… ‘that’s all anyone does these days,’ laments Matthew Oxenhay in my novel, Trading Futures. ‘It doesn’t matter how crap the story, as long you control the narrative.’ I think we can all agree that control of the narrative has passed completely out of the hands of the Government since 8 June.
The narrator in my next novel (Things We Nearly Knew, to be published by Picador next January) observes: ‘After such an event, the world likes to pontificate about why it happened, and when it began to happen, and how the pontificators noticed it before anyone else, although they didn’t get round to mentioning it at the time.’ Pundits are now queuing up to say they had a funny feeling that this was going to happen. Then they get on to the topic of their preferred new narrative.
One should perhaps pay attention to what YouGov has to say. After all, it was the only poll to predict the correct outcome before the event, to widespread derision. Jim Messina, a former Barack Obama campaigner, said he had spent a day laughing at it. He didn’t say on which side of his face. But I can’t help feeling that YouGov might have got its prediction right more by luck than by judgment.
I had hoped to write a statistical piece today. I had hoped to show that the increase in the vote of young people alone deprived the Prime Minister of an overall majority. Not the total votes of the younger age group, but the votes of those who voted this time and not last time. And I believe that is probably true.
But I can’t prove it. Most obviously because reliable data do not yet exist for how the vote broke down by age group this year. But also because there is no clear agreement on how many younger people voted at the 2015 election, so a comparison is impossible. The YouGov website estimates that 58% of 18-24 year-olds voted on 8 June. However, it also – quoting the British Election Study – said that in 2015 the turnout among 18-24 year-olds might have been as high as 65%.
There seems little chance that, when the British Election Study has produced its report on the 2017 election in a few months’ time, it will be any more credible. Another character in Things We Nearly Knew remarks: ‘It doesn’t matter what answers we give to questions. The answers cannot be believed, even if they’re true.’ I now feel much the same about polls. In its survey conducted immediately after the 2015 election, the British Election Study asked this question of its sample: ‘Talking to people about the General Election on May 7th we have found that a lot of people didn’t manage to vote. How about you – did you manage to vote in the General Election?’ Among the respondents in the 18-24 year-old age group, 81% said yes. Even if the sample was restricted to those on the electoral roll (which the report rather oddly does not say), I find this an unbelievable figure. But it might be true.
Then there is the question of older voters. The post-election wisdom says that the Conservatives alienated them with their plans for social care, with changes to the winter fuel allowance, and with an end to the triple lock on pensions. This viewpoint is now embedded in the new narrative on the election. Yet evidence now emerging suggests that there was a large swing to the Conservatives amongst older age groups: the problem lay with the under-40s, and not just the 18-24 year-olds.
What are political parties and analysts supposed to make of this? What can they believe? Did the youth vote rise hugely in this election, or did it actually fall? How did the former UKIP vote divide? Did it indeed split quite evenly between Labour and Conservative, or did former UKIP voters go mainly Conservative, while some former Conservative voters went Labour? Who knows? And the same with almost any other question you may care to ask.
The old-fashioned answer to the question (and the one that Jeremy Corbyn gave by example) is to ignore the polls, get out on the campaign trail and be yourself. Theresa May didn’t do this. She listened to the experts, tried to choose between contradictory advice and ended up running an abysmal campaign. I would say that, as long as Corbyn is around, the Tories need to choose a leader who at least knows how to be spontaneous.
If there is one truth we can be certain of, it is that – unless there is a landslide for one party – the eventual composition of the House of Commons will be decided by a vast number of small, often unrelated factors, which makes it impossible for anyone to predict the result with certainty. If 312 people had cast their votes differently in five seats, there would now be an overall Conservative majority. If 1,720 other people had cast their votes differently in six other seats, there would probably now be a Labour minority government.
On these precarious figures, the outcome of elections can depend. And the control of the political narrative can pass to others, along with decisions on the country’s future, by a process no one can predict before the event, or truly understand after it. One good reason not to call an election if you don’t need to.
There is a case to be made for ignoring all the factors mentioned so far, or at least downgrading their importance, in favour of another. The Conservatives attempted to fight the election on the issue of leadership as it applied to Brexit. All evidence – and there is plenty of it – is that British voters will vote on European issues in European elections (or in a referendum), but not in a General Election. Ask William Hague or Michael Howard. The mistake was not to have campaigned primarily on domestic issues, and especially the economy.
The election was little more than a fortnight ago. Yet the lessons to be learned from it already seem to be set in stone, on the basis of scant evidence. It is doubtful whether fresh evidence, when it is available, and despite its probable limitations, will make much difference to the new narrative. We now think we know what happened. It may take a revisionist historian, a hundred years from now, to cast doubt on that assumption.