Readers, I failed you.
In my last post, I predicted that the Conservatives would win a comfortable majority in the British general election, which turned out to be spectacularly wrong. It is true that many pollsters, pundits and political experts also got it wrong, but this provides me with scant comfort as Forecasting Intelligence (“FI”) is supposed to be superior to the conventional wisdom of the Pundocracy.
The writer John Greer, whose book I have reviewed before, wrote an article (which is no longer online), when Jeremy Corbyn (“Corbyn”) got elected Labour leader in 2015, predicting the Corbyn surge. He argued, presciently, that Corbyn’s Bennite brand of old-school socialism offered an alternative to a set of economic and political policies that had failed the majority of the population. The stagnating wages, the growing income inequality between rich and poor and the nearly decade of austerity by the ruling Conservative Party would inevitably lead to an electoral backlash.
A young person growing up in 21st century Great Britain in the twilight era of a declining industrial civilisation faces the prospect of crippling student debt, a ferocious competition for good quality jobs, sky high housing prices and overwhelmed public services heaving from the burdens of an ageing society, mass migration and years of public sector austerity. I haven’t even mentioned the growing but partially hidden crises of climate change, resource depletion and the massive army of jihadi extremists walking our streets. The truth is that the Tories under Theresa May had nothing to offer younger voters and this was reflected in the ballot box.
Yet, I anticipated this aspect of the election in my blog, predicting that Labour would do well in the university towns (for example Cambridge, Oxford, Bath and Canterbury) and the metropolitan cities, for example London seats like Battersea where the Tories lost an 8,000 majority to Labour. Whilst I didn’t specifically write about Scotland in this general election, the huge anti-SNP tactical voting validated my prediction made last year that we would not see another “Indyref2” referendum anytime soon.
It was in the Midlands and the North of England, the Brexit Rust Belt constituencies, which failed to swing Conservative which destroyed the Tories chances of a comfortable majority. It was also the basis for my forecast of an enlarged Tory majority.
During my pre-election review, prior to writing my post, I struggled to find any writers among the Corbyn Left, who expected anything other then a disastrous defeat for Labour in the Brexit northern heartlands. It was the overwhelming consensus from Labour MP’s, activists and pollsters that Corbyn was toxic for many traditional Labour voters and as a consequence the Tories would sweep the board. This turned out to be massive political intelligence failure by both political parties. My mistake was to assume that Labour campaign headquarters had accurately read the mood of their own supporters.
However, there were clear signals throughout the campaign that something was going disastrously wrong for the Tories. The Yougov experimental poll predicting a hung parliament turned out to be spot on. The writer Rod Liddle in the Spectator wrote during the election campaign that many northern Labour and UKIP voters were turning to Labour rather then the Tories as expected. Similarly, the moment when the BBC Question Time audience laughed at Theresa May when Jeremy Paxman accused her of being a blowhard should have raised a bigger alarm bell with me then it did. When the electorate are laughing at you, it is a sure sign of danger, as Ed Miliband and David Cameron can both attest to.
What worked in the 2015 general election failed in this election. In May 2015, David Cameron won a shock majority despite all the polling evidence to the contrary. Although it was pre-FI, I successfully forecast the Tory majority, and placed money on it on the political betting markets, using the underlying polling data on perceptions of economic competence and leadership. David Cameron had a significant lead over the Labour leader Ed Miliband on who was more trusted to run the economy and be the best Prime Minister. In the end, despite what the surface polling indicated, the voters went for the party who was best judged to run the country best.
This time around it was different. Whilst Theresa May enjoyed significant leads on both issues going into Election Day, her likability and favourability ratings had collapsed compared to the surging Corbyn. Throw in the political uncertainty of Brexit and the clear desire for revenge among many Remain voters, and the normal rules of politics were thrown away. Across the Western world, electorates are increasingly prepared to vote for change candidates who are perceived to be outside the despised political class. Emmanuel Macron brilliantly positioned himself as an outsider of a corrupt and failed Parisian political establishment and swept to power on that same anti-establishment wave.
When the dominant political and economic ideology, neo-liberalism, fails the majority of the electorate, people will vote for a leader who offers an alternative assuming that they are sufficiently charismatic and plausible. This is the lesson for the Tories, who failed to own the “change” message, and suffered accordingly.
Corbyn was successful because he was charismatic, offered a set of policies that appealed to many voters, particularly younger voters, and promised a New Jerusalem to a population increasingly tired of a failing business as usual status quo. The Labour party played a superb game on Brexit, appealing to middle class Remain voters who want a soft Brexit whilst signalling to their traditional base in the north that they would restrict immigration through a hard Brexit. At some point Corbyn will have to choose between a soft or hard Brexit and will end up disappointing one side or another of his new electoral coalition. Whether it is Great Grimsby or Kensington and Chelsea remains to be seen.
The writer John Greer has a chilling warning to those who dismissed Corbyn’s chances in a general election, “…the British politicians and pundits who are busy decrying Corbyn’s election just now might want to temper their rage and consider the alternatives: if Corbyn fails, Nigel Farage and the UKIP party are waiting in the wings to harness the public’s frustration with the abject failure of business as usual, and if Farage falls in his turn, what replaces him could be much, much worse.”
After Trump, Brexit and the Corbyn surge, who would now dare dismiss such a warning?
There is no doubt, to paraphrase the old Chinese curse, that we live in interesting times…
2 thoughts on “British general election: What went wrong?”
You can’t win ’em all as they say!
Seriously though I think you’re right it just boiled down to personalities on the day – Corbyn somehow appeared to have charisma and well obviously May doesn’t have any, but we all underestimated just how badly she comes across to ordinary voters. Still the Tories did manage to win more votes than the last election but they should have done a lot better.
Agreed. Still kicking myself though.