1 June 2017

Conventional wisdom is wrong about this election


There’s something strange going on. An election which was assumed to be a slam-dunk for the Conservatives seems to be developing into an actual genuine horse race. So much so that YouGov is predicting, according to its whizzy new electoral model, that the Tories might actually lose seats.

But there’s something even stranger about the way this is being covered.

According to the conventional wisdom, the Tories were set fair for a crushing victory. Then the manifestos were published, the social care policy was abandoned, and pretty soon Theresa May had completed a swift transformation from Stalin to Mr Bean.

The trouble is, that’s not what the data says.

YouGov’s electoral model is very much an outlier: other pollsters still predict a healthy Tory majority. But it does have two products with rather more of a track record. Every week, for many years, it has been asking people who they plan to vote for at the election, and who they think will be the best Prime Minister.

What that data shows is that, while the Tory vote has indeed slumped recently, it is still well within the recent normal range. Here’s a chart of Theresa May’s popularity since the start of the year, and her party’s.

What it shows is that Theresa May is about as popular as she was in January. And the Tories are considerably more so. And contrary to the conventional wisdom, the slide started before the Tory manifesto – it was launched on May 18th, by which time the Tories had already slipped five points from their peak earlier in the month.

Over the next week, the popularity of both May and her party fell by a single point. Yes, it may have fallen further since, as the bad publicity grew – but “the manifesto did it” emphatically does not hold up as a theory, without significant caveats.

(EDIT: YouGov has updated its trackers since this piece was published. and May has indeed fallen further over the past week – by two points, to 43. The Tories are down by one point, to 42.)

The most striking feature of the race, however, is not the falling popularity of Theresa May, but the rising popularity of Jeremy Corbyn. Here is the same chart plotting both Corbyn and Labour’s YouGov ratings.

You’ll notice that there’s been a dramatic rise – all the more so when you consider that the Tory line, while looking dramatic, actually bounces around within a 10-point range: transpose it on to the second chart and it would look much flatter.

(EDIT: Over the past week, that surge has indeed intensified. YouGov puts Corbyn up two, on 30 points, and Labour up 3 on 39, just three points behind the Tories – though as mentioned previously, other pollsters have a wider gap.)

The interesting thing, however, is that this rise actually started well before the Conservative manifesto launch – in fact, it started before the election was even called, on April 18.

Yes, it did increase further after the manifestos were published – and it may well be that the social care fiasco gave people “permission” to swallow their doubts and vote for Corbyn. We won’t know for sure until the autopsies are done in the days and weeks after the election.

But there are plenty of other explanations that fit the data too. It may also be that people just really like being told they’re going to be given free stuff. Or that the relentless attacks on Corbyn have made people feel sorry for him rather than angry at him. (Though as Daniel Hannan explained on CapX today, people really should be angry given the extraordinary wrong-headedness of his views.)

Then again, it’s also possible that what we’re seeing is the same thing that happened with Donald Trump and the Republican Party – a process of collective doubt-swallowing as party loyalists persuade themselves that a leader who is self-evidently not up to it is in fact not that bad after all. Perhaps this is even where Labour would have been all along, under a more competent and mainstream leader.

There’s also a parallel here, of course, with Ed Miliband in 2015. Like Corbyn, Miliband saw a sudden and unexpected spike in his popularity ratings in the weeks before an election. As now, it seemed that a strategy by the Conservatives of relentlessly attacking the Labour leader as weak and incompetent had backfired. And we all know what happened next.

Support for this thesis may come from the fact that the Labour vote, and Corbyn’s own popularity, are now far above their “usual” level. While the Tories are polling at the low end of their normal range, Labour are surging past their peak performance – suggesting either that they’ve timed their run perfectly, or that this is a bubble that could still burst (anyone remember Cleggmania?).

And for the Tories, the polls also offer a crumb of comfort. Not only are they still the overwhelming favourites, but polling from Populus – carried out after the social care fiasco – shows that they are in an even stronger position than David Cameron was in 2015 on the issues people really care about.

As this chart shows, people think Corbyn is nice – but they think Theresa May, and her famous team, are far more competent. And historically speaking, it’s competence rather than niceness that gets you into Downing Street.

Robert Colvile is Editor of CapX