Lessons from May’s electoral debacle

REAMS of articles have detailed why UK Prime Minister Theresa May's electoral gamble failed.

Prompted by a 20-point lead in opinion polls, amid fevered expectations she could possibly win a three-digit parliamentary majority, in April this year, the Conservative party leader called an election three years ahead of time.

Not only did May lose the super-slim majority of five seats the Tories held before polling day on June 8 this year, her political ineptitude caused a hung parliament.
Although the Conservatives triumphed in 318 seats and secured 42.4% of the vote – equalling Margaret Thatcher's record tally in the 1983 and 1987 general elections – the Tories won eight seats less than the required majority of 326 seats.

Last Monday, the Tories won the support of 10 MPs from Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party on major issues like security and Brexit – shorthand for Britain's exit from the European Union – in return for £1 billion in additional funding for Northern Ireland.

May's electoral debacle offers several pointers that Malaysian politicians should study given widely-held expectations that a general election is likely to be called later this year.

First, the biggest losers in the UK June 8 poll were smaller political parties, in particular the Liberal Democrats (LD). Highlighting the LD's continuing decline, its share of the vote plunged from a high of 23% in 2010 – just six percentage points behind Labour's 29% – to just 7.2% in April this year.

For the first time since the 1970 general election, votes for the Conservatives and Labour exceeded 40% – underscoring the return of the two-party system after seven years.

Second, politicians from the ruling Barisan Nasional and their opposition counterparts should note negative campaigning in the US presidential election last November and in the UK was a washout.

Just as Hillary Clinton's demonisation of Donald Trump failed to win the Democrats the White House, May's attempts to disparage Jeremy Corbyn didn't gain traction with the majority of voters.

Third, May's political ineptitude was a contributory factor. Not only was the Conservatives' election manifesto poorly conceived, May's refusal to jeopardise her seemingly-strong political standing by participating in a TV debate was a mistake.

Alex Hunt and Brian Wheeler wrote in an BBC article: "Mrs May might have performed badly in the debate, but she arguably took a far bigger reputational hit by not taking part, as it opened her up to accusations she was running scared, or that she was complacently assuming victory."

Equally disastrous was May's U-turn on caring for the elderly. A Tory proposal that older Britons who own property exceeding £100,000 in value should contribute to the cost of their home care – a suggestion that reinforced the belief Conservatives care more for fiscal prudence than for voters.

Capitalising on this misstep, Corbyn labelled this proposal the "dementia tax" while some critics described it as a stealth inheritance tax. Unlike the Tories' promise of continuing austerity, Corbyn promised massive giveaways – more funds for the National Health Service and education plus writing-off outstanding student loans.

Fourth was the impact of the youth vote. Alan Travis wrote in The Guardian the "youthquake" was a key component of Corbyn's 10-percentage point jump in Labour's share of the vote – a surge that bettered even Tony Blair's nine-percentage point gain in his first 1997 landslide win.

A NME-led exit poll suggested the April turnout among the under 35s rose by 12 percentage points to 56% compared with the 2015 elections, Travis noted.

Fifth was Labour's highly effective use of social media. The Conservatives focused on sharp paid-for attack ads on Facebook, Mike Wendling wrote in a BBC article. In contrast, Labour appeared to opt for filter bubbles – tight online communities created by algorithms, generally closed to the public, and filled with "Corbynistas", Wendling noted.

A major electoral asset was Momentum, a grassroots campaign group. Its website "My Nearest Marginal" enabled Labour activists to easily find and target battleground seats.

Advised by Bernie Sanders' staff who hoped the US Senator would become the Democrats' presidential nominee, Momentum texted instead of emailing supporters. This switch resulted in almost 100% of messages being opened and a markedly improved reply rate of 40%, Momentum claimed.

Sixth, only one opinion poll predicted the election outcome. Published on May 30, nine days before polling day, YouGov's experimental poll suggested the Conservatives could lose 20 seats resulting in a hung parliament. Publication of YouGov's forecast triggered massive criticism.

Unlike traditional pollsters, YouGov interviewed 60,000 individuals each week without worrying whether the respondents matched the UK population profile. To correct this possible mismatch, YouGov used a statistical procedure known as multilevel regression and post-stratification (MRP) to adjust the results to better reflect UK voters.

In short, over-confidence and playing it safe – as May did – could be a vote-losing strategy in Malaysia.

Opinions expressed in this article are the personal views of the writer and should not be attributed to any organisation she is connected with. She can be contacted at siokchoo@thesundaily.com