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We need to talk about Jeremy: Why I was wrong about the 2017 General Election
Lots of people are eating humble pie about Jeremy Corbyn. In the 2017 General Election Corbyn was going to destroy the Labour party, lose Wales and lose Bolsover. Yes, yes, I know May technically ‘won’ but anyone who saw Michael Fallon on the TV knows full well who really won and lost. Jeremy Corbyn, the bearded, quasi-Marxist geography teacher and friend of [insert extremist group] deprived May of her majority, stopped her landslide and won the largest increased vote share since 1945. He even swung a near 10,000 vote majority in Canterbury and Canterbury has been Conservative since 1868, apart from a brief Independent Unionist presence 1910-18 (no, I don’t know either).
The point, though, is not to eat humble pie but to work out why the humble pie eating is necessary. Now I can argue that I’m not a quants or statistics person. Nor am I an expert in psephology. I am, I could also point out, extraordinarily bad at predicting elections (Listen in to our podcast to hear the wrongness). I wrongly predicted almost every significant political event since 2010:
- Lib-Dems going into Coalition in 2010 (‘not going to happen’ I scoffed)
- Conservative victory in 2015 (‘Don’t have the numbers-mathematically impossible’ I opined)
- EU referendum of 2016 (‘60-40 Remain’ I announced just seconds before Sunderland)
- Presidential election 2016 (‘Trump’s done for’ I said sagely after ordering a copy of Clinton’s (second) autobiography)
In part it is also the classic problems of a fire station effect and social media echo chambers. You talk and listen to people like you. Fellow lefties, fellow nerds, fellow cynics. But this isn’t really enough as an explanation. Here’s four reasons I was wrong.
The Polls, the Polls
We are obsessed. They shape our thoughts and guide our actions. We forget margins of error and the all-important qualifications that come with them. We are still obsessed despite a growing series of poor performances. In 3 major political contests in the last two years polling has been out or wrong, from the 2015 General Election, to the Brexit referendum and US presidential election. Yet still we interpret, analyse and believe them. We then enmesh ourselves in analysis of polls without stepping back and seeing them as just one source-and one that has shown to be pretty fallible. YouGov’s recent success now also points to the fact that old fashioned polling is out and more complex modelling is in: as the great Stuart Wilks-Heeg put it ‘Goodbye polls, hello multilevel regression with post-stratification’ (please drop this into casual conversation and impress your friends).
Here’s a series of truisms about UK elections that Jeremy Corbyn has probably overturned or at least badly dented:
- Campaigns don’t matter,
- No one cares about manifestos,
- Older people are all Tories,
- Young people don’t turn out
- The press have a decisive influence
- Divided parties don’t win elections
The problem, as with polls, is that we hold the rules to be ‘self-evident truths’ rather than things that ‘normally’ but don’t ‘always’ happen. Just because you think it, doesn’t make it true, as Thom Yorke perhaps once said.
We need to recognise how these ‘rules’ can be bent. Take the example of technology. Andrew Chadwick pointed a year ago to the new ‘parties-behaving-like-movements’ phenomenon, where old bodies used social media and fluid networks to reach and mobilise voters in new ways. While everyone focused on Conservative Facebook ads, Labour was digitally mobilising, organising and undercutting the power of the traditional media, demolishing several truisms while we looked the other way.
Bias and Cynicism
Most academics are left-wing. However, most political scientists, I sense, have been somewhere between unimpressed to hostile towards Corbyn (though I suspect we have many ‘shy Corbynites’ amongst us). Why the bias? Most of us probably felt he has been a reasonably poor opposition leader by any measure, seemingly unfocused, disorganised and ineffective. For me personally, a red line was his lack of enthusiasm in the Brexit referendum and his later whipping of MPs and Peers over article 50. The only time I felt slightly pulled towards him was when he confessed he didn’t know who Ant and Dec were.
