by a failure of the main political parties to reach agreement. However, since the 2015 election two measures have been introduced which have the potential to affect the funding of at least some parties. In both cases the final proposals are likely to be somewhat less radical than was originally envisaged but could nonetheless have significant short- and longer-term consequences.

The Trade Union Bill

The election of the Conservative majority government in May 2015 very quickly signalled that reforms related to party funding would be attempted, not as a comprehensive attempt at reform, but with possibly far reaching consequences for some parties. In July 2015, a Trade Union Bill was presented, which included a clause requiring trade unions with a political fund to operate a ‘contracting-in’ system rather than a ‘contracting-out’ system. This had been a Conservative Party manifesto commitment, but went to the heart of the Labour Party’s relationship with the trade unions, following the Trade Union Act 1913. This established that for trade unions to engage in political activity, they must create a separate political fund. This covered all political activity – not just that with the Labour Party – and trade union members were required to actively ‘contract-out’ if they wanted to avoid paying this modest additional fee. The 1913 Act laid the ground rules for an important aspect of Labour funding for much of the next 100 years. Political activity through the Labour Party would be expressed collectively through a union’s decision to affiliate to the party.

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