Marginal No More; Reflections on the 2017 UK General Election and Polling

I was supposed to have voted yesterday in a high priority Tory-target marginal. Instead I voted yesterday as part of a majority of over 13,000. I watched as seat after seat was moved from a Labour held marginal to a Labour majority; from a Labour target marginal to a Labour gain; from a Conservative safe seat to a Conservative held marginal including seats held by prominent ministers, and in particular the case of Canterbury moving from a very safe Conservative hold to a shock Labour gain. Something big happened – in the short election campaign leftist messages cut through a hostile press, and voting turnout was up, especially amongst an engaged Corbyn-loving youth.

I was not expecting such a positive swell, even being the most optimistic of my friends. I entered the election hoping that there would be a pump in the Labour vote from 18-24 year olds yet ultimately believed that the parties would stay at roughly the same level, switching a few seats between them but with no substantial change. I did not think Corbyn would alienate Labour seats, but suspected he may not win over many people outside these areas. Still I appreciated politics done from a position of principle over likeability and thought that it was unfortunate that Labour’s internal politics had likely done some damage.

Having done work with Survation, and so knowing how they conduct their interviewing and knowing their 2015 fatal decision to not release their last “rogue” poll, I did not react with complete dismissal to their polling or final call like some. However I was nervous about whether the clear boost they were showing in young people’s intention to vote would actually transfer into reality and flipped seats. Instead of having more trust that the result could be better than I anticipated, I fell into the cynical trap of assuming hope always equals a profound naivety.

It’s a huge problem on the left, but also just with politics in general the we think optimism is the sign of stupidity. We don’t want to get hurt and then mocked for thinking the future is a great place. To enable us to put on an intellectual veneer we act as if banality is common sense, and as if common sense is the supreme dictator of how politics works. Our logic says that if Corbyn is passionate and states more divisive positions he can’t be electable, ergo there will be a Tory supermajority, ergo everyone who says otherwise is a deluded fanboy.

Survation’s bet was an intriguing one – they knew they messed up last time and decided to stake their reputation on what seemed to be the one huge outlier of all the polling organisations, having changed very little overall in their polling methodology since 2015. Unlike YouGov whose tweaking lead to them wavering in their final poll back to a prediction of a 7% Conservative lead, Survation called the hung parliament. It suggests that what happened in 2015, aside from some places suppressing polls that didn’t fit the general trend, was one of analysis. Rather than assuming that people’s views were in flux, we assume the polls were just plain wrong. It is entirely possible that every poll from 2015 was an accurate picture of a nation that changed its mind. With Brexit the margins were so narrow that pundits calling it for Remain was generally down to the “common-sense” assumption that referenda will always favour the status quo. In effect this general election people were picking the most “common-sense” option and then assessing the validity of the polls based on what would lead to that answer.

If this election shows anything, it is that cynical posturing no longer applies. Hope is not utopian, and if we have a fear of appearing naive then our problem is a lack of imagination. People don’t want a country where there is no true opposition, and are willing to transform themselves into voters when given a party that can offer them that coupled with a strong chance at creating a large parliamentary group. The opportunities now that we can see politics is no longer a game of just appealing with bland centrism to a sliver of floating voters are ones I relish. I was wrong to be so fatalistic this election; next time I’ll try to be better.

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The Secret Ballot is Not a Thing: Talking About Voting

In this UK general election I am voting Labour.

I am not voting Labour because I am a member of the Labour party. I do not want to join any party at the moment. I am not voting Labour because I think they have great policies, since I haven’t read all their manifesto, and there are some I am against or undecided on. I am not voting Labour because I think they will be a great change. If anything I doubt things will shift that much – the difference between the Conservatives and Labour is between 5 years of a lot of austerity measures vs. slightly less austerity measures.

For all my jokes about Ed Miliband and being a groupie I am not actually a paid-up member of the #Milifandom, as he is foremost a politician and though I view him as more sincere and idealistic than a lot of politicians (which poses its own problems), he still just wants votes at the end of the day. No politician is a saviour figure, unless we finally get a politician willing to create a long-term cross party plan on essential services (NHS, Education) that cannot be altered or messed up with each election.

I am not even voting because of the local candidate, though I think she will be a very, very good MP. I recently went door-to-door to convince people to cross the box next to Dr. Rupa Huq’s name and I am glad I did so.

