How Teresa May blew a 20+ point poll lead

Without the partial collapse of the Scottish National Party and the big increase in the number of Conservative MPs from Scotland, Jeremy Corbyn might be trying to cobble together a governing coalition of Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Greens. That is how close Conservative Prime Minister Teresa May came to what would’ve been one of the most stunning defeats in British political history. As it is, she has limped back into No. 10 Downing St with the backing of the right wing Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland. How did May managed to blow what was in some polls a 22% lead over Labour in the space of a 6-week campaign?

Voters don’t like snap elections
Especially when they were promised by the newly sworn in PM May that she’d see out her predecessors’ 5-year term. One of David Cameron’s more popular policies (which was enshrined in the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011) attempted to create election certainty by having a government last out its 5-year term. Cameron honoured that commitment by holding the first election as the sitting PM 5 years from when he first became PM in 2010. If there are valid reasons for a snap election, voters understand but sticking it to a weak and divided Labour Party to get a bigger majority was the real reason that people saw rather than the official reason given; to strengthen May’s hand in the Brexit negotiations.

Don’t attack your base
Perhaps the single most damaging act of the May/Conservative campaign was the so-called dementia tax and the subsequent backtrack. The Tories banked on the fact that its wealthier base would be resentful if some of them were forced to use their own assets to pay for institutional care for the aged and infirmed but that most would hold their noses and still vote for them. In a country weaned on free medical care courtesy of the NHS, it went against the national consensus to make even the rich pay for such care and it came across as niggardly and mean. It was a spectacular own goal and the hasty reversal did great damage to May’s mantra of her being ‘strong and stable’. On the back of a coupe of prior fiscal related U – turns, it showed May to be fickle, indecisive and possessing poor political instincts.

UKIP voters returned home
The Conservatives had previously been the major electoral beneficiaries of the UKIP vote because a majority of UKIP voters had been Labour voters and with the FPP voting system, UKIP often split the left’s vote allowing a Conservative candidate through to win a formally Labour seat. With Farage’s work done with the successful Brexit vote, the raison d’etre for UKIP was gone and those voters returned home. Because Corbyn said he would honour Brexit, it meant a traditional Labour UKIP voter could safely return to the fold. The other non-Brexit bread and butter issues that working-class former Labour voters are concerned about were better catered for in Labour’s manifesto than the poorly executed Conservative manifesto and so in a ratio of 2:1, the collapsed UKIP vote favoured Labour. This helped Labour defend its at-risk marginal seats.

Young voters usually don’t turn out … but this time they did
Youth and millennial voters across all the major 1st world democracies are notorious for their activism but not backing it up by actually voting. The overall turnout in the 2017 election was 3% up on 2015 but turnout was up over 5% in many of the key Labour seats that the Tories were targeting plus in some marginal Conservative constituencies. This was the key to Labour’s massive upset. Young voters were not swayed by the Conservative scare tactics about the massive downside of a state controlled economy (that Corbyn promised) nor Corbyn’s long history of pro IRA sympathies. The economic turmoil of the Callahan years in the ‘70’s and the terror of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s IRA bombings are but chapters in textbooks to Millennials. Corbyn promised free tertiary education and a nirvana of state run trains and cheaper state-run power; no-brainer electoral choices to under 25s and they turned out in droves for Labour.

Wooden, safe, robotic campaigns are easily overshadowed by grassroots passion
Teresa May was the Hillary Clinton of the UK. Her lack of warmth and spontaneity was palpable and she and her inner circle foolishly built a presidential style campaign of personality around her when she was devoid of warm personality. Corbyn was able to shake off his torpor and was energised by a Bernie Sanders style grassroots campaign that had more seeming vigour and passion. This help juice the 18 to 25 year old turnout.

