Head of Political and Social Research (EMEA)

Joe Twyman, YouGov's Head of Political and Social Research, sets out the myriad of ways in which 2017 is the WTF election

This article originally appeared in The Times

A week ago the country was enjoying the Easter Bank Holiday, minding its own business, relaxing and perhaps not even thinking about politics. Only a handful of people had an idea of what was ahead – the announcement of the ‘WTF Election’.

‘What The Fuck!?’ was essentially what the nation uttered at 11am on Tuesday as Theresa May made her announcement from Downing Street.

Given the frequency with which it was uttered, I thought it would be interesting to carry on the ‘WTF’ theme to discuss the election and where the parties currently stand in terms of public opinion.

Win Three Figures?

Theresa May has called this election because she believes the Conservatives can win – and win big. She will most likely be hoping for a three figure majority – more than enough to insulate herself against the demands of Hard Brexiteers, Reluctant Remainers and any other faction in her party as she undertakes negotiations with the EU over Britain’s withdrawal.

The polling currently looks good. The Conservatives have been at 40% or above for almost the entire year, have enjoyed a double-digit lead over for the last seven months and YouGov’s two most recent polls had them on 48%.

It is clearly only very early days, but the picture looks good for the Conservatives.

Worse Than Foot?

At the 1983 General Election Michael Foot’s Labour Party won 28% of the vote compared to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives on 42%. It was the Labour Party’s worst performance in the post-war era and was enough for the Conservatives to win a majority of 144 at the time.

In YouGov’s most recent poll Labour were on 25% of the vote.

And it is not just the headline figure that is bad news for Labour. Just 15% of people think Jeremy Corbyn would make a better Prime Minister than Theresa May, and the Conservatives are seen as the best party to deal with key issues like Brexit, the economy and immigration.

No party has ever come from behind on both questions of economic management and best party leadership to win a general election.

Given Labour’s position, there must be many within the party who are wondering if a performance worse than 1983 is awaiting them.

Who’s This Farron?

Of course polls do change, and they doubtless will in this election. The last time there was a major fluctuation in the polls during an election campaign was back in 2010 when the first televised leaders’ debates saw “Cleggmania” propel the Lib Dems 11 points skywards in a week.

As then, the Lib Dems are led by a largely unknown figure and he will be hoping the ‘Lib Dem Fightback’ can be given encouragement from the publicity the General Election provides.

Tim Farron, however, is in a very different situation from Nick Clegg. The former leads a party of nine MPs compared to the 62 the Lib Dems had going into the 2010 Election. Questions are also being asked about his precise position on issues like homosexuality and abortion.

By promoting themselves as the only ‘true’ pro-EU party, the Lib Dems will be banking on British politics realigning itself along the lines of the EU Referendum. That would then allow them to scoop up votes from disappointed Remain voters who previously supported the Conservatives or Labour. Constituencies like Cambridge, Bath and Twickenham will probably be top targets.

There is, however, little evidence that a massive realignment has taken yet place across Britain in the way that it did in Scotland after the Independence Referendum, and the Lib Dems find themselves consistently fluctuating between 10% and 12% in the polls.

Where’s The Focus?

For UKIP the last few months have proved to be very difficult. Since the EU Referendum they have lost: their charismatic leader; his replacement; a massive amount of their funding; a lot of their expertise; their primary purpose; the Stoke by-election; their only MP; and – according to the polls – two thirds of their voters to the Tories.

The question UKIP needs to answer is where they go from here? What is their role in post-EURef Britain?

Recent analysis along with results in the US and France and, of course, Brexit show that there is a demand for some sort of anti-establishment movement in this country. Quite how popular this would actually prove to be remains to be seen, but repositioning, relaunching and reorganising UKIP in just seven weeks is almost certain to be beyond the party and their new leader.

Win Their Freedom

In contrast to UKIP, the Scottish Nationalists are laser focussed on their aim. In the aftermath of the EU referendum the SNP are hoping to increase support for a second independence referendum.

With not much room to win additional Westminster seats the SNP will, therefore, be hoping to consolidate their position and make sure that Brexit and Scottish Independence are front and centre of the campaign north of the border.

Watch The Fluctuations

Inevitably there will be events between now and election day that affect the voting intention numbers. Some of the events with the potential to cause change, such as the local elections on 4th May, are already known. Others are ‘unknown unknowns’ that spring out of nowhere. Punching a protestor, making an off-colour, off-camera comment about a voter, forgetting which football team you claim to support – the potential for disruption is large.

Polling is also an inexact science and there will be changes along the way that are not significant, but instead caused by the random noise. That is why it is always a good idea to look at the long-term trends in the polling and the overall story, rather than obsessing about specific percentages.

It is then important to focus on those events that really change the results longer-term. In other words focus on the turning points rather than just the talking points.

Weren’t There Failings?

But hang on! Why should anyone listen to the polls?

While it is true that at the last election the polls did not cover themselves in glory, it demonstrably not true that ‘polls always get it wrong’. The average error in terms of share of the vote across all final general election polls since 1945 has been 2.2%. In a majority of the general elections during that same period the polls have only been out by, on average, around 2 percent or less. Even in 1992, the worst performance for polls, this error was only 4.6%.

What’s The Forecast?

Big But: (I like Big Buts and I cannot lie) polls are only ever a snapshot of public opinion at the given time, they are not intended to be a prediction and should not be used as such. Things will almost certainly change. Plus all polls are subject to the laws of probability and so have a margin of error associated with them.

And it is vital to keep in mind just how difficult it is to predict how national voting intention figures will translate in terms of numbers of seats won and lost – and where.

Ultimately, how will the WTF Election precisely play out between now and June 8th? Who The Fuck knows!?

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