Jan 28th 2015

The Bookies and the British Election

by Chris Patten

Chris Patten is a former EU Commissioner for External Relations, Chairman of the British Conservative Party, and was the last British Governor of Hong Kong. He is currently Chancellor of Oxford University and a member of the British House of Lords.

LONDON – I used to be considered a pretty good forecaster of British and other countries’ elections. I was, after all, once a party chairman.

I can now confess my method. It was not based on any novel political insight. I did not have a magic algorithm relating economic factors to voting intentions – though I do think that there is some correlation between net disposable income and how people normally vote. But my own technique, which I still use, has proved more reliable than even poring over the political entrails in every constituency.

What I do is not very sophisticated: I watch the bookmakers’ odds. Doing so proved invaluable as recently as the Scottish independence referendum last September. Two days before the count, bookmakers were paying out to gamblers who had bet that Scotland would vote “No” to independence. Guess which way Scotland actually voted.

My method is based largely on the observation that you rarely hear of a poor bookie. So I apply the American writer Damon Runyon’s famous adage: “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.”

The problem now is that the British general election in May is too close to call. So the bookmakers have 2:5 odds on no party gaining an outright majority, and 10:11 on either Labour or the Conservatives winning the largest number of seats.

So I cannot predict the outcome, and neither can the masters of the universe in the City of London, who always become jittery in the face of political uncertainty. What I can do is try to explain why that uncertainty exists.

First, as in many other democracies, support for the United Kingdom’s two main political parties is declining. When I first became interested in politics, nearly 50 years ago, Labour and the Conservatives attracted some 90% of the popular vote. In May, their combined share will be about 65% to 70%.

There are several reasons for this. One is the decline of the traditional working class and the growth of a more affluent middle class, underpinned by changes in occupation and housing. Trade-union membership and public-sector employment have fallen. The number of people joining political parties has dropped sharply as ideological identification with either the left or the right has waned.

Add to this the rise of populist and nationalist parties in Britain, partly a consequence of the political and economic alienation that have resulted from globalization and economic troubles, and Labour and the Conservatives are fighting over dwindling support. The latest polls indicate 34% support for Labour, and 32% for the Conservatives. Labour’s popularity has been trending down from the high 30s over the last couple of years; the Conservatives have remained stuck at around 30%.

Several factors make predicting the outcome even more problematic. For starters, the electoral system is tipped sharply in Labour’s favor. It takes more votes to elect a Conservative than a Labour MP, owing to the over-representation of urban Britain and some majority-Labour parts of the country. As a result, psephologists calculate that the Conservatives have to win at least 4% more of the popular vote than Labour in order to win more seats.

Second, the anti-immigration, anti-European UK Independence Party (UKIP) takes more votes – perhaps as much as 50% – from the Conservatives than it does from the Labour party. It looks as though UKIP’s support may have peaked, and that some of the air is escaping from the party’s tires. But no one really knows how much damage UKIP will do to the Conservatives’ chances.

Third, on the other side of the fence, the Scottish National Party appears to be attracting a large number of former Labour supporters. Many working-class voters in western Scotland used to vote for the SNP in Scottish Parliament elections, but would drift back to Labour in UK general elections. But some believe that this pattern has been disrupted, owing to a sense that Labour has taken its traditional supporters for granted. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, seems to be just as unpopular in Scotland as his Conservative counterpart, Prime Minister David Cameron.

Leadership is an area where the Conservatives are already ahead in opinion polls. They have a substantial lead on economic issues as well, as the news continues to support the party’s contention that the recovery in growth and employment, along with low inflation, are now benefiting the entire country. Conservatives will hammer away on the economy, as they did in 1992, the last time that they won an election outright.

Labour, for its part, will seek to focus voters’ attention on issues that are thought to be toxic for the government, like the National Health Service. With the campaign already underway, no one should expect the main protagonists to depart significantly in the weeks ahead from the themes that they have already espoused.

What happens if the outcome matches the bookies’ predictions? There will presumably be months of attempts to build coalitions out of improbable alliances; then maybe there will be another election (assuming Parliament can change the law mandating its five-year term).

I hope it does not come to that, and that when the battle smoke clears, Cameron will be left – as he deserves to be – the only man standing. But before I place that bet, I will consider what the bookies have to say.



Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.
www.project-syndicate.org




To follow what's new on Facts & Arts
 please click here.



 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jun 17th 2019
Extarct: "We know well the damage that corrupt leaders do to their people. We should therefore have much more to say about the quintessential corruption entailed by tolerating lies. Such tolerance allows the poison to spread through the body and soul of democracy, undermining democracy’s institutions by attacking the invisible norms and tacit understandings that support them."
Jun 11th 2019
Extract: "I noticed this dynamic firsthand a few years ago in Blagoveshchensk, on the Siberian border, just a half-mile from the Chinese town of Heihe. A century and a half ago, Blagoveshchensk was part of China. Then the Cossacks took control of it, along with many other territories in Chinese Outer Manchuria, on behalf of the Russian czar. Blagoveshchensk’s local history museum presents the development of the town after the Cossack takeover as a civilizing mission. The Russians, it seems, still view themselves as superior Westerners. As for Heihe, it got rich a quarter-century ago, after capitalizing on Russia’s post-Soviet disarray to sell cheap goods to then-starving Russians. Its own history museum presents the Cossacks as “hairy barbarians” (Lao Maozi) and lists the towns of Russia’s far east by their historical Chinese names: Blagoveshchensk is Hailanpao, Vladivostok is Haishenwai, and Sakhalin is Kuye. Local behavior reflects these perspectives. At the ferry port, the Russians sneer at the Chinese traders who bring Russian vodka and chocolate to Heihe, while the Chinese move past the Russians as if they do not exist."
Jun 5th 2019
Extract: "....the Constitution, which established the impeachment process as a check on the president’s behavior between elections, says nothing about using it only when politically convenient. Moreover, given the results in 2018, Democratic Party leaders might well discourage making the disposition of the president the key issue in the next election. Most important, a decision not to initiate an impeachment process against Trump could set a terrible precedent. If Trump isn’t impeached for his numerous criminal acts and abuses of power, would impeachment remain a viable check on the presidency? "
Jun 3rd 2019
Extracts: "Sooner or later, all smaller powers dependent on global markets would have to choose a side, unless they are somehow strong enough to withstand both American and Chinese pressure. With China and the US both demanding clarity, even economic giants like the European Union, India, and Japan would be faced with an intractable economic dilemma."
May 24th 2019
Waging a war against Iran, or even thinking of doing so, is sheer madness. Trump has thus far wisely rejected the warmonger National Security Advisor John Bolton’s outrageous advice. Waging another war in the Mideast, this time against Iran, would have not only disastrous consequences for the US but will also engulf our allies from which they would suffer incalculable human losses and destruction. Bolton was the architect behind the devastating war in Iraq in 2003, which inflicted more than 5,000 US casualties and a cost exceeding two trillion dollars, allowed Iran to entrench itself in Iraq, and gave way to the rise of ISIS.
May 24th 2019
The private Tasnim news agency reports from Iran that in a speech to thousands of university students, Iran’s clerical leader Ali Khamenei made an unusual and extraordinary criticism of president Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif over their handling of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or deal on limiting Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.
May 21st 2019
Extract: "Brexit, after all, is as much a Kremlin project as it is anyone else’s. Putin wants to divide Europeans, and in the UK, Brexit has succeeded in dividing Britons like nothing since the Corn Law debates almost 200 years ago. Putin wants the EU to fragment, and Brexit is causing the biggest crack yet in the bloc’s history. Putin wants to sow doubt about the legitimacy of traditional news sources; pro-Brexit media consistently promote lies as truth and inveigh against reputable papers like the Financial Times as elitist enemies of the people."
May 16th 2019
Iraq’s population when invaded was 26 million. Iran’s population today is 81 million..........Whereas Iraq’s neighbors– Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular– had been mauled by Saddam and so did not strongly oppose Bush’s invasion, Shiite Iraqis, many Syrians, the Hazaras of Afghanistan, and the some 40 million Shiites of Pakistan would support Iran.
May 15th 2019
It’s time that economists, pundits, and politicians start looking holistically at life in our times, and take seriously the long-term structural changes needed to address the multiple crises of health care, despair, inequality, and stress in the US and many other countries. US citizens, in particular, should reflect on the fact that many other countries’ people are happier and less worried, and are living longer. In general, those other countries’ governments are not cutting taxes for the rich and slashing services for the rest. They are attending to the common good, instead of catering to the rich while pointing to illusory economic statistics that hide as much as they reveal.
