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Who will win the 2017 British general election?

This was originally published on 8th June, 2017, and republished on 4th January, 2022.

It was known in advance that this year would see three, possibly four major European elections. It was not expected that the upcoming British general election would be among them. After all, they went to the polls two years ago and delivered a majority Conservative government, and then again last year to decide whether or not to leave the European Union, the result of which forced the Conservatives to change their leader and cabinet. Theresa May, playing the role of ‘last man standing’, promised upon her election to the leadership by Conservative MPs that she would not go to the polls again. Over and over, she promised that she would not have another election, because Britain needed stability.

Then, in April, she called a snap poll, set for early June. Officially, it’s also for stability. Given that directly contradicts her stated reason for not going to an election, it seems more likely that it has to do with the investigation into Conservative Party expenditure during the 2015 election, which may well have necessitated multiple by-elections. Losing those by-elections would have made a slim majority even slimmer, and make her government even more susceptible to backbenchers crossing the floor. So, here we are. (As an aside, it also seems likely the Conservatives really, really wanted to wait until the new electoral boundaries were put in the place next year before having an election, which reduces the Commons by 50 seats. Most of the seats being taken away are in Labour areas.)

(Photo: Neil Hall/Reuters)

The campaign

Campaigns are rarely useful in determining the course of an election, and this time around is no exception. When the biggest ‘scandal’ of the six week period is a ‘dementia tax’, a fringe policy being removed from an enormous manifesto (which, incidentally, get more unwieldy at each election), you know that not much is happening.

Except that some significant things are happening. On the one hand is the upcoming negotiations to leave the European Union, and on the other is terrorism, and both have dominated news headlines across this year. Despite this, neither have really been on the campaign agenda. The Liberal Democrats, who are promising a second referendum, haven’t made a splash, and nor has UKIP, who are running on holding the government to account during the negotiations. Both major parties are resigned to going ahead with ‘Brexit’, despite being full of MPs who supported Remain. The voting population, too, seems to be ‘over it’. The question has been answered, and will only come up again if the terms of leaving are massively unsatisfactory.

The Manchester bombing and the London Bridge attack have dominated news headlines, but the effect they’ve had on which way people will vote seems minimal. Both major parties — particularly their leaders — have blots on their record (May’s time as Home Secretary, Jeremy Corbyn’s friendship with Hamas and the IRA) that can be easily identified, but with no real alternatives, voters seem content to let the election be decided elsewhere.

Or, more accurately, they believe it was decided months ago, and their vote will simply be a confirmation of things staying as they are. The single most relevant, important factor throughout the campaign has been the perception that the Conservatives will win. At the start of the campaign, the big question was how large the Conservative majority would be in the House of Commons, and running second to it was how long it would take for Labour MPs to start grumbling about Corbyn’s leadership again. The questions now are the same, but the assumptions behind them have been reversed. The Conservative majority, once a sure thing and odds-on to be large, has shrunk by the week; Corbyn’s leadership, once thought to be lacking, has been energised by a campaign that has easily cleared the low bar set for him.

This will not, however, change the result. After all, the question is not whether Labour can win a majority.

The parties

Not present: the Prime Minister, who doesn’t like debates. (Photo: BBC)

Conservative Party (330 seats): This was meant to be the coronation of Theresa May, the confirmation that the era of May had truly begun. Unfortunately for the Conservatives, there’s a problem with presidentialising a Prime Minister: if they do not perform up to expectations, everything starts going wrong. Prior to calling the early election, May had successfully made such a small target of herself that many were willing to project their own beliefs onto her, in the (wrong) belief that she stood for their own beliefs, hence the early glut of commentators hailing her as the ‘new Mrs Thatcher’. This campaign has made it clear that May is not the new Thatcher, which should have been plainly obvious from the fact that she was chosen to replace David Cameron because all her opponents spontaneously combusted.

Without an inspired performance from their leader, the Conservatives have to look elsewhere for an electoral advantage, and they have one in now being the party of ‘Brexit’. This is just as well, because everything else they’re offering is more or less what they offered two years ago, an offering which was probably only saved from another minority government by the equally bland Labour offering and the promise of an EU referendum. With Labour deciding not to be so bland this time, the Europe issue is the only thing going for them in an electorate that is not especially enthused by what they’re offering, which continues to be a mix of liberalism (though with some quibbling that it isn’t Thatcherist enough) and little bits of conservatism, tacked on to appease their base. At this point, they may gain seats, but it won’t be a landslide. It is worth noting that the Conservatives have not won 350 seats or more since 1987.

