An election is coming to Britain. We do not yet know when. But soon. And this vote is not going to be like the last one, in 2017, when the world was (wrongly) convinced that the Conservatives were going to romp home. In fairness to the conventional wisdom, the Tories started that year’s campaign with an opinion poll lead that reached 20 percentage points.
Nor will it be like 2015, when it was – again, erroneously – assumed that no party would be able to win a majority.
What is novel, this time, is how clearly we can see the huge range of potential outcomes – the consequence of both long-term and short-term changes in the UK.
Let us start with the polls. According to the Tortoise polling average, the Tories have a clear lead. That much seems certain (for now).
What do these figures imply?
If you take them at face value, the Tories would pick up a run of seats from Labour in England and Wales – potentially about 40, dotted around the two countries. But they would lose perhaps 15 seats to the Liberal Democrats and potentially most of their 13 seats in Scotland to the SNP. All this means they could end up, maybe, with a micro-majority. It could really matter if even a few of the 24 ex-Tories who have lost or resigned the whip stand as independents.
But if you look at the best recent individual polls for the Tories, they point to them gaining another 25 seats, which takes them into a comfortable majority.
And you can see why some Tories are so keen to fight a poll, too. Look at that big bank of Brexit Party voters – “it’s us or the Remainers!” the Conservatives will say, hoping to lure some of Nigel Farage’s supporters to their side. Or maybe there will be a formal pact between the two parties. Much will depend on how the Prime Minister handles the request for an extension to the UK’s EU membership. Will there be a Brexit betrayal?
At this point, the Tory ability to nab Farage’s followers is one of the big unknowns. If they can get a lot, they could potentially win a huge majority. If Farage holds out and holds on, it will severely limit them.
There are, though, more complex reasons to be nervous about reading forward with too much confidence from these polls – not least that this is more or less exactly the calculation that Theresa May made in 2017, and it backfired catastrophically. So how to make sense of all this?
It is worth starting with some historical context. First, British voters’ relationships to the major political parties have become increasingly strained. Their attachment to the old names is weakening.
There is, however, a new political identity in town: Remain versus Leave, and it is strengthening. The British Election Study is full of evidence pointing to this new dividing line.
For example, it asks whether people use the pronoun “we” to refer to the side of the argument that they support, instead of “they”. The proportion of We-Leavers rose from 44 to 65 per cent after the referendum, while the share of We-mainers doubled, from 35 to 70 per cent. By contrast, only around a quarter of Labour or Tory supporters talk about their parties in this way.
At first sight, any conclusion that the old parties have weakened might seem strange. At the last general election in 2017, 82.4 per cent of voters backed the Tories and Labour – a rise from 67.3 per cent at the 2015 vote. But that was because the two parties were used as proxies for the two sides in the referendum.
In one case, this was a clear strategy. May’s speech when announcing 2017’s snap poll was explicit that this was about making the Leave coalition into the Tory voter base so she could fight those terrible parliamentarians.
“The country is coming together, but Westminster is not… Our opponents believe that because the Government’s majority is so small, our resolve will weaken and that they can force us to change course. They are wrong. They underestimate our determination to get the job done and I am not prepared to let them endanger the security of millions of working people across the country.”
This looks similar to Johnson’s likely appeal – and it was a success in so far as May built the coalition she wanted. The Conservatives built a 20 per cent lead in the polls in the spring of 2017.
According to the British Election Study, their polling-day coalition was about 85 per cent of their 2015 voters, combined with about three-fifths of UKIP’s 2015 voters and about a tenth of Labour’s support. She got the Leaver band back together.
The surprise that caught out everyone was that Labour was refortified, in response, by Remainers.
By the end of the campaign, Labour had picked off about 10 per cent of 2015 Tory voters and a decent number of tactical votes from the Lib Dems. When facing a big Tory lead, some of their old voters also returned from UKIP. The cavalry rode to the rescue at the last moment. A huge, unexpected change in the polls.
This extreme volatility has not settled down. At the 2019 European elections, voters used an election they considered to be all about signalling to send some pretty clear signals. The most pro-Brexit party and the most anti-Brexit party took the top two places.
The key is that voters are happy to use parties for their Brexit politics, and do not want to settle down with them.
I’ve calculated a weighted average of polls running back to 1970, and looked at how far and fast polls tend to move. Over a normal 6-week horizon, the average will tend to show net movement by 2.9 per cent of respondents – in other words, voters switching parties.
In June of this year, around the European election, that 6-week volatility measure broke 20 per cent. The only time this has happened before was around the birth of the Social Democratic Party in 1981. This has been driven by the birth (and death) of a new party (RIP, Change UK), the recent Lib Dem surge and the emergence of the Brexit Party.
So where are we now?
Some of the movements from June have endured. The Lib Dems have enjoyed a sustained lift: they are in better health than they have been since before the coalition.
But, even now, there is twice as much movement between parties as normal. Some of this is the air is slowly coming out of the Brexit Party’s tyres, to the benefit of the Tories.
But we have moved into a period of extremely high volatility – and with two highly engaged tribes trying to work out which horse they should be backing. The next election could see unprecedented amounts of tactical voting.
You can see paths for the Conservatives to win, sure. That looks the likeliest outcome. But given the flightiness and ruthlessness of British voters right now, don’t bet on it. Don’t bet on anything.
Photography by UK Parliament/Jess Taylor and Getty Images