It has become cliché of political commentary of late to say that politics is currently deeply uncertain and very much in flux. Actually, this is not wholly true. On the defining issue of the time, Brexit, opinions have changed little over the last three years: the main change that is evident in public attitudes is an entrenching of the differences between Remainers and Leavers, and a shrinking of the middle ground for some sort of compromise. Indeed, some very interesting evidence suggests that being a Remainer or Leaver has become a deeply-entrenched identity within significant parts of the public in the UK.
What is more uncertain is how all of this links to voting in a possible Brexit-focussed general election. To what extent might the Conservatives, under Boris Johnson, be able to claim back the Leave voters who deserted them in large numbers for Brexit party in May’s European election? And where does the Remain vote go? To Labour, as it largely did (outside Scotland) in 2017, or perhaps in increasing numbers to the Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP in Scotland and Plaid Cymru in Wales? And how does such an electoral context relate to the electoral map of the UK: which seats will be in play, and who will be the serious contenders in different places? Understanding this is certainly difficult.
If there is one place where elections ought to be predictable it is Wales. After all, electoral politics here has been predictable for a long time. The last general election won by anyone other than Labour was in December 1918; Labour have come first in votes and seats in Wales at every one of the last 26 general elections. It seemed for a while in 2017 that things would be different – the Conservatives actually led on first two polls. But then Labour bounded back strongly, and even ended up gaining three seats back from Conservatives; meanwhile, as in England, other parties were marginalised as two-party politics was apparently firmly re-asserted.
But even in Wales, recent changes in the electoral fortunes of parties have been so dramatic as to apparently put almost everything and everywhere up for grabs. The most recent Welsh Political Barometer poll, published last month, was quite literally the worst opinion poll for Labour in Wales ever recorded. As recently as December, Labour in Wales on 45 percent support for a general election – just four points down from their extremely strong 2017 result. July’s Barometer poll had Labour on just 22 percent. Meanwhile, five parties had their general election support recorded within a nine-point margin, from 24% to 15%.
In such a context – of large changes in party support, and close contestation between multiple parties – it becomes even more than normally hazardous to suggest how current opinion poll ratings might translate into a general election outcome. We have seen, in both 2017 and in this year’s European election, large changes in public support during the campaign period. But even if the polls were to stay roughly where they are, how national poll results would project into seat totals can be very difficult to call. When parties are seeing their support halving, or doubling, we can witness extraordinary results: anyone who doubts this should just re-examine the 2015 general election results from Scotland.
All methods that use national polling results to project seat outcomes under First Past The Post have problems in accounting for local factors: strong or weak campaigns by particular parties, strong or weak candidates, particular local issue etc. Nonetheless, in ‘normal’ political times a method like uniform national swing can generally get close to the final result; so also can the alternative method of ratio swing. And the two methods do not normally project very different results: see for instance, the discussion here.
But these are not normal times. One illustration of that is simply to show the uniform swing and ratio swing seat projections of the July Barometer poll Westminster vote intention figures. This is what I do below: the table shows the party projected to win the seat in a general election under the two methods. (A note about the table: have assumed Brexit Party is ‘UKIP Mark II’, and so used the swing from the UKIP 2017 vote as the basis for the calculations here).
|Seat||Uniform Swing||Ratio Swing|
|Alyn and Deeside||Conservatives||Conservatives|
|Arfon||Plaid Cymru||Plaid Cymru|
|Blaenau Gwent||Labour||Plaid Cymru|
|Brecon and Radnor||Liberal Democrats||Liberal Democrats|
|Cardiff Central||Labour||Liberal Democrats|
|Cardiff South and Penarth||Labour||Labour|
|Carmarthen East and Dinefwr||Plaid Cymru||Plaid Cymru|
|Carmarthen West and S.Pembs||Conservatives||Conservatives|
|Ceredigion||Liberal Democrats||Liberal Democrats|
|Cynon Valley||Labour||Brexit Party|
|Dwyfor Meirionydd||Plaid Cymru||Plaid Cymru|
|Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney||Labour||Brexit Party|
|Newport East||Labour||Brexit Party|
|Vale of Clwyd||Conservatives||Conservatives|
|Vale of Glamorgan||Conservatives||Conservatives|
|Ynys Môn||Plaid Cymru||Plaid Cymru|
As mentioned when the latest Barometer poll was published, a uniform swing projection thus generates the following results:
Labour: 18 seats
Conservatives: 16 seats
Plaid Cymru: 4 seats
Liberal Democrats: 2 seats
Ratio swing, by contrast, produces the following projection:
Conservatives: 15 seats
Brexit Party: 10 seats
Plaid Cymru: 6 seats
Labour: 5 seats
Liberal Democrats: 4 seats
If anyone does think they know for sure what will happen if a general election comes – well, good luck to them.