Labour Party (230): Welcome back to old Labour, not at all like New Labour. It’s been twenty years since Tony Blair’s New Labour won for the first time since 1975, with its total abandonment of socialism in favour of liberalism, and more than thirty since the disaster of the 1983 election, when the purity of Michael Foot’s socialism led the party to its lowest vote share since 1918. There were many who thought that the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn would end similarly to Foot’s, and the polls were suggesting as such earlier this year. But the latter weeks of the campaign have seen the gap close either slightly or sharply, depending on which one you believe. Labour’s manifesto, in particular, caught a great deal of attention from the media and the public, and the enthusiasm for Corbyn from the grassroots is something the Conservatives can only dream on.

Alas, Labour faces a simple dilemma: without Scotland, they cannot form a majority in the House of Commons. The electoral maths simply does not work otherwise, as the Conservatives hold too many seats in England that Labour cannot win. Furthermore, for all the enthusiasm for ‘Corbynism’, there’s no guarantee that will result in any extra seats, as the surge in support may well be coming in seats Labour already holds. But for all Corbyn’s supporters, a small defeat may as well be a victory, so poorly has he been treated by his fellow MPs and the media in their eyes.

Scottish National Party & Plaid Cymru (54/3): It is probably not coincidental that the major political forces for Scottish and Welsh nationalism first gained seats in Parliament within a year of each other, just as the United Kingdom began making noises about joining what was then known as the European Economic Community. Plaid Cymru (the Party of Wales) won its first seat in the 1966 general election, and the Scottish National Party followed up in 1967 with a by-election victory. Their paths have not, however, remained in parallel ever since, owing to the rather different relationships their respective nations have had with England and, by extension, the Union, over history.

The SNP is a political chameleon, uninterested in ideology beyond what will serve the cause of Scottish nationalism, with the ultimate goal of leaving the United Kingdom. This reflects the beliefs of its long-time leader, Alex Salmond, who more than anyone else is responsible for the extraordinary results the SNP achieved at the last general election.

But something has happened to the SNP vote in the last year, and that something seems to be directly tied to the question of the British nation. Now that Britain is once again talking of being independent, the other side of Scottish identity — British identity — has entered the equation. There was an assumption that the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 may have been merely the first battle, and that Scottish nationalism would inevitably lead to independence. But with a place in an independent union, that may no longer be true.

Plaid, on the other hand, has never had the absolute dominance in Wales that the SNP has had in Scotland. This is likely due to three factors: the longer, more deeply intertwined history with England that Wales has; the consistency of the party’s ideology; and their unrelenting focus on the Welsh language. As a result, Plaid tends to have deep pockets of support concentrated in particular regions of Wales, generally where the Welsh language is widely spoken, but struggles to break through outside these areas. Its polling at this election is reflective of this.

Liberal Democrats (9): Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Not that the Liberals have been genuinely mighty any time in the past century, but it was only seven years ago that the Lib Dems got just under a quarter of the national vote and were part of a coalition government. That proportion of votes plummeted below 10% in 2015, and despite polls indicating the beginning of a comeback at the start of the campaign, the number look equally dismal this time around. Worse, of the seats they still hold, a number are in danger due to factors outside the party itself. After the referendum result, the Lib Dems believed they had come up with a winning strategy: become the party of the Remainers. After all, 48% of the population had voted to stay in the EU, and neither of the major parties was going to promote that as a policy after Leave won, so why not go after those votes?

This strategy may well have worked if the campaign had been fought on membership of the European Union, but that campaign happened a year ago. The proportion of Remainers who want to fight the leaving process every step of the way is smaller than the 48% of voters who chose Remain, shrinking the potential voter pool by about half.

Furthermore, the entire Lib Dem campaign has been built on Europe, when Europe has not been a campaign issue. Would-be voters in the cities are flocking to Labour, while other traditional Liberal territory, particularly in the South East, is unenthused about the European Union, and therefore unconvinced by the Lib Dems. Scotland may be the one area where things will fall into place, as they have a long history in a number of constituencies there, and they occupy the small space that is pro-EU and Unionist. Even so, this would only result in a handful of seats going their way, at most.

