The party’s polling surge in 2017 was largely down to undecideds getting on board. Could it happen again?
Many Labour politicians, activists and supporters are holding out for a repeat of the 2017 surge. Over the course of that election campaign, Labour climbed 18 points according to Britain Elects’ polling tracker, and I predict we’ll see this again. Why? Undecided voters will get behind Labour.
The popular post-match theory in 2017 was that Corbyn’s Labour managed to rally disengaged young voters; this “youthquake” caused the Tories to lose their majority. Spurred on by pictures of people under 24 outside polling stations, Corbyn’s Glastonbury appearance and movements like Grime4Corbyn, no analysts seemed to question this theory.
However, this was a fallacy. The British Election Study team, a joint venture between academics from the University of Oxford and the University of Manchester who have analysed every election since 1964, found no difference in youth voter turnout when comparing 2017 to 2015.
Yet a shift in the polls so drastic needed an explanation; these voters appeared as if from nowhere. In fact, those votes were there the entire time, but the polls didn’t show them. Why? They came from ‘don’t know’ respondents.
Polling science has all the scientific rigour of a 15-year-old running around Borth with a quadrat gunning for that easy Geography GCSE. Sample populations are small from poll to poll, rarely numbering above 2,000 respondents and demographic data is hard to come by; the methods are statistically rudimentary and thus can’t be taken too seriously.
However, the biggest issue with polls is that the percentage of respondents who answer ‘don’t know’ or ‘I haven’t decided’ are omitted from basically every single one you see. This creates a completely inaccurate picture of the electorate and doesn’t illustrate just how many votes are up for grabs; it is these votes that will be consolidated by Labour as they were in 2017.
I assume that the proportion of Don’t Knowers is going up on this increasingly divided and shivering isle: we live in the age of voter volatility.
Reports from various doorstep campaigns report that an unusual number of Tory voters are saying they may abstain. You also have some centre-left voters who are unsure about Corbyn and others still weighing up whether to vote Labour, Green, LibDem or one of the more national parties outside of England. Polls don’t show the data on these undecided voters.
However, when push comes to shove in the election campaign pressure cooker, Labour’s policy agenda suddenly becomes appealing to the unsure. As evidenced by Boris Johnson’s ITV debate performance, Conservative party members have been single-issue campaigners since 2016.
Johnson treated every question as an opportunity to tediously worm his way back to the Get Brexit Done slogan. If it hasn’t worked on you yet, it won’t now.
In this transparent age, the Tory spin machine is also very unappealing to modern voters who otherwise pay less attention to politics outside of election campaigns. These voters, who may have liked Boris Johnson’s fusty toff demeanour till now, start to pay attention and see that it’s artifice. They hear about his infamous prior deceptions; they see he can’t be trusted.
And the Tories appear to be actively encouraging distrust. For two of this week’s examples see their Twitter account becoming ‘FactCheckUK’ during the ITV debate, and the made-up numbers about how much Labour’s manifesto will cost. These tactics are likely to put off newly attentive voters who aren’t entrenched.
Then you have the Liberal Democrats whose brand of ‘radical centrism’ is about as riveting and convincing as an apology from Angela Smith. The Lib Dems certainly do well in local and European elections, but it’s clear that voters find their allegiance to the status quo unappealing as a basis for Britain’s future – and they’re now being squeezed.
With the Green party still struggling to make any significant impact beyond Brighton Pavilion, and Plaid Cymru, the SNP and Northern Irish parties pulling in new support outside England, the majority of English ‘undecideds’ are left with Labour.
When given a platform for Labour’s policy agenda to break through the noise, people who were otherwise sceptical get behind it. With the Final Say, great strides taken towards wealth redistribution, fairer educational and economic policies and, primarily, a tooth-and-nail commitment to protecting and re-energising the NHS, Labour galvanise the Don’t Knowers.
Sure enough, after Tuesday’s last night’s debate, polling showed that Jeremy Corbyn won over more undecided voters than Boris Johnson. This is an indication that the message is breaking through and another Labour surge is pending among a pivotal electoral group.
Phil Marzouk is a journalist and filmmaker. He has lectured in statistics for psychology at the University of Central Lancashire.
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