THE BLOG

Predictions Are So Last Year - This Is The Year Of Expectations!

05/05/2017 17:09

2016 was an awful year to be in the opinion poll or prediction business; 2015 wasn't too good either. The Tories weren't meant to win a majority in 2015; Brexit wasn't meant to happen; and we should have now been in the second 100 days of the Clinton Presidency. Even the legendary Nate Silver, the guy who predicted every state correctly in the 2012 Presidential Election, got the 2016 one wrong.

All the polls are telling us that there will be a substantial Conservative majority on June 8th. The only question currently debated is how big that majority will be. None of that means they are correct as there is still well over a month for things to change, but if the polls are to be believed, this is going to be the most boring and predictable election in decades.

However, remember that predictions have been a bit of a mug's game recently, so let's move away from predictions and look at expectations. The expectations game is something all of the main parties are trying to manage and spin at the moment and that's likely to increase as the election gets nearer (that's a prediction!)

Theresa May has called an election just two years after her party won an overall majority. If the Fixed Term Parliament Act had been allowed to run its course we had another three years to wait before going to the ballot box.

So why an election now? My favourite quote of the election so far was when Nick Robinson, channeling the glorious Mrs. Merton, asked the Prime Minister "What is it about the recent 20% opinion poll [lead] that first attracted you to the idea of a general election?" That said it all, why wouldn't she call an election when: she is hugely ahead in the polls; the opposition is in disarray; she can win a significantly enlarged majority; and she can win it in her own right. Mrs May is a cautious person by nature, but the pictures of Gordon Brown and James Callaghan on the stairs of No 10 are a stark reminder that if you don't take a chance when things are good, you can be boxed in when events turn against you.

So she should win a healthy majority, but what does "healthy" mean out of 650? The problem for Theresa May and the Conservatives is that anything less than a landslide might appear to be a disappointment - expectations are very high. She starts with a majority of 15, so obviously anything under that would be seen as a disaster. The reality for her is that anything less than 100 might look a little anaemic given expectations. The high watermark she might be secretly aiming for is Tony Blair's all time record of 179, beat that and you have won both the election and the expectation game, big time.

Labour under Jeremy Corbyn has a very different expectation battle. Expectations are so low; can he not beat them? The benchmark here is 209 seats, which was how many Michael Foot's Labour gained in the disastrous 1983 election. However, it does feel that hitting that level would be seen as a positive result as it wouldn't be that much lower than Ed Milliband's 232 last time. Less than 200 seats is bad, less than 150 is catastrophic, but where is Labour's floor? Conventional wisdom is that there are a core of Labour seats ranging somewhere between 120 and 150, where, no matter how bad it gets, they will hold on to. However, we forget that conventional wisdom gets it wrong when big shifts happen. No one predicted the extent of SNP win in 2015, where the huge Labour majorities that had lasted for decades where overturned. The biggest swing against Labour was a previously unimaginable 39.3% in Glasgow North East. The spectre of the almost complete collapse of the Liberal Party a century ago is one to remember.

On the subject of a Liberal collapse, the truly awful 2015 election for the Liberal Democrats, saw them going from 56 MPs and in Government, to a rump of eight. Surely as the only truly pro-European party standing this time, the expectation must be that they can pick up a fair number of those seats they lost last time. They should be well positioned in constituencies where there are a majority of Remainers and they have high-profile former MP's like Simon Hughes and Vince Cable standing. It might not be that simple and anything less than mid-twenties in seats will feel underwhelming and will undermine their assertion that they lead the opposition morally, if not in reality.

Finally, Nicola Sturgeon is in a truly unique position. Where can you go when you have 56 out 59 MP's in Scotland? Obviously the only way is down and how does she spin lost seats as anything less than a defeat? Less than 50 seats, despite it being a significant result in any other time, will be a real stumble in the SNP's dominance of Scotland and a sizeable problem for their cause of a second independence referendum.

So for all the parties, the expectation game will play out over the next month and like the prediction one, it will be a hard one to get right.

Mark Malcomson is Principal and CEO of City Lit. Mark teaches politics and is hosting a talk on the British General Election on Thursday 25 May 2017 at City Lit in Covent Garden.

Comments

CONVERSATIONS