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Why did the Tories win and what are the lessons for Labour?

May 30, 2015

Twitter: @leightonvw

Why did the Conservatives win an overall (albeit narrow) majority in the 2015 UK Election, and almost a hundred more seats than Labour? Numerous hypotheses have been put forward, often centred around the ideas of leadership, economic competence and attracting the ‘aspirational’ voters of ‘middle England.’ If this analysis is correct, it tells Labour something very important about the ground their next leader will need to fight on, and indeed who that leader should be. But is this the whole picture?

This is where the opinion polls can in fact tell us something important. There has certainly been much discussion since the election results were declared about weaknesses in their survey design, but in itself that does not seem sufficient to explain the huge disparity in what actually happened at the polling stations (Tories ahead of Labour by 6.5%) and what happened in the polls (essentially tied). I argue here that a big part of the reason for this disparity is what I term the ‘lethargic Labour‘ effect, i.e. the differential tendency of Labour supporters to stay at home compared to Tory supporters. ‘Lethargic’ is a term I choose carefully for its association with apathy and general passivity, and it is a factor which I believe has huge implications for political strategy in the years ahead.

To understand this, it is instructive to look to the exit poll, which was conducted at polling stations with people who had actually voted. This was much more accurate than the other polls, including those conducted during Election Day over the telephone or online, and showed a much lower Labour share of the vote. A dominant explanation for this disparity is that there was a significant difference in the number of those who declared they had voted Labour or that they would vote Labour and those who actually did vote.

This ‘lethargic Labour’ effect is quite different to the so-called ‘shy Tory’ effect which was advanced as part of the explanation for the polling meltdown of 1992, when the Conservatives in that year’s General Election were similarly under-estimated in the opinion polls. This ‘shy Tory’ effect is the idea that Tories in particular were shy of revealing their voting intention to pollsters. Yet in 2015 we would expect, if this were a real effect, to have seen it displayed in under-performance by the Tories in telephone polls compared to the relatively more anonymous setting of online polls. There is no such evidence, if anything the reverse being the case for much of the polling cycle.

I am not proposing that the idea of ‘lethargic Labour’ supporters offers the whole explanation for the Tory victory. There is also a historically well-established late swing to incumbents, which cannot be blamed on the raw polls, but is sometimes built into poll-based forecasting models which can account for some of the differential, and there is additionally late tactical switching to consider, where an elector, when face to face with an actual ballot paper, casts a vote to hinder a least preferred candidate.

Interestingly, the betting markets significantly out-performed the polls and also sophisticated modelling based on those polls which allowed for late swing, but they beat the latter somewhat less comprehensively, at least at constituency level. At national aggregated level, the betting markets beat both very convincingly, though the swing-adjusted polls performed rather better than the published polls.

So what does this tell us? It suggests that there was indeed a late swing to the Tories, as well as probably a late tactical swing, both of which were picked up in the betting markets in advance of the actual poll. But the scale of the victory (at least compared to general expectations) was not fully anticipated by any established forecasting methodology. This suggests that there was an extra variable, which was not properly factored in by any forecasting methodology. This extra variable, I suggest, is the ‘lethargic Labour’ supporters, who existed in far greater numbers than was generally supposed.

To the extent that this explanation of the Tory majority prevails, it has profound implications for the strategy of the Labour Party over the next few years in seeking to win office.

It tells us that if Labour are to win the next election, a strategy will have to be devised which motivates their own supporters to actually turn out and vote. In other words, a strategy must be devised which attracts these ‘lapsed Labour’ voters, as I term them, into active Labour voters, which inspires the faithful to get out of their armchairs and into the polling pews. If they can’t construct an effective strategy to do that, it doesn’t really matter how effective their leader is, how economically competent they are seen to be, how well they appeal to the ‘aspirational’ voter. It is very unlikely that Labour will be able to win.

In summary, the Labour Party will need to motivate their more ‘lethargic’ supporters to actually show that support in the ballot box, will need to convert their supporters from being ‘lapsed’ voters into actual voters. If they can do that, the result of the next election is wide open.

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