Punditry, Revisited

Time to revisit some of the predictions I made before polling day, to see how they stack up in light of events…

Concerning the outcome, I wrote that “my hunch… is that the Tories are going to win fewer than 300 seats.” Well, they made it to over 300, though not by much, but what was really wrong with my guess at the Tory seat-count was that the assumptions I was working from proved to be quite wrong. I thought both that the Lib Dems would win all their seats, and make inroads into the Con-Lib marginals and that the Labour vote would be much less resilient in the Con-Lab marginals – and in the end things were the other way around: the Lib Dem “surge” failed to materialise, and in the end they lost ground to the Tories; while the Labour vote held up pretty well, and the party was able to hold on to 250+ of its seats.

Thinking about the prospect of a hung parliament, then, I said that I thought “a Tory minority government seems by far the most likely outcome”, and that a coalition government “seems implausible”. I gave three reasons: first, the parties hate one another; second, that the Lib Dems were an unbalanced formation, “with the activists to the left of the MPs, and the MPs to the left of the bulk of the Lib Dem voters”, and that this would work to paralyze the party in tricky political manoeuvrings; third, that the Lib Dems’ rules – the so-called “triple lock” – for ratifying a deal would mean that the other party leaders would be reluctant to try to deal with them.

Obviously, I was spectacularly wrong here, apparently on all three counts. First, there really doesn’t seem to be any significant animosity between the Tories and the Lib Dems, but rather the love-fest we’ve been witnessing over the last few days. Second, the initial analysis of data about how people voted seems to have more Lib Dem voters identifying with the centre-left rather than with points further right. (Though I still think that the votes the Lib Dems were chasing most energetically were right-of-centre votes in Lib-Con marginals.) And, third, as we saw today, the “triple lock” was terribly easy for the leadership to get through – I was following the #ldconf tweetfeed earlier today, and apart from one special conference delegate denouncing the coalition as an attack on the Welsh working class, there seemed to be general approval of the leadership’s behaviour, and achievements, over the last week-and-a-bit.

I think the clue to my general wrongness may come, though, in what I went on to get more or less right. I said that I thought that “if there’s a hung parliament, all the party bosses will be acting in a risk-averse kind of a way” as “they’ll all be nervous about a second general election”. But I was imagining that the Lib Dems would be gaining seats in the election, and that a Tory party that had failed to secure a majority would be unwilling to deal with a party that felt itself on an incoming tide. In fact, of course, the story of election night was Lib Dem failure, to the extent that the Lib Dems were sufficiently afraid of the prospect of that second general election that they were willing to countenance transforming themselves into, in effect, the left wing of the Conservative Party in order to avoid it. I thought that this kind of fear would get in the way of two parties making a deal; in fact (as Charles Kennedy confirmed in today’s Observer), it seems to be what made it possible.

Happily, my final paragraph of speculation proved to be spot on – “obviously it won’t turn out” as I forecast, I said, before going on to denounce three specific bits of punditry as fantasy politics: the prospect of a deal on PR, Clegg becoming Prime Minister, or the so-called “progressive alliance” beloved of the Toynbee tendency in the punditocracy. So, at least I got something right.

28 thoughts on “Punditry, Revisited”

  1. I’d just like to point out that on several occasions in April I predicted a Con-Dem coalition, with cabinet seats for some Lib Dems (though I over-estimated who’d get what). I think part of what drove this, however, was unfair advantage in the form of having seen a decent chunk of Lib Dem MPs in their private parliamentary environments and having no real doubt that most would grab a chance in govt with the Tories with both hands. The only thing I’m really surprised about is how quickly and easily the ordinary members have rolled over (though I fully expect many of them to turn round and start vociferously denouncing Clegg and Co as soon as things get sticky and they are slapped in the face by the reality of political compromise and bargaining).  

  2. Well, you did better than me. My initial prediction was Tories 37%, Labour 34%, Lib Dems about 20. I then switched, like most people, to predicting the Lib Dems would be in the high 20s. (Lib Dems really do seem to have suffered a last minute “Labour ’92” moment on polling day…) I guess I got the Tory vote about right. But I thought Labour and the Tories would have about the same number of seats.

