A projection of the 2017 election

A projection of the 2017 election

I did a lot of work before the 2015 election trying to anticipate what might happen seat by seat in that election, looking at local factors, candidates, demographics, recent local election results, Lord Ashcroft‘s constituency opinion polling and all of that. Like most prediction efforts in 2015, it was not very successful. It was swamped by three things – (1) the broad national tide in England and Wales  that submerged quite a lot of the local differences I anticipated. Part of the Conservative success was built on ‘nationalising’ the election choice, to the detriment of the Lib Dems in particular who were hoping for personal votes to salvage them as happened in elections when their tide has been receding, such as 1979. (2) the completeness of the SNP sweep in Scotland. (3) the extraordinary success of the Conservatives with their protective targeting of the marginals they gained in 2010 and a handful of Labour seats they picked off. I’ve tried out a different approach this time, with a mechanistic formula applied to all the English and Welsh Con/ Lab seats and nowhere else. Martin Baxter at Electoral Calculus has done a vastly more sophisticated and complete version of the same sort of exercise, but this is a crude formula incorporating rather few variables. It’s based on the swing to the Conservatives being partly proportional to the UKIP vote, an element of uniform national swing, a bump in one direction or another for seats at the outliers of referendum voting behaviour (Remain or 60 per cent plus for Leave). There’s therefore a double weighting for strongly Leave seats, which tended for obvious reasons to have high UKIP votes in 2015. The source for constituency referendum voting is Chris Hanretty’s compilation of published local results and his work modelling the others. An allowance has been made where the Greens have stood down or intervened. The initial model had a national baseline of the Conservatives winning by a 15-point margin, which is where a fair few polls were at the time. That would produce a Con gain of 44 from Labour. Allowing for a few gains from SNP in Scotland, and from UKIP in Clacton and possibly a couple from the Lib Dems, this would be a Con gain of around 52 seats for an overall majority of around 120. The way the model works skews the Conservative gains to the North and white working class England. Labour would hold apparently perilous marginals in London such as Ealing Central & Acton and Brentford & Isleworth, but lose some former heartlands. Strikingly, the Tories would win all three seats in Stoke-on-Trent (Labour since 1935) plus Newcastle-under-Lyme (Labour or radical Liberal since 1906) for...

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Housekeeping

Housekeeping

Hello! It’s been a while. I’m not the most assiduous updater of this website – Oskar the cat here has been a sleepy role model – but it’s probably time I collated my recent work and put it on this site and wrote some new stuff. I’m interested in moving into some other areas of work and writing as well, which in time will be reflected here and in another...

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Westland – did the helicopter firm really bring Thatcher to the brink?

Westland – did the helicopter firm really bring Thatcher to the brink?

  From the perspective of hindsight, the middle term of the Thatcher government in 1983-87 may look like plain sailing. It did not seem like it at the time; it was the parliament of the ‘banana skin’ – a term then used to describe a number of unrelated mishaps which tripped up several ministers. The biggest, slipperiest banana skin of them all was the Westland Affair, the one that led Margaret Thatcher to speculate on 27 January 1986 that: I may not be Prime Minister by six o’clock tonight. How did the business arrangements of a helicopter manufacturing company in Yeovil bring Thatcher apparently so close to the edge? She even stepped back at one point after a long meeting between senior ministers and marvelled: Do you realise we have spent three hours of precious time discussing a company with a capitalisation of only £30 million? What is the world coming to? Westland was in financial trouble in 1985 and was looking for a commercial partner so that it could sort out its problems. There were two options: a tie-up with the US helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky (through its parent company United Technology Industries, UTC) or a European consortium. The Thatcher government was divided, in an increasingly public, embarrassing and vitriolic argument, on the best course of action. The main disruptive element was Michael Heseltine as Secretary of State for Defence, who actively supported the European option and worked hard for it, politically and commercially. Heseltine feared that Sikorsky was interested in Westland because it could be used to get a piece of the enormous Al-Yamamah arms deal agreed between Saudi Arabia and the UK in 1985, which allegedly mentioned an order of 80 helicopters. Defence procurement – the very word has a slight whiff of the illicit – has never been a simple or transparent industry and Westland was a cork bobbing on the surface above deeper currents. It should not have been a big political issue. The government professed neutrality, although Thatcher herself had sympathy for the US option. But it worked on fault lines that were already there. Although Heseltine had been a good Thatcherite in many ways, particularly in the 1983 election on defence, their personal styles clashed. Many suspected Heseltine was looking for a reason to have a ‘good resignation’ as part of a long term career plan. A confrontation about something was clearly in the air, and it coalesced around Westland. Heseltine grew frustrated in late 1985 that the future of Westland was not being discussed in Cabinet, and Thatcher felt that Heseltine was blatantly ignoring collective Cabinet responsibility. In retrospect Thatcher should have sacked Heseltine for insubordination in December 1985. She would have...

