Election preview – expect the unexpected

This is the election where anything could happen. The Conservative Party has a strong poll lead and are favourites at the bookies, but as we know from past experience, there is a long way to go.  Election debates, battle buses, controversies and wall to wall media coverage stand between us and our next government. Remember Theresa May’s disastrous manifesto launch which saw her commanding lead melt away in 2017? There are key moments in every election.  In 2015, Ed Miliband lost his battle with a bacon sandwich and with it, his battle for Number 10.  In 2010, the “I agree with Nick” debates were a breakthrough for the Lib Dems.  Those with longer memories may remember John Prescott’s punch in 2001, or even Jennifer’s ear in 1992. There are 37 days to go.  Expect the unexpected.

Who is likely to win?  The Conservatives have a strong lead over Labour, pointing towards a Conservative majority, but I wouldn’t rule out another hung Parliament and anything could happen then. Public opinion will change between now and polling day; and there will not be a uniform swing across England. Shifting demographics, Brexit views and campaign strategies will see a more localised campaign than ever before, with this election taking shape constituency by constituency. The Conservatives and Labour are both expected to lose vote share and actual votes compared to the last election, where they had a combined 85% of the vote across the UK.  This time, the Lib Dems, Brexit Party, SNP, and independent candidates will eat into the vote share. The question is by how much, and where?

Opinion polls are snapshots not predictions. They are out of date before they are even published, as the fieldwork will have been done a few days before. Polls are useful though, because they show the state of play, trend lines and trajectory of public opinion. If you want to follow the polls the best source is the BBC election poll tracker.

The current poll of polls looks like this:

The marginal battleground looks different to recent elections. Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are seeking gains in seats they have never held before. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour has form, after gaining Canterbury and Kensington at the last election, they will continue to try to ‘expand the map’, as one of their senior campaign staff told me. Boris Johnson’s Conservatives are targeting gains in the midlands and the north, in traditionally Labour held seats that voted ‘leave’. If you are a voter in Barrow, Bishop Auckland or Bassetlaw, you’ll be seeing a big blue bus roll into town. The Lib Dem’s believe they can take some heavily ‘remain’ voting seats, such as Finchley and Golders Green, where they are currently in third place.  Electoral Calculus provide an excellent table that shows which seats could change hands, although note that this is based on uniform swing.

Looking across the UK, in Northern Ireland, the DUP may find some of their 10 MPs are at risk, due to informal alliances between ‘remain’ supporting parties. Sinn Fein will be challenged about how they will effect what happens with Brexit if they continue not to take their seats in Westminster. In Wales, Labour do not look as dominant as they once were, as they go into a five way battle between the three main Westminster parties plus Plaid Cymru and the Brexit Party. In Scotland, where there are many ultra marginals, and ‘independence’ will be a big issue, the SNP expects to do well, taking seats from both the Conservatives and Labour.

Policy focus. Brexit casts a shadow over this election, but it is not the only issue in the minds of voters.  According to Ipsos Mori, the top 5 issues, in this order, are Brexit, NHS, crime, economy and immigration. The theory I’ve heard from commentators is that it suits the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to focus on Brexit, and for Labour to focus on public services and ‘fairness’ in the economy.   I think that is a bit too simplistic. I saw a leaflet from the Conservative candidate in marginal Putney yesterday which did not mention Brexit once.  Campaigning in marginals will be highly targeted at individual voters through social media. For example, if you are aged 20 to 35, the parties will probably want to tell you their housing policies.   It isn’t just the parties that shape the issues of the campaign.  An example is the ‘school cuts’ campaign in 2017, led by a coalition of charities and trade unions, which pollsters said had ‘cut through’ with many voters. This chart, from Ipsos Mori, gives a guide to the changing priorities of voters, but treat with care.


The campaign will be different not only because it is in winter. Dark and cold nights do not make for good canvassing weather, so I’d expect less talking on the doorstep, and more focus on social media engagement, as well as lots more leaflets.  My colleague who lives in a target Lib Dem seat has already lost count of how many leaflets they’ve had.  Social media will be a more important battleground at this election than ever before. Where the Conservative’s made the most effective use of social media at the 2015 election, Labour and their Momentum campaigners took the plaudits in 2017, with a focus on social shares, viral videos, and peer to peer campaigning, rather than adverts. All parties are doubling down on their effort and spending on social media this time around, so expect to be bombarded.

Public Affairs during the election?  Connect will be supporting a wide range of our clients to engage with the debate and with politicians over the coming weeks. We are working with the fishing industry, for example, who are asking candidates to take a ‘fishing pledge’. A housing association that we work with is writing to candidates to offer to meet. A trade union we support will be sharing a ‘manifesto’, aimed at influencing the debate.  A major manufacturer has asked for support with a strategic planning piece, to consider what the potential different scenarios for who forms the next government will mean. If you’d like to talk about how we could help, please get in touch.

Andy Sawford by:
Andy Sawford