To win you have to be seen on TV and attend debates
One of May’s most bizarre decisions was to refuse to debate Jeremy Corbyn. And to refuse to front up to many of the TV talking head interviewers. Corbyn did both and his performance in interviews and in the free-for-all leaders debate helped Corbyn to portray himself as less threatening in the flesh than his frightening ideology. All leaders in the free world’s democracies show up to debate the rival or rivals to their crown – it’s part of the job of being the head of a government during an election campaign. May couldn’t even do that basic part of the job of being Prime Minister.

The terrorist attacks ended up hurting May
Depending on how such attacks are handled, normally a capable incumbent Prime Minister or President can dominate the media space with grave messages of support for victims and outrage over the terrorists and thus see a poll bump after such attacks. The trouble was that in each of the three major terror incidents (two of which occurred during the campaign), almost every single one of the identified terrorists were found to have already been known to MI5 and/or the police. In a few cases, concerned family and citizens had called the authorities to warn of what they had seen or heard and nothing was done. Teresa May was Cameron’s Home Secretary all through the period when these terrorists were being radicalized unperturbed inside Britain and so some of the blame for the inaction of the security forces rubbed off on her. Labour skillfully tied the attacks to cuts in police numbers again something that was started by May as Home Secretary and carried on as PM. Finally, instead of attacking the real cause of the Islamic terror problem with a suite of radical measures such as the French have implemented, she talked tough but acted weak and then intimated that the internet would have to be regulated to stop the terror. In times of fear, May was not seen as someone who would do what it takes to protect the British people.

The huge poll leads helped Corbyn
With the Conservatives so far ahead and Corbyn written off and attacked as a left-wing terrorist-sympathising, corduroy-jacket-wearing socialist, voters wanting to object to the hubris of May in calling the election or protest her manifesto, thought they could safely vote for Labour as a protest secure in the knowledge that Corbyn would never make it to No 10.

May was seen as inauthentic regarding Brexit
She was a vocal and public Remain campaigner and clashed with her Brexit supporting colleagues like Boris Johnson, David Davis and Michael Gove (whom she dispatched to the wilderness). May made strengthening her hand in the Brexit negotiations the primary reason for the snap election. Voters judged that she was not really as up to that job as she should’ve been and turned away from her.

FPP throws up unpredictable results
The collapse of UKIP and the partial collapse of the SNP has seen a return to the dominance of the two major parties in a way not seen in British politics since the 1970s’. The Liberal Democrats were caught up in this shift with a continuing decline in their influence but even the Lib Dems managed to pick up SNP seats in Scotland and the odd Tory seat. In some safe Labour seats in the north, there were swings to the Conservatives (on the backs of Brexit), whilst in the strongly Remain electorates of London and the south east, the swings to Labour were pronounced. This trend, coupled with the larger than predicted youth turnout, played havoc with the pollsters where, once again, most were off. Almost all polls used 2015 youth turnout models that ended up over sampling Conservatives and showing a larger Tory lead than was the case. The exit poll was however, unlike 2015, reasonably accurate this time.

It is highly unlikely that May will survive such a debacle and the odds are that Boris Johnson will be the new Conservative Prime Minister. With such a slim majority (with the DUP), the government will be weak and subject more to the vagaries of querulous back-benchers and adverse by-election results so a fresh election is highly likely given the track record of previous minority governments in the UK.

There is however one last crucial point that is worth bearing in mind and that is that the UK constituency boundaries have not been revised in well over a decade and a raft of distorting anomalies have arisen that will be corrected when the Boundary Commissions of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland complete their boundary re-drawing work in 2018. The number of Labour seats that have fallen well beneath the average population threshold is significant and it has been estimated by prominent Labour peer Lord Hayward that 30 Labour seats may be drafted out of existence. In other words, Corbyn was fighting on an electoral battlefield that was skewered in Labour’s favour and he may not get to fight with such a tail wind ever again. Also, Boris Johnson will be a far more formidable election foe than May if and when the next election occurs. As dramatic as Labour’s revival has been in this election, it was an election that Teresa May almost single handedly lost. Don’t bank on the Tories making the same mistakes again as May made this northern hemisphere summer.

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