In line with the best traditions of Superforecasting, at The Social Review we’ve decided to keep ourselves accountable and do a roundup of how our various pre-election predictions went down – and what we’re learning from them for future elections.
Hugh Brechin – ‘I realised it wasn’t going to be 2017 again – except when I didn’t’
Conservatives 38%, Labour 33%, Lib Dems 14%, Brexit 10%, SNP 3%, Greens 1%
What I got right:
Labour’s performance, more or less. I always thought the widespread assumption that the party would gain hugely in the polls over the course of the campaign was overly optimistic, based on an under-appreciation of the uniqueness of 2017 (Labour successfully fudging Brexit, a totemically awful Conservative campaign, the institutional sexism of the British media being aimed at pulling the wings off Theresa May rather than Jo Swinson, Corbyn’s woeful popularity ratings being less firmly baked in…)
I was also right about the broad pattern of votes in Scotland – I’d thought for a long time that a uniform swing model was unlikely to accurately predict Scottish outcomes, with the Tories digging in in more rural areas, Lib Dem strength highly localised and Labour fairly competitive in much of the central belt but falling back badly elsewhere. As it turned out, the Scottish exit poll significantly overestimated the scale of the SNP advance, as a small number of polling stations sampled north of the border were unable to pick up on everything.
And I thought the Tories would win. Hooray.
What I got wrong:
I’m far from the only person who did this, but I was completely wrong-footed by the extent to which the Brexit Party vacated the field only a few months after they’d topped the polls in the European elections. I thought the zealotry of their rank-and-file would prevent them from backing a party which had ultimately balked at No Deal, and that Johnson’s government would pay a price among Leavers for missing the oft-trumpeted 31st October deadline. Neither of these things came to pass: fundamentally I didn’t predict the Brexiteers’ pragmatic acceptance of the fact that the election would produce either a Tory government which would deliver Brexit or a Labour-led one which might halt it.
The SNP did better than I expected. I had thought that one big story in Scotland might be that the 2017 results would serve as a guide for unionist tactical voting: in the many seats which had been close between the SNP and Labour, the Tories or the Lib Dems, that portion of the Scottish electorate which really doesn’t want independence could lend any of those parties enough support to make a difference (without denting the SNP’s huge national lead much). My first error was to overestimate the impact of the 2017 results. Most people do not check the Wikipedia page for their constituency before casting their ballot, and understandably all three of the the UK-wide parties were delivering leaflets and letters saying ‘it’s going to be close and we’re in with a shot’ than ‘to be honest, if you want to stop the SNP, vote for that lot’.
Secondly, Scottish turnout in 2017 had been 4.7% lower than in 2015, largely due to voters who had been mobilised by the 2014 referendum staying at home. I expected that trend to continue. But turnout rose by 1.6% between 2017 and 2019, with somewhat higher increases in many of the central belt seats in which Labour had been hoping to take scalps or cling on. I’m not yet aware of any authoritative analysis of this, but it seems likely that returning independence supporters played their part.
Two key lessons for me here. Most importantly, be more rigorous about ensuring that you’re not fighting the last war. I correctly expected the UK campaign not to follow the same pattern in 2019 as it did in 2017, which makes it a little irritating to realise that I had cheerfully mentally added ‘except in Scotland’ to that. Secondly, people with whom I strongly disagree are capable of making, in retrospect, fairly obvious pragmatic judgements.
The common thread here is probably “be particularly sceptical of reasons to believe that everything will be alright really”. Which is a grim takeaway. But then, it was a grim election.
Morgan Jones – ‘Well, at least we held Bethnal Green’
I am a coward and the only prediction I made was Labour holding my home seat (Bethnal Green and Bow).
What I got right:
Labour held Bethnal Green and Bow!
What I got wrong:
I think like a lot of people I thought that our Brexit policy was not a terrible one; or, rather, it was the most serious attempt by any party to address the concerns of both leavers and remainers. I think to our credit we didn’t treat Brexit, like the Lib Dems or the Conservatives did, as a black and white issue. Of course whether a policy can be to your credit, when it has demonstrably not worked in your favour, is highly debatable.