    There are several possible reasons why the Lib Dems going into coalition with the Tories hasn’t provoked the level of outrage among party members that we thought. It could be a self-selection effect; the Lib Dems turning up at the special conference are the ones that haven’t left in disgust. Or: the left might have sussed Clegg already and been leaving steadily over the last few years. Or: activists might be keeping their mouths shut because they desperately want this to work out so they’ve still got a party left to campaign for by the next election. I suspect there’s a bit of all these things going on.

  3. I got nine out of ten right.

    All four that I picked to win duly won (Louise Bagshawe in Corby, Priti Patel in Witham, Margot James in Stourbridge and Amber Rudd in Hastings & Rye).

    Five of the six I thought would lose, lost (Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones in Chippenham, Julie Rook in one of the Wolverhampton seats, Caroline Righton in Newquay & St Austell, Philippa Stroud in Sutton & Cheam, and Hannah Parker in Exeter).

    My mistake is that I thought that the Lib Dem machine in Richmond Park would be able to hold the seat against the repulsive Zac Goldsmith.

    But nine out of ten not bad.

  4. “My mistake is that I thought that the Lib Dem machine in Richmond Park would be able to hold the seat against the repulsive Zac Goldsmith.”

    Yes I think pretty much everyone was surprised about this, but again it’s a consequence of the non-materialisation of the Lib Dem popularity surge. If they yellow birds had polled what they were predicted to, Goldsmith probably would not have taken that seat. But then, it was Richmond Park so perhaps we should all have been a bit more sensible about what would happen on the day when the rich actually came to vote.

  5. Oh, I know, but the Liberals have been building up a pretty good operation there, ever since Adrian Slade won the seat for the GLC in 1981. They really shouldn’t have lost that seat. Bit like Oxford West & Abingdon, actually.

  6. “Bit like Oxford West & Abingdon, actually.”

    Do we know that for sure? As in, were the Lib Dems taking it for granted that Zack NomDom wasn’t going to win and sending their campaigners elsewhere? Be interesting if it were so.

    I know a couple of people from round that way, and it was interesting to hear the local dynamic; a lot of aspirational types who loath Goldsmith and the Tories, but weren’t that wedded to the Lib Dems, seeing them rather as a not-the-Tory option. But also a lot of rich, voting-for-the-party-of-the-rich types too (as I say, it was Richmond Park after all). My suspicion is that the latter bunch had a very big turn out on the day 1992-style, whereas the former were less likely to.

    But I’ve got no evidence for that, just anecdote.

  7. No, I’m not saying the OxWAb comparison goes that far. I just don’t know.

    I grew up in what is now the Richmond Park constituency (a version of it was called Richmond & Barnes in those days), and my parents were active in the SDP/Liberal Alliance there, c. 1982-87 or so. So while I know a bit about the politics of the area, I haven’t set foot in Richmond since 1996 or so, except maybe to change trains, so I’m probably a bit out of date.

    Richmond Park is a very affluent area, but I don’t think the poorer people vote Liberal and the richer people vote Conservative (though obviously a lot of the richer people do vote Conservative). Rather, Richmond has a very highly educated population (you often see it top the league of “proportion of residents with university degrees”, that kind of thing), and I think the electoral base of the Lib Dems in that part of the world is among the affluent, educated population. But maybe I’m just extrapolating unreasonably from a sample size of one (my own family, once upon a time).

    As I say, I’m probably very, very out of date.

  8. It’s probably the case that Zac Goldsmith got a heavy environmentalist vote in Richmond Park – including some of the vote that would have normally gone to the “left”, broadly defined – and that’s what put him over the top. He was editor of the Ecologist (has he given that up or is he gonna do a Boris Johnson?), which is a fairly radical magazine, and has better environmental credentials than almost anyone else in parliament apart from Caroline Lucas.