Democratic Unionist & Ulster Unionist Parties (8/2): Northern Ireland’s political parties have traditionally fallen into two groups: unionist and nationalist. In the unionist corner of the Commons are the DUP and the UUP. The latter was for many years the main party of government in NI, while the DUP challenged them with its closer connection to loyalism. The most significant split between the two parties came in the form of the Good Friday Agreement. The UUP, up until that point the predominant unionist party in the region, were one of the leading players in its creation. The DUP, repelled by the presence of Sinn Féin in the talks while the Irish Republican Army was still active, refused to co-operate. Within five years, the DUP had overtaken the UUP, and have been the main unionist party ever since. In two seats, the parties have agreed not to run against each other, to ensure that a unionist does not lose their seat to a nationalist.

The trend line for unionist parties has not been upwards in recent years. Sometimes downwards, sometimes sideways, but never up. There is little reason to think that anything will change at this election, with the ever-present shadow of sectionalism lingering on, especially with questions being raised about the Irish border following the referendum result. Nonetheless, it is entirely possible that the unionists will gain a seat despite losing vote share, though it also possible that they will lose a handful of seats. Which way it goes will depend on tactical voting.

Sinn Féin & Social Democratic and Labour Party (4/3): Representing the Irish nationalists are the political arm of the IRA, Sinn Féin, and the progenitors of the Good Friday Agreement, the SDLP. The tale of the nationalist parties is strikingly similar to that of the unionists, as the SDLP were the major nationalist party until after the GFA, at which point Sinn Féin took over. The change has not been as striking as it has with the unionists, but the SDLP has found itself being squeezed out of the conversation by their nationalist rivals, who are perhaps a more straightforward representation of Irish nationalism. After all, Sinn Féin is a party in the parliaments of both Northern Ireland and the Republic. It is not, however, a party of Westminster, as any Sinn Féin candidate who wins in a British general election will refuse to represent their seat at Westminster.

The nationalists have closed the gap in recent years, and gaining three seats off the unionists would be seen as a huge boon to the nationalist movement. However, the vote spread may well prevent this from happening for some time, with nationalists simply gaining larger majorities in seats they already hold, while unionists cling on or even gain seats in multi-party contets.

Green Party (1): The Greens are more or less the same as every other ‘green’ party around the world, right down to their core constituency: university students. Brighton Pavilion, home to the sole Green MP Caroline Lucas, is full of students, and other typical Green voters besides, and is politically a world away from the constituency that once bore its name and voted Conservative for 50 years. The struggle for the party has been in getting heard beyond its core voters, which tend to be heavily concentrated in pockets around the country. It is unlikely that Lucas will lose her seat, but it is equally unlikely that any of their other candidates will win them another seat either.

United Kingdom Independence Party (0): The Lib Dems’ fall from grace seems to have happened at a snail’s pace compared to UKIP. Three years ago, they came first in Britain in the European Parliament elections. Two years ago, they came third in the country in vote share, and had their first ever MP elected at a general election. Last year, they led the charge to take Britain out of the European Union, with (now former) leader Nigel Farage hailed as the man who got Britain to leave, fulfilling his life’s work. They reached their political apex, and are now tumbling down the other side of the mountain. Most of their notable figures have quit, as allegations about dark political maneuverings fly, and they have been totally unable to gain any political traction, despite both of the headline-hogging issues (Brexit and terrorism) being strong political ground for them.

As I’ve said previously, the greatest problem facing UKIP is that without the cause of leaving the European Union, it doesn’t have much to stand for. They have tried to make headway during the campaign by pushing hard against Islam, but immigration questions are currently so closely tied with leaving the EU that the Conservatives have had to do very little to attract people concerned about it. Their policies are little different to 2015, but the European question has been so overpowering that few voters are likely to be aware that UKIP has any other policies. There is still the potential for UKIP to have a lasting impact in the future, but it must decide where it wants to direct its attention. Its ‘northern push’ may well end up being for nought, thanks to Corbyn, while the Conservatives rebuild their defences in the south.

The polls

Polling since the 2015 general election. Con — blue; Lab — red; UKIP — purple; Lib Dem — orange; SNP+PC — yellow; Green — green. (Photo: Hacked)

British pollsters have taken a bit of a hit over the last couple of years. Their awful performance in the 2015 general election, when they all showed a hung parliament and were proven wrong by the exit poll at 10PM that night which correctly showed a slim Conservative majority, left them scrambling to find a new methodology. They were also accused, more unfairly, of getting it wrong in the referendum last year, but this was only true of phone polls. Online polls, by contrast, had near perfect accuracy overall. So, to overcome this perception, each polling company is using this election as a trial run for new methodology. The problem this has caused for anyone watching the polls is that they’ve been all over the place, with the final polls of the campaign showing anywhere between a 1% point and 12% point lead for the Conservatives.

