By Doctor Michael Herron
Most political pundits have already declared the general election in favour of a massive majority for Theresa May. One reason for this assumption is because most people who supported Brexit have allegedly switched from UKIP and even Labour to support the Conservatives according to recent polls.
Another reason is that the Tories have done very well in the local elections and these results are regarded as a good indicator of likely voting intentions especially this close to a general election. Another and more pertinent reason why pundits and pollsters are predicting a massive Tory majority is that older voters in vast numbers prefer the Tories to any of the progressive parties. They generally favour Brexit and they tend to vote in elections while young people tend not to. So any grievances held by young people and support for a progressive political party especially one led by Jeremy Corbyn is quickly discounted by the political and media class since they won’t make any difference to the result.
One could argue not so fast. There are some examples from both British and American politics why this election may not be the foregone conclusion it is presented to be.
The first thing one needs to know is how pollsters and political campaign strategists make their predictions about future elections. Having worked as a Democrat campaign strategist in American elections and as a Labour party press officer in local and parliamentary elections I may be able to offer some insight.
Campaign strategists use the electoral roll of voters registered to vote in an election as the basis for any campaign plan. They have a fair idea of how these voters are likely to vote based on how they voted in previous elections. Although the vote is a secret ballot supporters of various parties are quite willing to tell their own party officials how they are likely to vote in a subsequent election. These voters are defined as the electoral base of the respective parties and political parties tend not to spend too much time during campaigning on them only to remind them to vote close to or on election day, which is known as Get Out the Vote. Elections are generally fought over the undecided voters, registered voters who have made no clear conviction to support any party, and cannot be accounted for by the respective parties as constituting part of their base.
The main point to take from all this is that election results can generally be predicted on the basis of how previously registered voters have voted or if these registered voters have then informed pollsters they have switched their support to another party.
The one major unknown factor for political strategists is how newly registered voters will vote and whether they will vote in sufficient numbers to affect the outcome of the election relative to older previously registered voters.
The reality of newly registered young voters was a major factor in the unexpected victory of Barack Obama in 2008. Obama’s campaign went on a massive voter registration drive and energised young voters in sufficient numbers to overwhelmingly win the White House.
The Clinton campaign in 2008 seriously underestimated the impact of this voter registration drive. Is it possible that pundits, pollsters and strategists could make a similar mistake in this general election?
According to the Independent online, students have registered to vote in large numbers; 93% of those eligible to vote have said they have registered. This is despite changes to voting registration. In surveys conducted by UNiDAY’s and the Education Policy Institute, 78% of students said they planned to vote, which is higher than the turnout for the 2015 election, which was 69%.
Most of these students said they would be voting in their hometowns as the election will occur after they have finished their exams. Conventional wisdom holds that since these votes will be dispersed then their impact will be lessened. However, by co-ordinating through social media with other students as well as other young people who are not students to vote tactically for non-Tory candidates these students can maximise the impact of their votes to the detriment of Tory candidates.
Their impact is further amplified if Tory leaning voters do not turn out to vote, given they believe the election is a foregone conclusion. It is important to note that the Brexit referendum witnessed an unusually high turnout, including voters who tend not to turn out to vote in normal elections. In this way, expectations for a similar turnout in this general election may be optimistic.
According to the Independent, there is strong support for Labour among students with two polls recording support at 55% and 35% respectively. This contrasts with student support for Labour in 2005 at 23%. However, students in these polls have said they plan to vote tactically, which means each student vote will have a more meaningful effect on the result. This may mean the Labour vote may fall in some instances but it will also affect the Conservatives’ chances of gaining a massive majority over all other parties.
Another reason why the election is not a foregone conclusion is that despite the media’s efforts to present this as a presidential election, it is not, it is a parliamentary election which differs greatly from an American presidential election. For example, the President of the United States is elected through the electoral college separate from legislators in his or her party in an election. The Prime Minister assumes that office when he or she can command a majority of MPs in the House of Commons.
Each parliamentary seat then contributes to that majority. During a general election there are virtually hundreds of individually unique elections in each parliamentary constituency. Some of these elections are more closely fought than others. There are safe seats where the incumbent has a massive majority and the opposition party does not think it worth the effort to contest too hard for the seat. Then there are marginal seats where the incumbent has a small majority. These are the seats where the election is generally won or lost and these are known as battleground seats. The party that wins the majority of these seats tends to form the next government.
This is where the tide of newly registered voters can make the difference, along with the ploy of tactical voting. In order for May to win an overwhelming majority she needs to win these marginal seats as well as hang on to her own party’s marginal seats. As noted earlier if newly registered voters vote tactically in each marginal seat to support the candidate with the best chance to prevent the Tories winning that seat then this could tip the balance against the Tories seat by seat and thereby erode May’s majority.
There has been a progressive majority in Britain but it has been split between Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Greens, Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru. In the 1980s the divisions between the progressive parties: Labour, the Liberals and Social Democrats allowed the Tories to divide and rule thereby causing huge damage to the social fabric of the country. By voting tactically young voters who are not so tied to party allegiances can make the difference by making each vote count more efficiently. The progressive parties need to step up their efforts to promote voter registration and young voters need to remember the deadline to register to vote is Monday 22nd May 2017. If enough young voters are registered in time and organise themselves to vote tactically since the party leaders of the progressive parties have ruled out an electoral pact, the predicted Tory landslide is not a done deal, indeed they may be able to engineer a new deal for the country.
Rob Merrick “Election 2017: Student voter registration rockets with most vowing to back Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour” Independent online 5-5-2017
By Doctor Michael Herron