I didn’t see the SNP surge coming; in part because I just wasn’t thinking very much about Scotland (beyond taking half-hearted pleasure in the thought that Jo Swinson might lose her seat), but also because the people I knew in Scotland seemed to be moving away from the SNP, towards Labour. It turns out you can’t conduct viable political polling with a sample drawn exclusively from the Glasgow underground clubbing scene. You live and learn.
Election night was appalling for everyone, and appalling seems too small a word for it. There are no words, really, thinking about the gaping chasm of human misery that is about to open up in front of us. One of the darkest thoughts I had that night was this: that all of the people in the Labour Party at whom I’d rolled my eyes so thoroughly, the ones who’d essentially looked at the platform and gone, ‘dream smaller’, people I’d thought failed to grasp the scale of change needed – those people were right. Maybe we should have dreamed smaller, asked for less, had fewer ambitions, sought to tinker rather than to shape, because the worst Labour government will always be infinitely better than the best Tory government, and this is not going to be the best Tory government. I thought that in the pits of election night despair and I want to believe that it is not the case. I do not think it is the case.
Tyron Wilson – ‘I got right that a post-October 31st election was bad. I got wrong not doing anything with that knowledge’
What I got right:
I got right that a post-October 31st election was bad terrain for Labour. That first week of September during the prorogation crisis was a rare time in the Brexit impasse when it felt like both the public and the media looked to Labour and Jeremy Corbyn as the clear main force that could stop the Government’s Brexit strategy (rather than casting an eye over the various constellation of Remain forces or the Lib Dems trying to set themselves up as ‘the real opposition’).
The choice of a government set on no deal – for all the hype, a position that never carried a majority in the country – versus an opposition pledged to blocking no deal was ground stacked in our favour. An election on those terms would have meant Boris couldn’t have gone to the country with the simple pledge to ‘get Brexit done’ (really? by plunging us into the chaos and uncertainty of no deal?). It’s a pitch that would’ve seen the Tories lose swathes of seats in London’s commuter belt to the Lib Dems, and limited the many gains they made off Labour by narrow margins in the Midlands and the North. My fear is that Corbyn’s decision to block an October election, giving Johnson the time to get a deal, will go down alongside Callaghan’s ‘Waiting At The Church’ moment as one of the most catastrophic misjudgements in Labour’s history.
What I got wrong:
Of course, having managed to predict the dynamic that a post-October 31st election would be fought on fairly well two months before, I then proceeded to make the tremendous mistake of forgetting all that and forecasting that the Tories would lose the election anyway (namely, that the collective Opposition parties would get enough seats to block the Tories – who had fallen out with every other party save the Brexit Party – from forming Government).
Why? I’ll give myself a *little* credit here – but not much – and say that my confidence in that forecast was shaken a bit by the Brexit Party pulling out of all Tory-held seats three days later. But I didn’t drop the prediction as my main thesis held throughout the campaign: that we would witness a similar dynamic to 2017 and see a consolidation of Remain/left-leaning voters (lost to the Lib Dems in Spring 2019) behind Labour – a segment focus groups found were wary of an election exclusively focused on Brexit and Jo Swinson’s voting record. My mistake was assuming this would happen enough to make the number of Labour-Lib Dem switchers in swing seats negligible. As it turned out, while the squeeze happened, enough former Labour voters stayed with the Lib Dems and other Remain parties to be pivotal to the party’s loss in 28 seats – the margin between the eventual Tory majority of 80, and one of 24.