So, who to trust? Well, in 2015 two companies got close to the margin: Survation, and SurveyMonkey. You’ve probably filled out a SurveyMonkey form before, so their polling tended to be ignored, due to not being a ‘real’ polling company. Survation, meanwhile, being a ‘real’ pollster, saw all the other polling companies showing a tied result, and decided not to publish. Furthermore, this would have been the only Survation poll in the entire 2015 campaign showing a result like that, from a smaller sample size than they normally used. This time around, SurveyMonkey has been doing polls for The Sun, and given their methodology relies on sheer weight on numbers to ‘even out’ any potential outliers, their model can probably be relied on to not be too far out.

Survation has had a 1% gap for the past fortnight, having previously shown a 6–9% gap. This seems to be due to modelling, particularly regarding youth turnout. YouGov was matching SurveyMonkey, but have at the last-minute decided to go with a different method for their last poll, showing a larger lead for the Conservatives. Kantar has also changed their modelling slightly, and if they had not, their poll also would’ve matched SurveyMonkey’s. A one-off poll from Norstat also came up with a 4% margin. This leaves ComRes, ICM and Panelbase, who have all been showing double digits leads. This is an experimental year, and both have chosen models that attempt to deal with the so-called ‘shy Tory’ factor, where polls at successive elections understate the performance of the Conservatives. They may have over-egged it.

One other thing to keep in mind: popular vote will not decide the election. The Conservatives may lose ground in their lead over Labour in the popular vote, and yet win more seats than they did in 2015. There are 650 constituencies up for grabs, all with their own factors.

The prediction

Divisions are by official statistical region

(Image: Martin’s Baxter Electoral Calculus)

Anglia (58 constituencies): Although this region (more often known by the rather dull ‘East of England’) had only the fourth highest proportion of the Leave vote in last year’s referendum, I consider it to be ground zero of euroscepticism. It was here, not in the north or in the Midlands, that UKIP found its footing most easily. The region has long been reliably Conservative, with no major population centres that Labour can rely on, other than on the border with Greater London. The region probably has the largest number of ‘displaced Englishmen’ in the country, mostly Londoners whose communities have disappeared in London in recent years.

Furthermore, the region has been severly affected by the EU Common Fisheries Policy. This combination probably explains why UKIP broke through to win in Clacton at the last election, but with the Conservatives proclaiming themselves the guardians of ‘Brexit’, it is tough to see how the Kippers can win anything this time around, and the same is true for other parties. The return of socialism in the Labour Party is unlikely to have any real impact here, and the Lib Dems’ pro-EU policy is the opposite of what they would need to become popular.

East Midlands (46): The East Midlands are appropriately named and positioned, as they’re a great demonstration of what ‘middle England’ looks like. Though there are major metropolitan centres here, they aren’t burgeoning metropolises that dominate the region. The Conservatives tend to be the main force here, but Labour tends to hold on in urban areas. There is unlikely to be too much movement in any direction, due to a lack of third parties having any kind on influence, and due to Labour regaining ground in the last few weeks, but there may be some seats change hands here, given the high proportion of Leave voters that aren’t trenchant Labour voters.

London (73): Possibly Labour’s greatest dilemma comes in Greater London. Thanks to a mix of cosmopolitan liberalism and identity politics, New Labour turned much of the city into their new heartland. London is totally removed from the rest of England economically, socially and politically, which is reflected by it being the only English region to vote Remain. It is its own place, a state within a nation within a country, but its size, closeness to Europe (physically and ideologically) and position at the centre of British politics and media means that has an enormous influence on the direction of the country. Labour’s problem is that its membership — which voted for Jeremy Corbyn overwhelmingly — don’t like (economic) liberalism that much and are all over the place on identity politics.

Tony Blair and New Labour are anathema to them, but New Labour was what gave them dominance in London, and the majority of MPs they have in London are cut from the Blairite cloth. But that is true of anywhere Labour has MPs at the moment, and it will be unlikely to change until the next election, at the very least. For now, the enthusiasm for Corbyn’s Labour will be enough to see them do well here, though there is a small possibility that the Lib Dems will pick up seats here that they lost in 2015.

North East (29): The smallest of the English regions, North East is dominated by its three industrial, Labour-voting urban areas, centred around Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Sunderland. This region had the third highest proportion of Leave votes in the country in last year’s referendum, and UKIP did well in a number of areas in the 2015 election. But with the Kippers out of the picture, Labour should breathe easy again, as its return to socialism should be appealing to the old industrial Labour vote, while those not enthused by Corbyn may well prefer staying home to voting Conservative.

