Interpreting the 2017 UK General Election

We had yet another election that was yet again rather a surprise, though in a good way this time. The Conservative government intended and were expected to extend their majority in Parliament, perhaps by quite a bit (400 seats seemed possible). They would have 5 years with a commanding majority to execute Brexit and ride out some of the aftermath. The humiliating defeat of a Corbyn-led Labour party would reify his unelectability and might lead to his replacement with someone more electable…probably from a somewhat more center part of the party. This would, of course, depend on Corbyn stepping down and the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) not having enough Corbynites to renominate them.

Well THAT didn’t happen. Instead, the Conservatives lost their majority. Labour is back up to around 2010 levels in number of seats. Third parties either lost (SNP) or had only minor gains (Liberal Democrats…big relative, small compared to their 2010 levels). May will try to form a government, but it’ll be tricky. The Conservatives are damaged. Mayesqe Brexit is damaged. (Yay to both.) We have a second own goal/absurd folly by a Conservative PM in as many years.

Excitement! In 2015, the pollsters said, “hung parliament” and we got a Conservative majority. In 2017, the pollsters (mostly) said “Conservative majority” and we got a “hung parliament”. Whatever else, this shows the dangers of mixing polling with time travel.

Corbynites claim vindication! Some Sanders supporters do too! Grouchy people say, “Well, Labour didn’t win!” The anti-Corbynites and Corbyn skeptics in the PLP are making friendly noises! Lefty folks are talking about how the party is Blairite no more!! YOUNG PEOPLE!!!

Here’s my 1.5th take. My 0.5-0.7th takes can be found on various LGM threads.


We don’t yet know what happened. The data hasn’t been synthesized or in some cases gathered. So there’s a lot of speculation. This post is mostly speculative or “frameworky”, that is, I’ll try to articulate ways of thinking about the election rather than make specific claims about what happened.

Analyses are emerging and quickly. I started to try to sort through them but they are coming a bit too quickly and voluminously.

I’m pretty left tempered with serious commitments to harm mitigation or reduction. Thus, I am generally against heighten the contradictions strategies or attempting for (unlikely) maximal results. I therefore tend to be a two partier side taker (Labour in the UK and Democratic in the US). In the pre Bush area I experimented with third party politics but that’s largely done (esp. in the US).

I have technocratic inclinations…I care a ton about policy. I have a strong antipathy to Jeremy Corbyn because of his pro-Brexitness and esp his horrible campaigning unto sabotage for Remain. (That is likely the most consequential act he’ll ever do and it’s for a lot of harm.) That being said, the Conservatives are so much worse on everything, I will reliably support (and vote for) Labour. I formally joined the Labour Party a couple of days before the election (when I thought that the  best likely result was “only” a 30-70 seat gain for May).

I don’t have a big hate for the “Blairite” wing of the party, to the degree there is one, even though I disagree with so much of what Blair did (even things that weren’t as harmful as supporting Bush in Gulf War II). I think Brown did some great things including keeping us out of the Euro (I’m super pro-EU, but the Euro has severe problems; cf Krugman) but also a more stimulus based response to the Great Recession (both of these things are what kept Cameron’s contractionary policy from screwing us).

Final caveat: that’s a lot of caveats!

What Happened?

Short answer:

  • Labour didn’t win, but it wasn’t destroyed. The pre election bet was Labour would be hurt through destroyed. We exceeded expectations by a lot.
  • The Conservatives lost their majority but remained the largest party by seat (by a lot) and vote share (by a little). They fell short of expectations by a lot.
  • May is seriously damaged, having lost a majority in a snap election she called.
  • Third parties are on the decline even though the LibDems made some gains. Scottish Tories did very well.
  • We are not in a stable situation. A Conservative minority government with DUP support is unlikely to last 5 years.

Even with my loathing of Brexit loving Corbyn and McDonnell, I’ll take this result over a Labour crash that dislodged them (and definitely over a Labour crash that did).

What Grounded Expectations?

There are two points-in-time to consider:

  1. Pre-calling the election (i.e., before April 2017).
  2. During the election esp. close to the date.

1 is relevant because it grounded May’s decision to call the election. There were two key poll numbers that made calling an election with an expectation of strengthening her majority reasonable:

  1. Overall opinion polls which showed the conservative with around a 20 point lead and gaining.

    UK opinion polling leading up to the 2017 election. The top blue line is the Conservatives and Labour is the red line. Note the vertical line is the moment the election was called. (From Wikipedia.)

  2. Corbyn, specifically, had poor polls esp as a possible Prime Minister, wheres May had really good polls on those.

Traditionally, the opposition party has high polls between elections which narrows when the election is called. Approval of a party leader as possible Prime Minister generally is seen to have a substantial effect (or at least be predictive of) final seat total.