My other mistake was to ignore the lesson of 2015 (another campaign where Labour’s hopes of cobbling together building blocks of left-wing votes were blown away by middle-of-the-road voters), and be guided too much by 2017. With Labour finishing so close to the Tories in 2017 – with 40% of the vote to May’s 42% – I thought that the EU referendum had changed the rules, polarising enough voters along Remain/Leave lines to make traditional swing voter concerns less influential – especially with Johnson having poor confidence ratings himself. As it went, concerns over how up to it our leader was came together brutally with the Tory pledge to ‘get Brexit done’. Swing voters were frankly sick of hearing about roiling scandals within Labour that hadn’t been closed down, and sick of hearing about something they thought they’d resolved three years ago.
I’m not going to overlook the importance of having a leader that voters – especially those who don’t pay much attention to politics – have confidence in. It didn’t work in 2015, it didn’t work in 2017 (much as it felt like it did at the time), and it didn’t work in 2019. Johnson is more vulnerable than he looks on this front, and has set himself up to fail by making a lot of promises (e.g. binding himself by law to get a trade deal by the end of the year) that he can’t deliver. Dangerous ground for someone who won on the benefit of the doubt.
Joe Hamm – ‘We were stuck between a rock and a hard Brexit’
Cons 36%, Lab 32%, SNP 4%, Lib Dems 14%, Brexit 8%, Greens 1%
What I got right:
Labour’s vote share. It certainly didn’t feel like we were doing much better than I initially predicted, but I had allowed myself to hope I was missing something. It was obvious the campaign was less focused than in 2017 and Corbyn was a problem to an extent he simply hadn’t been in 2017. I think I was also right to be sceptical about the shift to backing a second referendum although, by the time we made the decision, we had probably missed the opportunity to say something more coherent. We were stuck between a rock and a hard Brexit – leaving us with no real choices.
What I got wrong:
My biggest error appears to have been to underestimate the impact of the Conservative Party/Brexit Party shenanigans. I, for reasons I can’t quite understand now, did not expect them to pull it off quite as successfully as they managed.
While I was always sceptical about the Labour Party’s wisdom in moving towards a second referendum policy, my cautious backing of the policy shift after the European Elections had been based on the theory that the Labour Leave vote was more Labour than Leave. I underestimated the extent to which these party loyalties were already under threat after years of Labour Party decline in these areas coupled with a disastrously unpopular leadership. It isn’t clear to me that there is a Brexit position that we could have taken and be anywhere close to confident about holding our electoral coalition together but I suspect backing something Norway-ish from the beginning might have been preferable. By the time we got to the election though, it was all too late. We might have been able to go into an election with an unpopular leader and get away with it, we might have been able to go into an election with a Brexit position that alienated a significant section of our voters and get away with it, there was absolutely no way we were ever going to pull off both.
Despite being fairly close in my prediction with the Liberal Democrat vote share, I had expected them to fare far better this election in terms of seats. Clearly, I had internalised too much of the early breathless Lib Dem hype and spin.
I also put far too much stock in the idea that election rules might see fair coverage from television media. This is the election that finally turned me into a BBC crank.
My key takeaway from this election is to ignore the majority of Twitter noise. It’s the natural habitat of motivated reasoning!
Jasper Cresdee-Hyde – ‘I didn’t expect the Tories to pull off the impossible. But everything is impossible until it’s not’
What I got right:
This may not be ‘right’ per se, but I feared that a more radical Labour manifesto would fail to cut it against ‘Get Brexit Done’ because of the British state’s failure to implement Brexit on time. If UK politics in the 2010s has been gripped by revolutionary fervour, then the Brexit process has seen that idealism translated into a reality of constant delay. If you voted to Leave with faith the state could implement it – which looked unlikely for much of 2019 – how could you possibly trust that a Labour Party already perceived as incompetent would be able to resolve Brexit and uproot the very structures of our society and economy?
In the end, those voters didn’t trust Labour in 2019 as they did in 2017, and as the progress of Brexit is one of the main variables between the two elections I wouldn’t be shocked if it was the most important factor.