North West (75): A populous region dominated by Manchester and Liverpool, the direction North West leans depends on which part of it you’re in. The urban areas heavily support Labour, with the presence of both the old industrial, working class vote and the New Labour, metropolitan vote. Rural Cheshire and Lancashire, meanwhile prefer the Conservatives. There is little reason to think either of these will change, although both will be hoping to pick up a seat each from the Lib Dems.

Northern Ireland (18): Poor old NI gets ignored by the polls from time to time, because none of its parties are the same as the rest of the country. While both unionists and nationalists tend to obsess over the total vote tally rather than the seats won, the latter may well hold some interest this time around, as the nationalists could conceivably win more seats than the unionists for the first time. This should not, however, be expected, as votes tend to shift very slowly in the region, owing to identity politics, and there may well be no changes at all this time around.

Scotland (59): Scotland was one of the big stories in 2015, with the SNP winning all but five seats there, with 50% of all votes cast going their way. This time around, things don’t look quite so promising for the nationalists, with the poll numbers dropping into the low 40s. This is good news for all three unionist parties that aren’t UKIP, who lost seats to the SNP last time around. The Conservatives will hoping to make gains in the regions on the border and in the north, as well as Edinburgh; the Lib Dems will be targeting their old seats, which are spread across Scotland; Labour will concentrate on the cities. It’s unlikely that the SNP will be anything other than slightly dented by the result, but a chink in the armour may be all it takes for Scottish independence to unravel.

South East (84): It is, in some sense, amazing that Labour even has four seats here, such is the depth of Conservative support in the region. This is ‘Tory heartland’, the most populous, richest and most English region in the country. The only reason the Conservatives won’t make any gains here is because there’s so few seats left to win from other parties.

South West (55): This area was once Liberal Democrat heartland, but they were completely wiped out here in 2015, and early hopes of a revival in the region have been all but snuffed out by the inability of the party to make any serious headway in the national discussion. The beneficiary from this is the Conservatives, who will quite happily keep this pro-Leave region in their hands.

Wales (40): Despite early talk of the Conservatives doing well in Wales, the return to socialism that Labour has undertaken during the campaign will see them do better than usual. This will probably come at the cost of the Liberal Democrats, who would’ve wanted the young/pro-EU vote that will instead be enthused by ‘Corbynism’, and Plaid Cymru, whose coal-country appeal will not seem as unique in the face of socialist Labour.

West Midlands (59): No region voted Leave by as large of a margin of the West Midlands, which is roughly divided between the city of Birmingham, and the rest of the region. Birmingham voted leave by a small margin, but is predominantly a Labour area, and looks like remaining that way, despite a recent mayoral election that the Conservatives were able to nab from Labour’s grasp. Neither UKIP nor the Lib Dems have had a strong presence here, and are unlikely to have any effect this time around either. The weight of the referendum result may still resonate in the minds of voters here, as in the East Midlands, and is therefore worth watching.

Yorkshire and the Humber (54): As in other northern regions, Yorkshire and the Humber can be divided between its old industrial, working class urban areas, which support Labour (though with the additional of coal country, as in Wales) and its rural shires, which support the Conservatives. It is quite likely that that is how the region will stay, although many will be keeping an eye on Sheffield Hallam, which belongs to the Lib Dems, and is the only seat in South Yorkshire not held by Labour.

National (650): Initially, I planned to put forward potential results by region, but as time has gone on, it’s become clear that the most likely result in terms of seats will be very similar to the current situation. Some regions may only see one or two seats change hands, while the overall vote tally will reflect enthusiasm for leaving the European Union on one hand, and for Labour offering something different from the bland, liberal norm on the other. Seats that do change hands will likely do so due to local factors, rather than national ones. Therefore, I will only put forward a national result prediction. There will probably be seats shifting in multiple direction across the country — particularly for the Lib Dems, who could conceivably lose half their seats, but replace them with an equal number and end up back where they started, but also for the Conservatives in the Midlands, and Labour in the north — so the seats changing hands may be more than the numbers add up to.

Conservatives — 335 (+5) Labour — 234 (+4) Scottish Nationalists — 47 (-7)

Liberal Democrats — 7 (-2) Democratic Unionists — 8 (-) Sinn Féin — 4 (-) Plaid Cymru — 3 (-) Social Democratic and Labour — 3 (-) Ulster Unionists — 2 (-) Green — 1 (-) UKIP — 0 (-)


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