Are the Tories About to Blow It?

The polls are tightening, but the great upset is not necessarily on — yet.

THE POLLS are tightening, the pound is taking a beating, and one constituency-by-constituency YouGov survey even suggests the Tories, long slated for a landslide victory in next Thursday's election, could be in line to lose as many as 20 seats, potentially leaving them unable to form government on their own. Is the great upset on? 

If Predata's signals are to be believed, probably not. Like a shaggy dog story, the election has taken interesting and unexpected detours; like a shaggy dog story, it's likely to wind toward a fairly unremarkable conclusion, with the Tories retaining a sizable majority in the House of Commons. We say this for three main reasons. 

1) Voter fatigue. Unquestionably, Labour has polling momentum on its side. Jeremy Corbyn's performance in Monday night's TV meeting with Jeremy Paxman — less an interview than a series of half-sentences squeaked out in between Paxman's bullying interruptions — was generally judged on social media to be more human, warmer, and funnier than that of Theresa May in her tête-à-tête with Paxman; whatever the merits of Corbyn's performance, it certainly had none of the put-on, “Let me tell you” bravado of Ed Miliband in the corresponding fixture in 2015. This is all well and good, but it won't necessarily swing the election to Labour, or even gut the Tories' parliamentary presence enough to force them into a coalition. Labour needs voters to turn out in massive numbers for either of those things to happen. 

Predata's sector rollup signal for the UK — a general index of country-wide political volatility that is stable in its source components and can therefore be used as a basis for historical comparison — suggests the interest generated by this election is well off the levels seen ahead of the 2015 election or last year's Brexit referendum (see the chart below). In the penultimate week of the 2015 campaign, the signal averaged a level of 49; in the penultimate week of the Brexit campaign, it averaged 53.5. The election is now just eight days away; over the last week the signal has averaged 46.7, and even then much of the online discussion underlying the signal has been driven by the Manchester bombing rather than the election. 

This suggests that the electorate, far from being swept up in a tide of Corbynthusiasm, is more disengaged and election-weary than it was heading into the 2015 vote or Brexit Day. Turnout, accordingly, could be low by historical standards — which works against the challenger and to the advantage of the incumbent. 

uk sector rollup 5/31/17

2) The Conservative resurgence online. For the last couple of weeks, Labour figures have regularly figured among the top drivers of the overall conversation online about the election, though much of the attention they've generated has been negative: a car-crash interview here, a forgotten costing pledge there. In recent days it's become fashionable to say that Theresa May is “rattled” by the opposition's surge in the polls and her own mangled management of the dementia tax U-turn and has resorted to personal attacks against Corbyn and dog-whistling on immigration as a way to shore up her party's electoral fortunes. 

This may be true, but even if we ignore that recent electoral history in the UK — see last year's Brexit referendum — suggests a hard-right turn on immigration is a fairly bankable late-campaign strategy, Predata's signals show a different phenomenon at play: senior Tories have woken up from their early-campaign torpor and are at last generating meaningful engagement with the Conservative message online. The prospect of an embarrassing reverse at the ballot box, while still distant, has motivated the party's grandees to start campaigning like they mean it. 

On the day of Monday's Paxman interviews — the key media happening of the campaign so far, given May's ongoing refusal to engage Corbyn in a head-to-head debate — Boris Johnson, Conservative Party chairman Patrick McLoughlin and Tory MP Sajid Javid were the top three drivers of the overall election conversation online. Many of the zingiest tweets (see below) that allowed the Conservatives to dominate the post-Paxman digital debate had to do with Corbyn's pacifism and perceived weakness in the face of security threats — character attacks deliberately staged, of course, to take advantage of the electorate's post-Manchester fragility.

bojo tweet
tory tweet

The Conservatives used last night's BBC debate — which featured Corbyn as well as the leaders of the Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party, but which May herself declined to attend, sending Home Secretary Amber Rudd in her place — to push the hashtag #coalitionofchaos online. This suggests the Tories are taking the prospect of a coalition government of Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP seriously — or at least, seriously enough to generate a fear campaign around the idea. Predata's digital momentum signals indicate that far from being the trigger for the Conservative reëlection bid to unravel, Labour's poll surge has been the making of the Tories' campaign online. 

uk digimo 5/31/17
uk cugimo 5/31/17
digimo explainer

3) The size of the gulf to be overcome. The Conservatives enjoy a 98-seat advantage over Labour in the House. It will take a Tarzan-like swing to Labour to remove May and her party from power. In the digital domain, an analogous effect is at work: the Conservatives have accumulated far greater digital momentum over the course of the whole campaign than Labour (see the second chart above). Their “digital advantage” is now so great that not even a heroic final campaign week from Labour will erase it. If political campaigns, both on the ground and online, deserve to be judged over their entire history, there's little doubt that the Conservatives, this time round, have been comfortably dominant in the digital domain. 

In mitigation, there is one factor that's working against the Tories. Many — May and her cohort of advisors included — assumed this would be an election about Brexit and strong leadership. “Brexit is central to everything,” a recent tweet from the Conservative Party's official Twitter account claimed. But is it? It's arguable that — the policy debate over security occasioned by the Manchester bombing aside — social issues, and May's backflip over social care cuts in particular, have emerged as the most significant point of differentiation between the two main parties — not Brexit. 

Indeed, Predata's hard and soft Brexit signals (below) both suggest that on the long view, the intensity of public discussion about the exit negotiations is fading, not rising — and has barely increased since the campaign began. As we approach the final stretch, public indifference to Brexit as a central campaign issue is the main risk weighing on the Tories' chances of victory. In the end, it's possible that the British electorate cares more about regular domestic social policy issues than the shape and identity of its future Brexit negotiating team.

hard and soft brexit 5/31/17

Aaron Timms is Predata's Director of Research. Contact: aaron@predata.com.