• Daisy Powell-Chandler

Five truths from watching the polls

Crowd with hands raised as if voting
Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

Three weeks to go until the General Election. Here are five headlines on the current state of the polls and what it might mean when the votes are counted.

1. Polls currently show voters returning to the two main parties in significant numbers

As we saw in 2017, voters are abandoning the smaller parties in favour of tactical voting for one of the main two parties. This isn’t quite as simple as a reversion to two-party politics but instead a result of loosened party affiliations allowing voters to ‘hold their nose’ and vote on the issue that matters most to them at this election – and the party most likely to be able to effect change.

2. It still isn’t clear what this election will be about – but it matters a lot

If Boris Johnson can make this election about ending Brexit uncertainty, he will win votes from bored and frustrated remainers as well as the leavers to whom he plays most of the time. If Jeremy Corbyn can convince the UK that public services are more important than Brexit then he could demotivate Labour leavers from straying and make any frustrated remainers feel guilty about putting their boredom above the greater good. It is worthwhile keeping an eye on Lord Ashcroft’s dashboards and focus group reports, which offer great insights into what the public think is going on.

3. The most likely outcomes are a Conservative majority, Conservative minority government or Labour minority government

Johnson’s current lead would historically have indicated a majority of 80-100 seats but Theresa May managed a vote share of 42% (the biggest since 1983) and still didn’t get her majority. The first past the post model makes overlaying national vote share on to seats tricky. One recent model suggested that without any tactical voting, the Conservatives could be looking at a 44-seat majority, or if 40% of remainers use their votes tactically, we could see a ‘pro-Remain’ majority of 36 seats.

4. Scotland matters

Now that Labour can no longer rely on gaining up to 40 Scottish MPs, it is far harder for them to find a majority. Johnson also has Scotland problems: the loss of Ruth Davidson as leader of the Scottish Conservatives compounds the disconnect between the more European-friendly Scottish voters and Brexiteer Tory leadership. This is likely to undo much of the hard work that Davidson’s team had done to convince natural ‘small-c’ conservatives that it was safe to vote blue. Current polling makes it likely that Johnson will lose all but 3-5 of the 13 Conservative seats north of the border. The loss of 10 seats in Scotland, a handful in Wales and a further group of Liberal Democrat marginals in the South means Johnson needs around 40 seats from somewhere – and this will place the emphasis for both major parties on the North of England.

5. Even as their poll numbers drop, small parties matter

We don’t have precise constituency referendum numbers because the polls were counted at local authority level. Even within constituencies, what matters is the exact mix of leave/remain within the voters for each party. In a Conservative/Labour marginal this will be key as it will be an indicator of which Party stands to lose most to the Brexit Party or the Liberal Democrats. In some areas, Conservatives will be happy to see a swing to the LibDems or Brexit Party from Labour as it could allow Tory candidates to sneak through. Elsewhere, the loss of Conservative remainers who feel it is safer to vote for the Liberal Democrats than for Corbyn’s Labour party will, nonetheless, allow Labour to pick up seats.

How to assess the polls

As the campaign progresses, I recommend choosing a reputable poll tracker (such as the Financial Times) and then looking at the broad outline of the tracker, as opposed to individual polls.

You should also keep an eye out for models that work on an individual seat level. The remain/leave dynamic and the impact of smaller parties means that some marginals could prove highly volatile. It is worth reading this summary from UK Polling Report, which explains how MRP works because we will be hearing much more about this technique in the future and, though results have been mixed so far, it has the potential to give us a more dynamic and detailed picture of evolving views during a campaign.

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