May 8th 2019
"........Meanwhile, Trump is leaving the door open for Russia to come to his aid again in 2020. The White House and congressional Republican leaders have been blocking a bill to secure US elections against foreign attacks. And administration officials have been instructed not to raise the issue of Russian interference with the president, lest it cast a shadow on his legitimacy.  The next phase in this affair is already coming into focus. Barr, with the help of Trump’s golfing buddy Lindsey Graham, the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is now enlisted in peddling the president’s fantasy that the Mueller investigation was a “witch hunt” orchestrated by “deep-state” supporters of Hillary Clinton. Once again, current and former FBI agents will be targeted, either because they expressed criticism of Trump or because they opened a national security investigation into a hostile power’s meddling in the US presidential election (which continued in the 2018 midterms). FBI director Christopher Wray, commenting on the Mueller report, said that the Russians are “upping their game” for 2020. "
May 7th 2019
We are witnessing the loss of biodiversity at rates never before seen in human history. Nearly a million species face extinction if we do not fundamentally change our relationship with the natural world, according to the world’s largest assessment of biodiversity.
May 4th 2019
Accusing Iran of being a rogue country bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, supporting extremist groups and terrorism, persistently threatening Israel, and destabilizing the region in its relentless effort to become the dominant power may well all be justified. The question is, what would it take to stop Iran from its destabilizing activities and help make it a constructive member of the international community, and avoid military confrontation with either the US or Israel or both?
Apr 29th 2019
Some of the most famous scientific discoveries happened by accident. From Teflon and the microwave oven to penicillin, scientists trying to solve a problem sometimes find unexpected things. This is exactly how we created phosphorene nanoribbons – a material made from one of the universe’s basic building blocks, but that has the potential to revolutionise a wide range of technologies.
Apr 28th 2019
Easter visitors to London have found some streets and buildings occupied by “Extinction Rebellion” activists, warning of climate catastrophe and rejecting “a failed capitalist system.” Followers of central bank thinking have seen the governors of the Bank of England and Banque de France warning that climate-related risks threaten company profits and financial stability. Both interventions highlight the severity of the climate challenge that the world faces. But warnings alone won’t fix the problem unless governments set ambitious but realistic targets to eliminate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions, backed by policies to ensure the targets are achieved. Zero net CO2 emissions by 2050 at the latest should be the legally defined objective in all developed economies.
Apr 25th 2019
LONDON – Russian efforts to influence European elections have received plenty of media attention. But the same cannot be said of interference by conservative Christian groups based in the United States, some with links to President Donald Trump’s administration and his former adviser, Stephen Bannon.
Apr 24th 2019
.............the version of the report released is only the start of wide-ranging and intensive House investigations.
Apr 17th 2019
On the night of April 15, 2019, in Paris, the emotions were raw. “Notre Dame is burning, the whole of France is crying, the whole world is crying,” said Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris. “It’s terrible, frightening, painful, a tragedy, a nightmare.” “This place leaves no one untouched. When you enter this cathedral, it inhabits you,” said Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, in front of the burning monument. “We will rebuild,” said the Rector of Notre Dame, “we will rebuild.”
Apr 15th 2019
High-level political purges are gathering pace in Russia. The latest evidence came in late March, with the arrests of Mikhail Abyzov, a former minister for open government affairs, and – two days later – Viktor Ishayev, a former Far East minister and ex-governor of Russia’s Khabarovsk region. Unsurprisingly, the arrests of such senior figures is having a chilling effect among the country’s elites. The authorities have now arrested or imprisoned three former federal government ministers and a supporting cast of regional officials
Apr 8th 2019
The reaction to this type of paternalism, sensible and well-meant as it usually was, came in the form of petulant populism. Like a child who refuses to eat his spinach, just because his mother claims it is good for him, supporters of Trump, Brexiteers, or Baudet want to give the finger to the politics of virtue. That is why Nigel Farage, the chief promoter of Brexit, likes to be photographed with a glass full of beer and a smoldering cigarette: if the virtuous elite want us to drink less and quit smoking, let’s have another and light up.