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Introducing the ‘Balfour gambit’ – when a government resigns for no apparent reason

Introducing the ‘Balfour gambit’ – when a government resigns for no apparent reason

    Last month I wrote about the events of 30 years ago – the Westland scandal that divided the Thatcher government and caused two Cabinet resignations in early 1986. I allowed another anniversary to pass by, namely 110 years since the last Liberal overall majority was elected in the landslide of 1906. It is just about feasible that the same individual may have been able to vote both in the 1906 election and in the 1987 election that followed Westland, in the latter case as a man aged 103 or so, but there are few other threads linking the two. The events of the 1906 campaign, and the broad shape of the results, are a familiar enough story. The Conservatives, tired, divided and beset by resignations after a long spell in government, stumbled into one of the worst defeats in their history. A chain of consequences was set in motion that led to the establishment of the welfare state, the rise of the Labour Party, Irish independence and the supremacy of the House of Commons over the House of Lords. It was quite an important election in historical perspective, but the coming of the 1906 election was the result of a rather strange manoeuvre that suggests that it was a bit of a game that got severely out of hand. We are accustomed to the expectation that a sitting government calls an election at the end of its parliamentary term, and if the election result is negative the Prime Minister then tenders the resignation of the government, or in some cases remains in office to explore the possibility of forming a coalition (1974, 2010) or face parliament to be formally defeated (1886, 1892, 1923-24). Occasionally, though, a novel variation could happen in that a government could resign and put the other side in before an election had taken place, even without suffering what would generally be regarded as a defeat on a vote of confidence. Gladstone and Rosebery did this in 1885 and 1895, essentially turning the keys of Downing Street over to Salisbury. It was therefore odd, but not unprecedented, for the Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Balfour to return them to the Liberals without a fight in December 1905. Party leaders and strategists are often not very good at assessing events and tendencies in the other party. They sometimes believe their own propaganda and either underestimate their opponents, or else endow them with imagined near-supernatural powers of political manipulation in order to find psychologically satisfying explanations for losing. This happened even in the clubland environment of Edwardian politics where despite the vicious intensity of party conflict the Liberal and Conservative elites were socially intertwined. The relative ease...

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The 1966 election – 50 years on

The 1966 election – 50 years on

  Fifty years ago this month, in March 1966, Britain went to the polls in a General Election. The 1966 election has not been remembered in history as one of the more interesting or important contests. It was seen as a foregone conclusion and the campaign was rather short of incident. It stands as rather an anomaly – the only decisive Labour majority elected between 1945 and 1997, and the only election between 1951 and 1987 in which the Labour vote, expressed as a share of the whole election, went up. It might have seemed at the time like the start of a long period of Labour ascendancy, but that future was cancelled. And the reason for that goes back, in part, to the campaign that was fought that optimistic March fifty years ago. The Labour government’s parliamentary position was precarious. Its majority was only five seats in October 1964, and that sank to three with the loss of Leyton in a by-election in January 1965. Several MPs were rebellious from the right (Woodrow Wyatt, Desmond Donnelly) or the left (William Warbey), and several others were in poor health; the death of Harry Solomons, who had gained the marginal seat of Hull North, caused a by-election at the end of January 1966. Labour’s popularity had been growing since October, and with the help of the promise of building the Humber Bridge a confident Tory campaign in Hull was heavily defeated. A month later, Wilson called the election for 31 March 1966. The 1966 election was probably the peak of politicians’ faith in opinion polls, which had been broadly correct in the previous few elections and had not yet misfired. Labour was well ahead, and this sucked a lot of the suspense out of the election campaign – and also contributed to the shock that was felt when polling failed in 1970. The year was a peak of scientific optimism – the National Plan to grow the economy was one reflection, and rationality and planning were apparent in the form and content of the 1966 election campaign. Both Labour and Conservative campaigns were disciplined and based on well-founded and researched strategies. Labour’s campaign centred around economic performance, general government competence and the popular figure of Prime Minister Harold Wilson. The party’s principal slogan was ‘You know Labour government works’ – a shrewd assertion of the government’s competence and an invitation to electors who had hesitated in 1964 for fear of change to go Labour this time. It was in this election, rather than in 1964, that the description ‘Thirteen Wasted Years’ was most used about the Conservative government of 1951-64, with the contrast drawn between modernisation under Wilson and the...

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