Back from sabbatical – let the election commence!

As those of you who follow me on Twitter will know, I have largely been avoiding all social media for the past few months, as I have been on a research-focused sabbatical since September. This has provided a fantastic period for me to reflect and start new research projects, but now I am back and feeling refreshed ready for what promises to be one of the most exciting years in British politics in recent decades.

One of my new year’s resolutions was to blog a bit more, as I think it is a great way to get early versions of research work or just odd ideas down on (virtual) paper. In that spirit, I wanted to reflect briefly on a few things that strike me about the upcoming election. No particular order, but five points of interest that could become more prominent in the coming months:

  • The focus of the political class has never been so divided. Yesterday, it seemed that both major political parties were running with two versions of the same election slogan, roughly “Your have four more months to save…” For the Conservatives, the conclusion of the sentence was the economy. For Labour, it was the NHS. Within a few hours, predictably, Nigel Farage, popped up saying that the election was really about immigration. There is a very clear battle to set the agenda for the election, and the result might well play a defining role in who wins it.
  • This election will be about segmentation, both geographical and social. My guess is that the total number of votes won by the various parties will play only a limited role in generating the outcome of the election. What might be far more important is how efficiently parties are able to concentrate their vote in the particular places they need them to  win seats. Which leads me to the next important point…
  • Opinion polling is going to change. It was great to see Chris Hanretty’s excellent election prediction work featured on Newsnight yesterday evening. The decline of universal national swing has opened the door for a whole host of new prediction techniques – most famously espoused by Nate Silver in the US – that draw on more complex statistical models and broader datasets. The coverage these methods are getting really demonstrates that the Gallopian paradigm of public opinion research (purportedly, seeking to sample the voice of the nation) is under attack. Instead, there is a growing interest in sub-samples and specific groups deemed to be of importance to the outcome. Prediction is also increasingly probabilistic in nature.
  • That said, the mass is not quite dead. Labour has claimed that they will base their campaign around talking to people and employ social media to mobilise activists. This is certainly a good approach for a party that lacks the financial resources of its rival. However, Labour risks neglecting the important lesson of Obama’s use of activism in the US. His success was not just in mobilising activists, but building links between his keenest supporters and the apolitical mainstream. This worked at two levels. The obvious tangible example was in fundraising, where Obama harnessed his support-base’s willingness to give as a mechanism to compete for mainstream voters. He also effectively mobilised his activists to do direct contact campaigning. But additionally, and as importantly, he built symbolic links between what his activists felt about the campaign and what mainstream America felt about politics. Of course, we can question the extent to which Obama actually “did this”, as opposed to it being created by broader political, economic and social patterns. But it was vital.
  • Pre-election will matter post-election. The Liberal Democrats might argue that the public haven’t been entirely fair to them this parliament. After all, no modern Westminster politicians have any real experience of coalition government, which inevitably involves compromises. And, given the number of 2010 Liberal Democrat voters likely to move to Labour in 2015, the supreme irony is that Ed Miliband’s chances of ending up in Downing Street are only really still standing because of Nick Clegg’s veto of boundary changes. Yet the Liberal Democrats were astonishingly naïve. During the 2010 election, they emphasised policies (notably tuition fees), which it very soon became clear were not their top priorities in coalition negotiations. One lesson from the 2010-15 is that parties will need to think a lot more carefully about their post-election game plan, and how this links to what they say during the campaign.

As I said, just some sketchy thoughts. But I am going to try to blog more in the coming months.

I will also be posting some provisional findings from my sabbatical work in the next few weeks, a big data analysis of 37 million words published by UK think tanks in the past decade.