The true reason I am voting Labour is because I am a lefty in a Tory-Labour marginal and that is what I see as the best option.

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I dislike the conversation around secret ballots. When conversation veers onto voting and people say they don’t want to reveal their choices I understand it on some level but ultimately I think it harms public debate. Secret ballots are to protect you from the grip of the government, and other possible avenues of intimidation. However if you feel you live in a situation – as we do here – where that is less likely to happen you are entirely free to discuss your voting choice. Secret ballots aren’t even entirely enshrined in our system – both postal and proxy votes don’t really uphold the principle. And whilst polls may give an indication of intention, polls don’t have the same impact or nuance of talking with someone one-on-one.

Without discussing who we are voting for, and more importantly why we have selected them (or even the reasons we are not voting) with as broad a range of people as possible, we perpetuate the idea of loyal solid party voters. Discussion doesn’t need to be proselytising, indeed people may discover they have identical views but the results differ due to tactics that our political system forces. When people are backed into a system they can react in wildly different ways and just looking at the raw data can create the illusion that there is no strong common ground on particular issues since the votes are split between groups with radically different perspectives. As Wail Qasim wrote recently for Vice there is only a limited pool of parties which non-white people may feel represent their interests. The same is true for many other disadvantaged groups in society. This perspective leads to neglect as the main parties that rely on their support feel like they don’t have to offer anything to compel that support – they assume they will always get the votes regardless of how awful they treat people because they are better than the alternative. And so all the turf of political conversation becomes even more narrowly geared for those already in positions of great privilege.

With my Dad and his siblings composed of four mixed-race black kids growing up in the Midlands during the 80s there is a fundamental notion in the family that you absolutely NEVER vote Tory. As a result the choice becomes often tactical – voting for a smaller party may in a roundabout way introduce a Tory to power so instead the focus becomes on blocking them. This is why I will vote the way I do in my first general election.

My ideal is ultimately to reform the voting system so that people can have more faith in the system. On a smaller level I want parties to actively engage people rather than rely on tactical voting, and move beneficial policies to a wider range of people instead of middle-class swing voters. Part of that is opening up the conversation and honestly talking about how we are forced to vote tactically if we choose to participate in the current system.

I am voting Labour but I want to one day feel like it is more of a choice.

100% Factually Accurate: Pre-Election Special

After a range of pilot episodes and many discussions I’m very pleased that I can now release the first official episode of my new joint project ‘100% Factually Accurate’, a podcast about politics and the online media. In this episode I discuss with producer Cecile the mass twitter appeal of Ed Miliband, voter apathy, and Nick Clegg’s giant paddle-like hands.

Unfortunately Josh (@cromulentjosh) my regular co-host was unable to attend the recording session due to acquiring an amazingly adorable niece (and you all need to go to his twitter right now to see her very smooshable face!), but next week he will be rejoining me as we sort through the inevitable mess of coalition deals and media hysteria.

#SudanVotes or Rather Not Really (And Other Apathetic Elections)

I remember being in Sudan the last time the general election was held and getting a slight sense of excitement for the opportunity, that rapidly declined to resignation. A few months following there was a referendum that would split the country into two halves and redraw Africa’s colonial boundaries for the first time. First no change, then a big one.

As expected, both general elections produced sweeping victories for the National Congress Party, who have ruled Sudan for decades. It feels so routine I initially wasn’t going to comment.

This time though pictures circulated of sleeping officials at polling stations, policemen queuing to vote in snaking lines, men trying to encourage people off the street, and the entire voting time-frame was extended by a day due to low turn-out. When you know what to expect, why bother?

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When it comes to discussing voter-turnout we often see it framed by the global north-south divide, where in poorer nations ‘not voting’ is allowed to be a radical act. Perhaps, we say, it’s the difference between active apathy (“my vote won’t make a difference due to rigging, therefore I won’t bother.”) and passive apathy (“my vote won’t make a difference because all politicians are the same, so why bother?”). Except it isn’t that clear-cut; low voter turnout due to lack of faith in the system is low voter turnout due to lack of faith in the system regardless of the root cause, even if some root causes do not prevent a free and fair election. Where vote-rigging is common the best way to protest and make an active political choice is to not lend yourself to the charade of freedom. Here in the UK many people feel they cannot determine the differences between politicians, nor if the values they claim to subscribe to will even slightly resemble anything they do. When politics is reduced to a stab in the dark (for example the Lib Dems did not just say in 2010 they would vote against raising tuition fees, but one of the promises in their manifesto was to work towards abolishing them), protest can be a refusal to participate in a charade of choice, even if it is harder to distinguish from apathy.

