The YouGov MRP model was received with much fanfare when it was released on November 27th, some two weeks before the general election. It showed that Boris Johnson was on course to secure a 68-seat majority. The polls are giving the Tories on average a steady 10-point lead over Labour in the last few days going into the election. We have been here before. On the eve of the 2017 general election, a ComRes poll predicted a 74-seat Tory majority, giving the party a 10-point lead over Labour. We all know what happened next.
The 2017 general election campaign kicked off with much talk about how big the Tory landslide was going to be and that Labour was facing a historic wipe-out. Theresa May was apparently more popular than Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair in their heyday. The right-wing press ran away with headlines such as “Labour facing election wipeout as polls suggest Tory majority of up to 150” (Daily Telegraph, 25 April 2017). After the polls were proven so spectacularly wrong, Channel 4’s Jon Snow famously declared, “I know nothing. We the media, the pundits, the experts, know nothing.”
Polls were not just wrong in 2017; they were wrong about the 2016 EU referendum and the 2015 general election. Why polls have been so consistently wrong in recent years is what academics and psephologists are busy studying. If we have learnt anything at all from all these polls is that you do not win elections on the back of favourable poll ratings. This may sound obvious, but you would not think so looking at some of the mainstream press. The Daily Telegraph ran a comment piece saying that this election was already in the bag for Boris Johnson. The Sun has been chronicling the fall of Labour’s ‘red wall’ to get Brexit over the line. In a case of déjà vu, we are seeing hysterical headlines that proved so costly for Theresa May and might well be for Boris Johnson too.
Labour should be confident approaching December 12th for a number of reasons. The polls are underestimating the record number of young people who have registered to vote. There is evidence of the repeat of the so called ‘youthquake’ of 2017, because a lot more young people have registered to vote this time. Tories have turned this into a Brexit election in which young voters will want to have their say on the biggest issue of our time that affects their future. Those who have turned 18 since the 2016 EU referendum will have an added impetus. They did not get a say in 2016, but will certainly express their view at the ballot box this time.
The ‘youthquake’ is particularly evident in Boris Johnson’s seat, Uxbridge and South Ruislip, which is home to Brunel University. The Labour candidate, Ali Milani, was a former president of the Students Union at Brunel University. The university and a number of youth organisations have been active in the constituency mobilising young people. They may make history by making Boris Johnson the first sitting Prime Minister to lose their seat for about 100 years.
Tactical voting is another factor that could deny Boris Johnson a majority. A number of tactical voting websites have propped up. Although their advice is not consistent, what seems to be clear is that voters are a lot more clued up about voting tactically. I have spoken to people on the doorstep who are intending to vote tactically to oust their local Tory MP. In Stevenage, for example, I knocked on the door of a couple who were Lib Dem members, but were supporting their Labour candidate as it is a Tory-Labour marginal. Tory grandees such as John Major and Michael Heseltine have made important interventions in this election urging voters to reject Boris Johnson’s hard-right Brexiteer candidates in favour of alternative candidates. This is unprecedented. Even during Theresa May’s awful 2017 election campaign, a former Conservative Prime Minister and deputy Prime Minister did not call on voters to reject Tory candidates.
Labour’s ground campaign is another reason for which there is much to be hopeful about. Labour members have come out in their thousands braving the inclement weather to have doorstep conversations with voters. Neither the Tories nor the Lib Dems could match the enormity or the passion of Labour’s campaign on the ground. Instead, Tories have fought this election with lies, disinformation and fake news from changing the CCHQ Twitter handle to ‘FactCheckUK’ to registering a website to masquerade as ‘Labour’s manifesto’.
Labour members have had millions of doorstep conversations up and down the country about issues that matter to people such as ending austerity, protecting our NHS, abolishing tuition fees, a green industrial revolution and giving voters the final say on Brexit. Opinion polls will not be able to sufficiently reflect the effect of Labour’s ground game.
There is also a difference between how Labour members fought the 2017 campaign and how we are fighting this campaign. Labour’s chances were written off even before the election campaign kicked off in 2017. It is true that grassroots members campaigned mainly in marginal Labour held seats to ensure that we did not lose them. We wanted to shore up our base – it was a ‘defensive’ campaign. In contrast, this is an ‘offensive’ campaign and Labour members have gone out to campaign in marginal seats we are hopeful that we can win them from the Tories. Momentum is also running a much more sophisticated ground operation than 2017. Our resources are being distributed much more evenly to prevent members from piling into particular seats.
Finally, Labour have fought this campaign by putting forward a range of ideas to transform every part of our economy and society. Labour have launched specific manifestos for investments in the arts, to help disabled people and deal with the climate crisis, for example. Ideas have been put forward to transform our country in the same way that the 1945 Labour government transformed the country in the aftermath of the Second World War. In contrast, the Tories have barely included anything resembling a vision for our country in their manifesto. Boris Jonson has gone around repeating his mantra, “Get Brexit Done”, reminiscent of Theresa May’s meaningless “strong and stable” claim.
Britain is at a crossroads, with an election that will define our standing in the world. Boris Johnson and his acolytes in the mainstream media may act like he has already won this election, but Labour has done everything right in this election campaign to deny him a majority. Labour members should go out with the confidence that we can bring about a real change with a transformative government that will work for the many, not just the privileged few.
(First published on LabourList on 10 December 2019)