“So, tomorrow, let the House of Commons vote for an election, let everybody put forward their proposals for Brexit and their programmes for government, and let us remove the risk of uncertainty and instability and continue to give the country the strong and stable leadership it demands.”
And so it began. This was how Theresa May concluded her address outside Downing Street announcing the calling of the General Election a year ago today. What followed was perhaps one of the strangest election campaigns the country has seen, and a result most didn’t predict. Then came the post-election punditry and comment, much of which was predictably simplistic. A year on, many people still fail to get that the result wasn’t down to one or even a handful of reasons. Elections are complicated and chaotic and only through understanding this can we make sense of what happened in the past, and shape what will happen in the future.
The result was because of the ‘youthquake’, young people coming out in the droves to vote Labour because of the promise of free tuition for all and a hint that previous student debts will be wiped out. No, actually it was reaction against the EU Referendum result and the Remainers coalescing around Labour. Wait, I’ve got it, it was because of the Tories omnishambles manifesto and abjectly poor ground campaign. Or was it Momentum wot (kind of) won it? Or the terrorist attacks and Jeremy Corbyn’s savaging of the Prime Minister over cuts to police numbers? Maybe it was…
As is the case after every election, people offered up their diagnosis to explain this unexpected result. These opinions tended to focus on one defining cause for the result. This I’m sure is because they believed it, but also because it helps to make everyone feel better. Most people don’t like chaos, they need to understand why something happened the way it did so they can stop it from happening again, or replicate what happened last time, or at least predict the result prior to polling day.
‘Trump was elected because of Russian interference in the election, so in the future if we crack down on fake Facebook sites posting ‘fake news’ he won’t win re-election and normal business will resume’.
‘Brexit happened because people were fooled by £350million pounds a week pledge on the side of the bus. Let’s debunk that myth, and now that people have seen the impact assessment reports the government were forced to publish, let’s have a second referendum and we can change our minds’.
‘If the Tories appoint a vice chair for young people, sack Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, start a Tory grassroots volunteer group and generally up their game then they’re sure to beat Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour next time, right?’
My answer is: well, maybe or maybe not. It depends. We’ll see.
Having worked on elections for eight years, I’ve learnt that every election is unique. You should not fight the last election. You need to fight the next one.
You need to learn lessons from previous elections, yes. Look at voter trends and demographic changes, absolutely. Create messaging that resonates with voters (and yes this needs to be tested in focus groups and through polling), 100%. Then finally you need to try your hardest to apply a filter to all of this accumulated knowledge, data and wisdom that allows you to draw out what will shape people’s decision on just one day - polling day. Uncertainty is quite uncomfortable but it’s a reality of (most) elections.
Uncertainty should be factored in to polling. Nate Silver and his FiveThirtyEight blog is the best practitioner of this approach – he had Trump with a 29% chance of winning when most other pollsters gave him between a 1-15% chance of victory. This was because he understood that if one pollster’s methodology was wrong then all the pollsters methodology were probably wrong.
Uncertainty should be factored into punditry. It might get pundits less airtime and generate less airtime but pundits should be cautious in their predictions prior, and diagnosis after an election. And it should be remembered by everyone prior to an election to motivate them to vote by cautioning against complacency or hopelessness.
Where this cautious approach is trickier is within campaigns. Campaign chiefs need to speak with surety and act decisively to prioritise resources. More is lost by indecision than wrong decision in the world of campaign resource allocation in general election campaigns. What sets the best campaign strategists apart from the rest is not a 100% win record, but being able to create electoral strategies that draw together their knowledge about electoral norms with an accurate insight into the current political climate and public opinion. Furthermore, they can use these insights to set rather than simply react to the agenda. But crucially they know what they don’t know.
Despite being Head of the Labour Party’s Election and Campaign Support Team at the time, I don’t know with exact certainty why people voted the way they did in the 2017 UK General Election. I don’t know precisely why people plumped for Trump and I’m not entirely sure why we’re heading out of Europe. I’m unsure how people will vote at the next General Election. I could make a (I’d like to think) relatively educated guess, but it would be heavily caveated. If anyone tells you they definitely know the answers to these questions then you can rebut them, with certainty.
Harry Gregson is a political consultant and former Head of the Labour Party’s Election and Campaign Support Team