Yet I forgot certain things, or at least my bias let me forget them. I forgot a politician campaigns in poetry but governs in prose. Corbyn’s prose was pretty clunky but his campaigning was, well, Shakespearean, especially when compared with May’s approach, which seemed to consist of running around the heath in a lightning storm trying to lose her power (see what I did there?). Abraham Lincoln was once told his Commander in Chief, U.S. Grant, was a drunk. ‘I can’t spare that man’ he answered ‘he fights’. And so did Corbyn.
I also forgot that politicians and public perceptions of them can change and change very quickly. Look, topically, at how Martin McGuinness and Iain Paisley transformed themselves into doves or how Gordon Brown went from ‘Stalin to Mr Bean’ in a matter of weeks. It’s ironic that as the campaign unfolded I was writing about Ken Livingstone, another figure of the Left who, in the 1980s, turned vicious press attacks into a strength and sold Leftist policies as ‘common sense’ and simple fairness.
Frustratingly, I had glimpsed at how Corbyn could become a powerful anti-elite symbol but then dismissed it (and I want to go on record as being the only academic I know to openly compare Jeremy Corbyn to Charles De Gaulle). I have no such trouble with the Conservatives and have been loudly proclaiming May’s total incompetence since I saw her misinterpret article 50 at the largely unreported car-crash of a liaison committee appearance in December 2016.
But it isn’t just about bias. It’s also cynicism. Studying politics can make you rather pessimistic. Everyone fails, everyone disappoints. For any academic vaguely of the left the last few years have been a series of hammer blows from Miliband’s failure to Farage’s success, with a great big Trump shaped cherry on top. It was hard to believe someone could again bend the rules and win from the left.
Brexit has confused us all and left British Politics in flux. Divided parties, divided countries and referendums, real and threatened, have all clumped into one huge rolling political and constitutional crisis that dare not speak its name. The fault lines run across Scotland, especially across Northern Ireland, and also through the ‘Two Englands’ that Jennings and Stoker have brilliantly mapped. But do people care?
Remember, the election was supposed to be all about Brexit. It was called because (i) those opposed to Brexit (9 Lib-Dem MPs and 55 SNP) could actively sabotage the other (586 MPs) who supported or accepted it and (ii) because the EU were plotting to throw the election to Labour (‘How’s the paranoia meter running?’ as Bob Dylan used to say).
Then something odd happened. Brexit stopped being discussed in the campaign. The Tories offered no further detail than they had in their utterly opaque White Paperthat gave us all 14 weeks holiday a year. Labour’s Brexit plans would have confused the oracle at Delphi and, even now, I still can’t understand whether we would be in the Single Market or out.
But while the parties side-stepped it the voters didn’t. We are still awaiting proper analysis and data. So far, it seems, as the great John Curtice put it ‘Thursday’s results revealed that voters had not forgotten about Brexit.’ So it was, in a sense, the revenge of the Remainers who swung heaviest for Labour with Corbyn capturing even a good chunk, according to YouGov, of 25-44 year old Conservative Remainers. Yet Labour also drew in an anti-establishment UKIP vote up north. It’s almost impossible to know what to conclude except, perhaps, that Labour’s fudging was masterful as well as infuriating and that May lost not with the dementia tax but with her hard Brexit speech in January. Perhaps.
So what do we do now? There’s more mileage in connecting with activists and those who ‘do’ politics (a few Momentum and Tory workers wouldn’t go amiss at conferences) and also in understanding technology and change more generally. I also need to step back from media horse race and prediction game: I’ll aim to offer insight without predictions or at least give more wary speculations. Perhaps the best thing that could happen is to open up politics to other disciplines-historians, anthropologists and literature scholars can all offer insights (see this talk by Dr Declan Gilmore-Kavanagh on Boris and Jeremy here). We should certainly sellotape health warnings and margins of error to our heads and keep in mind Martin Luther King’s and/or Pliny the Younger’s dictum that ‘it always seems impossible, until it is done’.
Ben Worthy is Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. He tweets @BenWorthy1.