Thursday, 15 June 2017

Another Election - Another Surprise

by Georgia McKirgan

Just like in 2015 and the EU Referendum, the result of last week's General Election took all the 'experts' by surprise. Even on the day of the votes, most people thought Cameron would fail to win a majority in 2015, Remain would win the EU Referendum and the only doubt this time was whether Theresa May would win a majority of 50 or 100. All of these predictions were wrong. There is a good piece to be written about why journalists, politicians and polling companies have proved so useless at doing something they should be good at - predicting electoral outcomes - but that is not what I am trying to do here.

Some of the most common questions in British politics are: Why is participation in General Elections falling? Why do older people vote more than young people and Why is the share of the vote taken by the two major parties falling? I spent a lot of time preparing my answers to these questions, so I'm really glad the exam was last week and not next week as all the conventional wisdom about these issues has been turned upside down.

Let's take Participation first. Disillusionment with political parties and problems with the First Past the Post voting system (safe seats, wasted votes etc) are usually blamed for falling turnouts in elections but recently this had been ticking back up. Turnout in the Scottish Independence and EU Referendums showed that people were very engaged in politics, even if they were less interested in General Elections. This disillusionment with politics was seen to be most acute amongst the young. There is no official data for turnout by age group in the EU referendum but Sky News came up with the following turnout numbers:

18-24: 36%
25-34: 58%
35-44: 72%
45-54: 75%
55-64: 81%
65+: 83%

The fact that the turnout was so low amongst younger voters (who were largely in favour of Remain) was held up as one of the reasons for the Leave vote. So how did young voters turn out for this election?

The graph shows that there was a massive increase in the turnout of 18-24 voters in this election (66.4%) over the 2015 election (44%). The youth turnout was the highest since 1992 and the third highest since 1974. This increase drove the overall turnout up to a very respectable 68.7% compared to 59.4 in 2001 and 85% of seats saw an increase in turnout. This jump in youth turnout may also have affected the overall result. Everyone would have expected left-wing parties to do a bit better with younger voters but the extent of this was surprising:

The 49 point advantage for Labour over the Conservatives amongst young people more than outweighs the 36 point advantage for the Conservatives amongst older voters (65+). In previous elections, the fact that older people voted in greater numbers than young people has been used to explain why most parties' policies tend to favour older over younger voters (pensions triple-lock etc). The view was that parties were merely developing policies that would give them the biggest return amongst likely voters. Something started to change in 2015 but didn't really have a big effect until last week. When Jeremy Corbyn shocked the 'experts' (see the trend here?) by winning the Labour Party Leadership elections in 2015 and 2016 many people commented that a large part of his success was the way his message resonated with young people. During the campaign Corbyn's public meetings were large, energetic and filled with young people. Compare this to the staged, scripted appearances by the "Maybot" where she could barely get beyond the phrase "Strong and Stable" and refused to take part in the Leaders Debate.

It can't be because Corbyn is an Obama-style inspirational orator so what else is going on? Faced with an economy that is barely growing, wages that are stagnating in real terms, a continuation of 7 years of austerity and a housing market that is out of reach, young people have reason to feel dissatisfied. It doesn't really matter whether you think Corbyn's promises are realistic and deliverable, at least he was selling a positive, hopeful message. The Labour manifesto also included one policy that really caught young peoples' imagination - abolition of university tuition fees. Against this, the Conservatives had nothing to offer. Nothing on the economy. Nothing on improving education and the Health Service. Nothing on affordable housing. Maybe they thought the Labour Party was so weak, they didn't have to bother. Big mistake. So the increased political engagement by young people has changed the political landscape and hopefully political parties will now focus more on the issues important to young people rather than all chasing the 'grey vote'. Hopefully, 2017 will be the last election where young people are ignored or taken for granted.

How about the decline of support for the two main parties since the 60s? In 1960 the Conservatives and Labour took 90% of the vote and this declined to 66% in 2015. There are many political science theories that explain this decline. Decline of the Trade Union movement, more working class people going to university, Labour and Conservative parties becoming less ideological and competing for the middle ground, a decline in class identification and  the growth of parties like UKIP and the SNP. The collapse of the UKIP vote after Brexit and the only modest recovery of the Lib Dem vote in 2017 meant that the share of the vote taken by to two major parties went back up to 82.4%. It would be wrong, however, to think that this represented a return to a more unified political environment. I fear we are are going to become as ideologically split as the US. In America, the liberal coasts and cities are becoming more strongly Democratic while the middle and south become more strongly Republican. The number of swing voters is declining and it feels much more like a country divided. Just listen to the different reactions to the. Ariosto Trump outrages. republicans find any reason to defend him and Democrats think he is the greatest threat to the Union since the Civil War. In this country, Labour won university towns like Canterbury and a whole slew of seats in London while the Conservatives picked up traditional Labour seats in the Midlands and the North. After the election it looks like we are split between a younger, educated, urban Labour tribe and an older, non-cosmopolitan, non-university educated Conservative tribe. As we head into the uncertain world of Brexit, it looks we are becoming an increasingly divided nation with a lame duck PM.

Another part of conventional wisdom that has been overturned this week is about electoral systems. In general, there a choice between majoritarian systems (like our First Past the Post system) which may produce shares of seats that don't reflect the share of votes and more proportional systems like STV, AMS and Party List systems. The advantage of majoritarian systems is that while they may not be proportional, they tend to deliver clear majorities and 'strong and stable' governments but in the last three elections, we have had one coalition, one majority government and one minority government. With the two-party share of the vote recovering, the FPTP system has failed to deliver a clear majority so if it doesn't do the one thing that was supposed to be its strong point, is it time for electoral reform?

This is an interesting question but my overall conclusion after the events of the last week is just how much things can change. Politics is about how we choose to be governed and any academic discipline that is based on this needs to be nimble enough to keep pace with our changing world. 

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