Ballot Box

Will 2019 be like 1987, 2015 or 2017?

Published: 10 December 2019
Author: Richard Parry

Richard Parry assesses the prospects of Boris Johnson’s surpassing the electoral achievements of David Cameron and Theresa May.

An eight-day all-out strike by members of Britain’s tenth largest trade union might have been an important event during the election campaign – but when the workforce are university academics the impact is naturally less. A pause in commentary may be no bad thing, and allows us to take stock of the likely outcomes on 12 December.

Despite two election night shocks in 2015 and 2017 (the Conservatives doing well in 2015 and badly in 2017) the assumption that opinion polls are accurate and campaign noise ephemeral still remain as our default.

Two important things have happened during the 2019 campaign. Nigel Farage’s decision on 11 November to withdraw Brexit candidates from Conservative-held seats led to a halving of the party’s national polling numbers: all polls since 26 November have them at less than 5%. The gainer was the Conservatives. Since Farage’s move, 43 out of 45 polls have shown the Conservatives above 40%, most of them in the 41-43% range. This is no more than Theresa May achieved in 2017 but it is typical of Conservative winning tallies when the Liberal Democrats are polling near their historical norm.

The second movement is a perceptible falling-off in the Liberal Democrat vote to the benefit of Labour. At the start of the campaign the Lib Dems were routinely scoring 15-17% in the polls; they have now scored 15% in only two out of the 15 polls since 25 November.

Jo Swinson has struggled with her membership of the 2010 coalition government as a junior minister, and her policy of rescinding EU withdrawal without a referendum has not proved a means of challenging for second place. YouGov data suggest a swing of about 10% by 2016 Remain voters from Lib Dem to Labour during the campaign. Unlike 1983 and 2010, there is no real possibility of Labour being displaced from second place; an important change from the situation earlier in 2019, when in September Lib Dems were ahead of Labour in two polls and close to them in many others.

In Scotland the vote in 2017 was SNP 37%, Con 29%, Lab 27%, Lib Dem 7%. With only four polls during the campaign the results are best set out narratively:

The Conservatives are maintaining their position and both SNP and Lib Dem are improving at the expense of Labour. The 13 Scottish Conservative members were very important to their party in the last Parliament: seven are in straight fights with the SNP in the North-East and South where any SNP gain would be significant. Six are in three-way contests in constituencies once held by Labour and look vulnerable to a falloff in the 20%+ Labour vote in favour of the SNP.

Of Labour’s seven Scottish seats, only one (Edinburgh South) looks safe with another (East Lothian) having some potential for Labour in a three-way contest. The other five were won by small margins from the SNP in 2017. One of them (Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath) has the unprecedented circumstance of the SNP disowning its own candidate poised to win.   LibDem hopes rest on two unique seats: the SNP-LibDem marginal of North-East Fife (majority of 2) and the three way SNP-Con-LibDem of Ross, Skye and Lochaber. The incumbents (Stephen Gethins and Ian Blackford) are SNP big hitters whose defeat would permit a switch to Holyrood in 2021 and so, paradoxically, to party leadership contention. 

The final few days of a campaign are always vulnerable to wobbles, surprises, and panic at opinion poll movements. This duly happened on 9 December when Johnson was cornered on the NHS by a non-deferential local ITV reporter in Leeds and the latest poll (ICM, 6-9 December) showed a six-point lead, 42-36. The Conservatives may still hope for the 12 point lead over Labour they secured in 1987, but even then there was election night excitement when a BBC poll (taken on polling day and the day before, and not comparable to the present-day broadcasters’ exit polls) showed only a five-point lead. With the translation of national votes to seat outcomes more fraught than ever, surprises in detail if not in totality can be expected on Thursday night.

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