Elections More Unpredictable Than Ever

24 May 2017

"I’ve been knocking on doors for the Labour Party in elections since I was student in the early 1980s. In the past I would often hear the retort ‘Don’t worry son, we are all Labour here’, closely followed with ‘My father voted Labour, he’d turn in his grave if I did anything else’. Thirty years on the picture has changed significantly and it is much more complex.

Nowadays, if the electoral register tells you a household has four voters within it there is a reasonably high chance that at least two political parties are being voted for.

Social change has also driven the way we vote. For example, thirty years ago if the man of the house voted, say Conservative, then there was a good chance his wife did also.  Not anymore.

Past voting behaviour is not necessarily a guide to future behaviour either. In recent years here in the North East we have seen a shift from Labour to UKIP and those voters may now be toying with voting Conservative. Some may return to Labour.

Whether someone has voted in the past doesn't now mean they will even cast a vote in the future, although it used to.  And where a person has never voted at all they may decide that now is the time to head for the ballot box. The EU referendum pulled many new voters in and they may now want a say on other policies as we head into this election.

Further complicating the picture is the growing tendency for people to vote differently in local and national elections.

All this volatility wreaks havoc with political planning on the ground, making it tricky to get your campaigners to the right place to encourage support for your candidate.

From a democratic point of view, however, it could be argued that this is all a good thing.  The tribal vote is in decline and the reasoned vote is on the increase.  A convincing candidate with attractive policies can be elected irrespective of which of the mainstream parties they represent.  Meanwhile the party has to win on what it stands for today, with its past record increasingly irrelevant.

The floating voter enters the political supermarket and predicting what they will buy has become a mug’s game.

Just to keep us on our toes more than two million people have registered to vote in the month since Theresa May announced she wanted to hold a snap general election. The highest number was on the day Theresa May fired the election starting gun, when 147,000 people registered.  This was the biggest total recorded for a single day since the EU referendum campaign in 2016.  It is worth watching the number of young people registering – so far it is the highest of any age group.

With Jeremy Corbyn able to turn out large spontaneous crowds wherever he goes, unlike Theresa May, I’m really not sure this general election is the certain win for the Conservatives that it appeared to be back in April. The most recent polls show that the gap is narrowing.

Under our first past the post system it is where votes are cast that counts for everything. Labour could increase their overall share in the seats they already hold meaning that on June 8th the national share of the vote is fairly close. But if the Tories win a clear majority of seats, they will be the ones in power. It's much the same as Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote, but it is Donald Trump who now occupies the White House.

There is no doubt that Jeremy Corbyn has a core following that have a passion which isn’t replicated by his opponents.  That said, however passionate you may be, you only have one vote and it would be cancelled out by one reluctant Tory vote.

What I am certain about is that the result of this general election tells you less about who will win the next one than ever before.  When Labour won big under Blair in 1997 the Tories knew they wouldn’t be back in power for at least two terms. Whoever wins next month, because of the churn and volatility amongst voters, it’s anyone’s guess who will win in 2021."


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