You have one day in the UK to determine the future of the country, and yet you are left either voting against your worst-case scenario, or live in the fear that an ideological choice you make you will come to regret. Voter registration is low (and with the registration deadline now passed we have a fixed maximum of voters), and on top of that turnout amongst registered voters is low because the system refuses to engage with people by increasing accountability. Yet non-voters themselves are blamed. In Sudan this is not the case, lack of turn-out rightly shines light back on the institutions themselves. The voice of the people in their refusal is more respected.

A few months ago I was completely opposed to those who were actively against not voting in the UK. I still think that this choice allows politicians to ignore large portions of the population and only cater to an increasingly shrinking pool of people who do turn up. In generally free and fair elections spoiling the ballot is preferable because it demonstrates numerically that there is a politically aware population who do not like what is happening, making not casting a vote less likely to be brushed off as laziness. However I can recognise now that this can be impractical, a little soul-sucking, and ultimately shouldn’t have to be done – I was casting the issues of the system and the biases of politicians back onto the public. Patronising people with messages from Nelson Mandela frames voting as if all our problems could be fixed with a simple ‘x’ every five years. The right to vote is certainly hard won but the freedom to vote also carries freedom not to, and that can sometimes be our most important weapon.

Snap View: #BattleForNumber10

I spent this morning sitting down and watching #BattleForNumber10 (because hashtags are so in this season). The joy of not having a TV is being unable to watch things live so instead of joining in the conversation yesterday evening I woke up today, cooked up some pasta, got some work out of the way, then sat down and watched it with a cup of tea.

It’s the first of these leadership debates, and it was certainly interesting watching. I cheered at the aggressive return of Paxman who clearly has been relishing the opportunity to verbally maul people for a while. I noted the more aggressive approach Burley seemed to have taken with Miliband, and definitely concluded that – at least now – I would not make a good impartial moderator.

And I agree with a lot of the analysis – Cameron would probably have fairer slightly better in a head-to-head, but I think that honestly Cameron would have fairer even better without any debates. He has to argue he’ll make things better despite having had an opportunity to do so for the past five years, whilst Miliband’s giant problem is not looking like a leader. The more chances you give him to be on T.V then more chances he gets to break that perspective. I’m not against this – I am no Tory – but as someone interested in tactics it must suck to go into televised debates knowing that in the last election they drove you into a coalition government. In my view the broadcast kept Cameron at a fairly neutral position; if you thought he was terrible you still did, if you thought he was a statesman you still did. He came across as a politician, including the politician’s tendency to try and weasel out of answers, but Miliband came across as engaging, quite frankly spoken, and passionate.

And yet after looking around online I was surprised to see there were a fair amount of people for whom the conclusion was the inverse. I suppose that in the end we strive to find points that shore up our own bias so I must have been picking up things that supported my preferred end result. Perhaps I was being a tad unfair in my assessment – maybe I was just more resistant to Burley going after the left-wing choice (although I don’t think so – I may need to rewatch) and giving Miliband too much of a pass on his lack of stats.

When it comes to elections though, I’m not really the vote that matters. Sure I do vote, but at the end of the day I am one of those people that will tend to vote for defined side of the political spectrum. I’m not going to vote right-wing and likely never will. I’m not part of that swath of uncommitted middle ground voters who could tip either way. So long as I am mobilised to go to the polls the main parties likely won’t waste their time courting me. That’s why I enjoy watching these debates – I get a good sense of what politician’s think the middle ground cares about, and then I get to pretend that I could be better (I totally could).

As it stands we’re looking at another coalition being formed in the days after May 7th. Hopefully the upcoming debates will tilt it to the side that I would prefer, and will shore up a more rational approach to hot button topics such as immigration which are increasingly becoming hysterical. Still, we’ve got a few more weeks to go before then.