Six surprises from the 2017 General Election

by Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh

26 Sep 2018

The British General Election of 2017 by Philip Cowley and me, Dennis Kavanagh, is the twentieth in the series of studies of British general elections, which started in 1945 in Nuffield College, Oxford. Elections are far less predictable than many would like to admit but this election, called at the drop of a hat and in the face of Prime Ministerial assurances to the contrary, was surprising in more ways than one.


Our starting point, at the beginning of the campaign in April 2017, was that Labour faced a crisis with a vulnerable leader in Jeremy Corbyn, the party trailing badly in the polls, and MPs openly dismissive of the leader and pessimistic about their chances. On the other side Theresa May was in command of her Conservative party and seemingly heading for a clear victory. But even before the result was declared the campaign had undermined these expectations; the perceptions and fortunes of the two parties and their leaders were further reversed after the result.


The unusual circumstances of the election forced a departure in two respects from the way we would normally go about putting together the study. First was the surprise calling of the election, catching most of the political world, including the Conservative Party, off guard, overturning Mrs May’s several assurances that there would not be an election, and setting aside the Fixed-term Parliament Act. Second, the shadow of the 2016 EU referendum hung heavily over the election. It not only led to a change of Conservative party leadership and challenged a Whitehall policy framework that had lasted over 40 years, but it also divided the two main parties and disrupted their traditional core votes. We cover these two themes in the first part of the book.


So here are six things that surprised us, in writing this, about this election:


1. The campaigns mattered


In contrast to many elections, the 2018 campaign actually mattered (our book has three chapters on it rather than the usual one). More voters than usual either changed their vote intentions or decided late, mostly to Labour’s advantage. Corbyn’s ratings improved during the campaign and Labour improved its ratings on many policies. Yet at the end May still led Corbyn as preferred Prime Minister and the Conservatives still led Labour on managing the economy.


2. The manifestos mattered


The manifestos also mattered, particularly the Conservative policy on social care and Labour’s popular retail offers, both to the Conservative party’s disadvantage.


3. No one had their finger on the pulse – neither pollsters nor the parliamentary parties


We cover the extraordinary political background to Labour’s campaign – a divided party, a leader who was opposed by most of the PLP, disastrous opinion poll ratings and by-election failures, and a left-wing programme. According to conventional wisdom these factors should have led to Labour’s electoral humiliation. We explain how the pollsters got the result wrong – again.


4. Labour weren’t the only party divided


We also explore at length the tensions in the Conservative campaign over strategy. Lynton Crosby’s emphasis on May, Brexit and stability won out over the plans of May’s aides for a campaign promising to tackle 'burning injustices' and presenting May as the candidate for change. Some Number 10 aides still wistfully debate this 'if only', and it has hardly been covered to date. 


5. The media didn’t see it coming


The chapters on the media show how the broadcasters (to Conservative disappointment) refused to cover the campaign as a Brexit election (in large part because the Conservatives had little to say) and how Labour, with Corbyn’s rallies and policy announcements, proved to be more newsworthy. The chapter on the press, with its heavy anti -Labour and anti-Corbyn thrust, concludes that the election outcome challenges the press’s claims to understand or influence the public mood.


6. The return of two-party politics failed to deliver a clear majority for one party.


The statistical appendix explains why the first past the post electoral system is less likely than in the past to deliver a clear majority of seats for one party, so making minority or coalition government more likely.



Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh are the authors of The British General Election of 2017, published by Palgrave Macmillan. 


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