    I don’t want to cheerlead for the guy as he’s terrible in many ways (e.g. on the non-doms thing) but he certainly ain’t your standard Tory candidate, so normal party affiliation rules may not apply in this case.

  9. Is Richmond Park where Richard Littlejohn lives? I know he lives somewhere around there. He’s certainly affluent, not sure about educated bit.

    Here’s a counter theory: Don’t be fooled by the love-in between the Hugh Grant and Colin Firth of politics – this is a Left-wing coup. I wish that were true, sadly the source is unreliable. I think it is true that Cameron has seized the chance to dump some policies forced on him by the Norman Tebbit-Eurosceptic right, but I’d say that was pragmatic rather than principled.

    I wouldn’t be disappointed, Chris. I don’t think anyone quite expected the LDs to *lose* seats on the night, and as you say, that changed everything.

    As Paul S says turnout seems to have been more of a factor than expected. My feeling is that fewer Labour voters stayed away than expected, probably because they feared a Tory government more than they resented voting Labour. OTOH, I’ve also been told that in Cardiff North (which Labour failed to hold by 190 votes), while the Tories were out in force, Labour were nowhere to be seen.

  10. Hal B: Yes, I think that’s probably right. It was a shrewd move running ZG in RP for that reason. And he also grew up locally, so couldn’t be attacked as an interloper, or whatever.

    Dave W: Don’t know where RL lives, I’m afraid. But I think the point you make is one people like me need to think about. I always thought Cameron was (in Phil’s phrase), just “Dave from PR”, a very right-wing Tory who was good at pretending to be something else for the purposes of getting his sweaty little hands on state power. I don’t think that view has been refuted by events, but it certainly needs refinement, given the extent to which Cameron does seem to be very keen to use the Lib Dems to balance (and limit) the Tory headbanging right.

    But that probably orients us in the right kind of a way, in fact: Cameron’s right is the liberal free-market right which is comfortable with the way in which market liberalism and social liberalism can go hand in hand; Cameron’s opponents on the right are the ones who want the one without the other — classically, Norman Tebbit. And what the Lib Dems have been busy indicating over the last ten days is just how comfortable they are with the liberal markets + liberal society Cameroon package.

    Interesting little factoid about Cardiff North. I wonder what happened there?

    Oh – and no disappointment at all: as I said at the time, my predictions never hold, and I don’t care to be the kind of pundit who, you know, tends to get things right. The interesting work is the work of examining them after the fact, to think a bit about what went wrong and why.

  11. My feeling is that fewer Labour voters stayed away than expected, probably because they feared a Tory government more than they resented voting Labour.

    I think there was a big swing back to Labour in the last week or so of the campaign, partly from tactical-LD, partly from any-Left-but-Labour and partly from what’s-the-point-they’re-all-the-same. Lots of Labour people (which isn’t at all the same thing as ‘Labour voters’) saw a couple of shiny-faced public schoolboys sneering at a Labour Prime Minister, and they – by which I mean we – didn’t like it at all.

  12. (I live very near Richmond Park) – I get the impression that Zac Goldsmith had a much more organised, thorough campaign. So many people at my school regularly campaigned for him (canvassing etc) – none at all for Susan Kramer. Also he had these open-invitation barbecues with unlimited free alcohol (!) which lots of 6th formers went to last summer. Add to this the fact that he’s very good looking => massive support among first time voters (at least in my limited sample size).

    “But also a lot of rich, voting-for-the-party-of-the-rich types too (as I say, it was Richmond Park after all)”

    Yes, though my constituency (Twickenham) saw an increased Lib Dem majority – lots of rich, well educated people there too, who’d probably vote Tory in Richmond (Kramer vs Cable). Nick Clegg did a town hall-style meeting in Richmond about a week before the election and apparently he got a lot of stick about the mansion tax (extremely unpopular – parents already worried about being able to pay the private school fees with recession etc, and have just suffered income tax/NI rises) – he said old people should get a lodger (unappealing).