(Remember, the Prime Minister is not directly elected. The only way to vote against someone as PM is to vote against your local MP.)

In 2015, Corbyn started out with the worst initial approval rating of an opposition leader since such polling began (after WWII). He was at -8 net approval. Contrariwise, Ed Miliband started out in 2010 at +26. (Check out this opposition polling at midterms (whole article).)

Note, I’m not offering any explanation of why. Unfair press. PLP backstabbing (though that wouldn’t explain his initial approval per se). It wasn’t clear that it could be overcome. For example, the press wasn’t going to change absent an exogenous event.

Add in his lackluster performance in the referendum, and it wasn’t clear that Corbyn wasn’t electoral poison.

2017 showed that he wasn’t. But it was a surprise.

Why Did Expectations Get Overturned?

In US presidential elections, we have evidence that campaigns and candidates have, at most, marginal effects. Structural factors, esp. given strong polarization and party identity voting pattern, tend to dominate. I’m not sure that this is as true in the UK, but I think we can say that the UK is seeing some hardening of party idea (in the respective bases), but there’s also a lot of party migration/leader sensitivity going on (cf “traditional Labour voters” who voted Leave and speak heavily against Corbyn).

So, I don’t know, but I think looking at structural factors is a bad idea. Brexit is a big deal. The economy and recovery is a big deal. May was never elected as Prime Minister and the winning leader, Cameron, resigned after a wacky defeat. We’re into a second, eventful term.

Let’s look at the seat/vote spread from the last three elections (with some structural points):

Election Lab. Vote Lab. Seats Con. Vote Con. Seats Structural Factors
2010 29.0% 258 36.1% 306 Labour was 3 term govt and were in charge during the Great Recession
2015 30.4% 232 36.9% 330 Re-election campaign of a 1 term govt with a popular leader; Labour collapses in Scotland to the (very left) SNP because Scottish nationalism
2017 40.0% 262 42.4% 317 Snap election (3rd in 2 years) for replacement PM after popular PM suffered a epochal defeat; worst/most botched Conservative campaign in quite some time; UKIP collapses post-Brexit (and Scottish Conservatives do very well on anti-Scottish Nationalism)

If we look at the structural factors, the election looks less exciting. Indeed, if we had a generic Labour leader (with normal opposition Leader numbers in April) this could be seen as an expected or even weak result. But with a generic Labour leader with normal numbers, May would never have called this election. Some combination of polls and perhaps personal underestimation of Corbyn prompted May’s folly.

So Corbyn is Super Awesome, Right?

It’s still inconclusive.

What this election proved is that he’s not electoral poison. Given the right circumstances, he can perform at least as good as a generic Labour leader with normal numbers. Unlike lots of prior performances, almost everything after the first week or two of the campaign was very strong, from the manifesto to his personal campaigning. May refused to debate him, which may have been to his advantage (his PMQ sessions aren’t so wonderful). Hi campaign was strong while May’s was really bad.

There’s some thought that Corbyn mobilised the youth vote to turn out. If so, he didn’t do so on top of bringing back traditional Labour voters, as far as I could tell. That would have been victory, I’d guess. I’m waiting for numbers that show a substitutional effect…making up in increased youth turnout what we lose in traditional Labour voters.

Also, many MP candidates ran away from Corbyn. Or at least kept quiet.

So, it’s not conclusive. But we do know that 1) Corbyn wasn’t poison (that’s good), 2) there seems to be a chance for a hard left to centre intra-party unity, and everyone’s making the right moves (also good), and 3) Corbyn is a different figure than before the election. Success tends to breed success.

That being said, Corbyn still needs to show that he can be a functional parliamentary leader. The great PLP rebellion and leadership challenge was as much about his shambolic management and leadership as ideology and worries about electability. Some moves look good and maybe he’ll do better now. But we need to see.

So UK polls are worthless, then?

UK polls are definitely less accurate overall. Though YouGov was predicting a hung parliament. I suspect Corbyn will turn out to be an outlier.

Approval is odd. In a polarized setting it doesn’t necessarily tell us too much about voter intention. So who knows?


There’s lots more to say even before we get some more data. The short answer remains: Good news for Labour; very good news for Corbyn. May and the Conservative are seriously damaged. They situation is more dynamic than before the election. May screwed the pooch, however rational it may have seemed at the time. It shouldn’t have seemed a no brainer esp given that she had promise no election until the term was up. Breaking that promise “just because” adds an insane amount of uncertainty. The fact that it was structurally a bit unfavourable meant she was relying on Corbyn Numbers and Personal Contempt for Corbyn and didn’t bother to assemble a proper campaign. She knew it was coming but didn’t put one together!

May and Cameron…two of the worst Prime Ministers…ever.