What I got wrong:
Everything else! Like others here, I placed too much faith in the idea that, when push came to shove, those Labour voters who ultimately did opt for the Tories would bite their tongue and find they couldn’t do it. More broadly, I overestimated the extent to which precedents matter. The last time a government increased its majority after a sustained period in office was the 1950s, and for the Conservative Party to win this time around they needed to come back from losing seats the previous time – something unprecedented, which has, of course, now happened. Everything is impossible until it’s not.
I was also not convinced that Boris Johnson could successively rebrand the Conservatives as a new party after nine years in office, particularly because of his membership of Theresa May’s cabinet and status as a known quantity for almost twenty years. I thought that the electorate would look at him and see the same Tories who stood in 2017, and 2015, and 2010, and so forth, because at the end of the day they are. I’ve long thought that it doesn’t really matter what you are in politics, but rather what you are perceived to be, and in this instance I should have taken my own advice.
“The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alter their views to fit the facts. They alter the facts to fit their views,” as the Fourth Doctor put it. I ignored the headline polls, Corbyn’s ratings and what canvassers were saying because I wanted to believe something different – very stupid indeed. My key takeaway is to rely on historical precedents less and present/medium-term attitudes more. Don’t assume that because everybody is saying something that means they’re all missing something, and don’t read selectively so as to evidence what I want to happen.
William Sorensen – ‘The People’s Vote policy was terrible. We should’ve backed LEFTA’
What I got right:
The 30 seat Labour majority was possible, but we will not get elected by Rational Economic Men. Do away with the fully costed manifesto – this bland economism has already been thrown out by the Conservatives with a preference for a Jacinda Ardern-style “wellbeing budget” for the North, and no one believes us anyway.
On that – as I’ve argued, the Labour Party’s incredible plans were sold, not championed. We went for the voters’ pockets, whereas Boris Johnson aimed squarely at their hearts. This isn’t to say Labour should not expressly aim to make people’s lives materially better, but it has to understand that people comprehend their lives in a manner not easily captured by our economic frames. Neoclassical Marxism is a failed experiment and it is the core aspect of Labour’s platform which must now be left in the wreckage.
What I got wrong:
Ah, christ. My now-decrepit Twitter username, predicting a 30 seat Labour majority, will haunt me until next time.
At the beginning of the campaign I had suspected that the Conservative Party’s vote share would remain less than the percentage of the public aligned with Brexit as long as a party literally named The Brexit Party ran. That was mistake number one. Aside from the obvious, there’s the same mistake of judgement that many made, and are still making, about Brexit. Ultimately, Brexit, as it has now been realised, is a side. It is the side of the radicals, though these radicals are not looking to save the environment or our commons. Instead, they are looking to preserve a notion of Britain, of democracy, and of identity. The Conservatives not only adopted the name of the project, but ultimately they managed to fundamentally remake this country’s politics, and shift away from the neoliberal consensus they had themselves forged.
Up with a democratic project first and foremost, and all the contradictions that come with it. Also the People’s Vote policy was terrible and we should’ve backed LEFTA – which there’s still time to do.
Peter Whitehead – ‘We promised too much too soon. All the costing in the world doesn’t matter if people don’t trust what you say.’
What I got right:
Having spent a good part of the election making ‘Jeb Wins’ memes with various outcomes, my final prediction was that Jo Swinson, personally, would win 100% of the vote. I was, as we all now know, entirely correct, and I for one am loving my skills wallet.
What I got wrong:
My prediction was a hung parliament. I instinctively assumed that a lot of the North wouldn’t actually vote Tory – I genuinely assumed the Red Wall would hold until the exit poll, at which point I sat on the Tube from Dagenham as it dawned on me with each passing stop just how fucked we were. For someone willing to blather on about cultural theory for the Social Review, I should have taken my own instinct that Brexit was an Event, an entirely remaking force, more seriously.