    There seemed to be a general feeling among the younger years at my school – and by extension their parents, since they very rarely have any political views of their own – that the Lib Dems would attack the rich/the banks. Not helped by Philippa Stroud’s daughter insisting to everyone that the Lib Dems weren’t planning on scrapping tuition fees for people who had been to private school – using her mother as authority.

  13. Thanks very much for this, Grace. That’s all very interesting.

    I certainly hadn’t heard about ZG plying sixth-formers with free booze at his open-invitation barbeques…

    And Philippa Stroud is everywhere!

  14. the younger years at my school – and by extension their parents, since they very rarely have any political views of their own

    Heh. My son goes to a fee-paying school, which has turned out to be just as academically elitist as we’d hoped but rather more socially elitist than we’d realised. They recently opened a ‘junior school’, i.e. a mini-prep school (years 5 and 6); we’re not crazy about this, for obvious reasons, but then they didn’t ask us. Anyway, they had a school mock election, divided into year-group constituencies (plus two for academic & non-academic staff). The Lib Dems, helped by a visit from the local MP, swept the school, with two exceptions: the middle school (ages 14-16) went Green, and the “junior school” voted Tory. Quelle surprise.

  15. I certainly hadn’t heard about ZG plying sixth-formers with free booze at his open-invitation barbeques…

    You have of course informed the Returning Officer, the Electoral Commission, and the Metropolitan Police? I believe that’s known as “treating” and is thoroughly illegal. Jack Straw got in a spot of bother a few years ago about an event where curry was served to all comers.

  16. Is it “treating” if (i) they are schoolchildren under 18, and therefore unable to vote and (ii) it happens months before the election, as Grace suggests? I don’t know electoral law well enough.

  17. From here: Treating
    4.49 A person is guilty of the corrupt practice of treating if they corruptly, directly or indirectly, either before, during or after an election, give or provide (or pay wholly or in part the expense of giving or providing) any food, drink, entertainment or provision
    in order to corruptly influence any voter to vote or refrain from voting. 89

    The relevant text is Section 114(2), Representation of the People Act 1983, which is here. It doesn’t seem to have a limit of time, although IANAL, and it would be trivially circumvented if it did (i.e. treat the day before the campaign began or the day after the election).

  18. “Do we know that for sure? As in, were the Lib Dems taking it for granted that Zack NomDom wasn’t going to win and sending their campaigners elsewhere? Be interesting if it were so.”

    Certainly not – the notional majority was much lower than in OxWAb and it was always treated as marginal. Indeed, the seat would have drawn in activists from the neighbouring seats of Kingston & Surbiton and Twickenham, which were both safe enough for the LDs.

    The Tories also had a notably good result in the Richmond council elections, winning wards they hadn’t won for a while (such as Kew) and I think also benefited from the changing demographics; there are fewer liberal intellectual types in the seat now, and more of the bankers/lawyers who have made nearby areas like Putney and Fulham safe for the Tories in recent years.

  19. It looks like a CF event with rather loose admission criteria. Sharp practice, but probably not actively illegal.

  20. I’m inclined to think that I was right in placing the LD activists to the right of the MPs and the MPs to the right of the voters.

    Thing about Lib Dem activists is, they’re much better than the voters at Lib Demmery, i.e. saying and doing contradictory things and always claiming the moral high ground for them. I’m not at all surprised that discontent with the deal failed to materialise.

    I’m also largely unsurprised by the explosion of LibDemmery on certain blogs I read (notably Crooked Timber) in which certain claims are becoming ubiquitous:

    (a) the LDs are a party of the progressive left, and that’s why they went into coalition with the Tories ;

    (b) the only reason all Labour MPs didn’t back a deal with the Lib Dems was self-interested opposition to PR

    (c) meanwhile self-interest isn’t the Lib Dems’ reason for supporting it

    (d) PR itself is of supreme importance, far more than any item of economic or social policy.

    It’s going to go on.

  21. I just thought it was unlikely that he’d be that stupid. Apparently “he had to scrap other plans because of legislation”, showing they were careful not to jeopardise the campaign in any way.

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