I felt at the time we were right to suggest some of the things we did, and I stand by that, but I should have realised that we’d done too much too soon, and hadn’t really won enough arguments. To take my pet love, the Four Day Week: badly explained, that sounds to a lot of shift workers like they’re about to lose 20% of their pay packet so Labour can do socialism. It’s great for those on a salary, because I think instinctively that it’s easier to see how the ‘no loss in pay’ bit works there, but for those on hourly pay, it sounds a lot less appealing. Crucially, I learned this: all the costing in the world wasn’t ever going to matter if the people you’re talking to don’t trust what you say. If Corbyn is – in the eyes of the voters – a sneaky Britain hater, they are not going to believe his party when they say things like ‘oh no, this is all costed!’ I’m not sure I agree with Will’s take on the post-Thatcher consensus, but I do agree that just shouting about costings was never actually going to be enough. The voters are not Rational Economic Actors. They are real people. We need to respect them as such.
A few things. One: we do need a leader with a modicum of public trust – I think it was Tyron who used the idea of “someone you’d trust to babysit the kids”. I don’t know who that is yet, but I do know it’s something we really need to think carefully about, or we face absolute oblivion. Two: I need to realise that sometimes polling does matter, and it’s not enough to rely on some vague instincts. I had friends in the North who were Lexity and involved with pro-Brexit stuff who had told me I was wrong, the North would swing, and I still stuck by my gut. I was wrong. Three: perhaps this isn’t the place for predictions, but I am somewhat skeptical of the idea that people voted to ‘make politics go away’. I think that’s broadly true, but I do think we are seeing an increase in people who voted to do politics forever – entrench us in an endless series of culture wars. What remains to be seen is how big a bloc this is – I think it’s bigger than we think, but I really hope I’m wrong.
Julia Blunck – ‘Precedent isn’t destiny. Things are historical truths until they aren’t anymore.’
What I got right: Dominic Cummings is not an idiot. Media narratives have the tendency to overcorrect themselves – when Cummings helped pull off the Leave win in 2016, the media narrative was that he was a stunning genius who could do anything. When, in the dog days of 2019, the Johnson government was floundering at every turn, especially with the prorogation, the narrative overcorrection was that Cummings was an idiot, who couldn’t do anything right and had simply lucked out. But it was clear that he had more or less of a plan; using the dangerous and reckless rhetoric started by May (“citizens of nowhere”, “parliament has betrayed you”) and turn it up to eleven, using a more media trained (and media coddled) leader.
What I got wrong: But I was wrong that he was going to fail anyway. I believed that Labour Brexiteers would stick with Labour because they cared more about Labour’s brand than a boring, alienating political procedure. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP would eat up into the Tory vote in a couple of strategic regions, making a hung parliament more or less inevitable. With Boris Johnson having completely isolated himself in the House of Commons, it felt to me that his removal was the most likely outcome, though it was possible the Tories would hang on for a few more months until dislodged.
I’m not yet wholly sure about everything I got wrong, but I think it boils down to two issues: Labour Leavers did care about Brexit to the point they wanted to vote for someone like Boris, and everyone else did not care for Jeremy Corbyn. His unpopularity ran much deeper this time. In 2017, people felt as though they were just seeing Corbyn for the first time, and they liked what they saw; in 2019, Corbyn felt like everyone other politician: stalling over Brexit, making promises he couldn’t keep, and just being generally untrustworthy. Not regaining in Remainers what it had lost in Leavers was bad for Labour, but the party wasn’t the only one to suffer. Lib Dem waverers hesitated to vote for a party that might put Corbyn in power, meaning they did badly in terms of seats.
Going Forward: Precedent isn’t destiny. My beliefs about Boris Johnson were based on the fact that it was unprecedented for a government to gain seats after being in power for so long. Equally, the experience of 2017 made me believe that Jeremy Corbyn could obviously turn his unpopularity around. While he did this to some extent, it wasn’t nearly enough to mean that the toxic cocktail of Brexit and his personal image wasn’t fatal for the Labour Party. It feels like this should obviously be the main lesson from the past turbulent decade: things are historical truths until they aren’t anymore.