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The Election in Retrospect

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The British General Election of 2017


Calling a general election has traditionally been considered one of the key powers exercised by a prime minister. It is a politically consequential decision. Harold Wilson in 1970 and Ted Heath in 1974 both called elections earlier than needed—and both lost. Indeed, there were striking similarities between Theresa May in 2017 and Heath’s snap (‘Who Governs?’) general election in February 1974. Heath, also backed by opinion poll leads, had reluctantly called the election to give him a stronger hand to reinforce his statutory incomes policy against the coal miners’ industrial action. But his party was ill-prepared, he had been persuaded to call the election, the public mood was volatile and he lost. In 2017, May’s party had clear poll leads but was ill-prepared, the mood was volatile and the voters baulked at the invitation to back her.

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  1. 1.

    Harold Wilson, A Personal Record: The Labour Government 1964–1970. Michael Joseph, 1971, p. 201.

  2. 2.

    ‘Britain’s Missing Middle’, The Economist, 3 June 2017; ‘The Observer View on the General Election’, The Observer, 4 June 2017.

  3. 3.

    John Curtice and Ian Simpson, Why Turnout Increased in the 2017 General Election. And The Increase Did Not Help Labour. NatCen, 2018, p. 5. But see also the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement 15 (2018). Conducted around six months after the election, it found levels of interest in politics (at 57%) roughly similar to every other post-election year since the Audit began in 2004.

  4. 4.

    The Electoral Commission, UK Parliamentary General Election, June 2017. 2017, p. 9.

  5. 5.

    Michael A. Ashcroft, The Lost Majority. Biteback, 2017, p. 43.

  6. 6.

    From Ed Fieldhouse and Chris Prosser, ‘The Brexit Election? The 2017 General Election in Ten Charts’, British Election Study, 1 August 2017,

  7. 7.

    See Mark Pack, ‘Turn over, Tune out and Log off: The Irrelevance of Campaigns’, in Philip Cowley and Robert Ford (eds), More Sex Lies and the Ballot Box. Biteback, 2017. One exception which Pack notes is 2015, but that is because—as we later discovered—the polls had been wrong all along rather than because of any campaign effect.

  8. 8.

    Christopher Prosser, ‘The Strange Death of Multi-party Britain: The UK General Election of 2017’, West European Politics, 39 (2018): 1–12.

  9. 9.

    For example, of the five Lib Dem policies that YouGov tested, for example, only one (increasing the basic rate of income tax by 1% to spend on social care and the NHS) polled above 50%. See Matthew Smith, ‘How Popular are the Parties’ Manifesto Promises?’, YouGov, 22 May 2017,

  10. 10.

    Curtice and Simpson, Why Turnout Increased, p. 7. For all the discussion of how radical Labour’s manifesto was, it was striking that this figure is still lower than in the elections between 1979 and 1992. In 1983, a full 88% thought that there was a great deal of difference between the parties.

  11. 11.

    The manifesto was left noting that what it called a ‘fairer’ system of funding introduced under the Coalition had led to the ‘highest university application rates ever, including from disadvantaged students’.

  12. 12.

    Ashcroft, The Lost Majority, p. 61.

  13. 13.

    ‘STV Election Poll: SNP to Hold 50 Seats amid Tory Gains’, STV News, 31 May 2017,

  14. 14.

    Chris Curtis and Matthew Smith, ‘How Did 2015 Voters Cast Their Ballots in the 2017 General Election?’, YouGov, 22 June 2017,

  15. 15.

    John Curtice, ‘The Three Characteristics of the Scottish Conservative Revival’, What Scotland Thinks, 1 October 2017,

  16. 16.

    Despite the rise in the vote shares, the level of attachment to the two main parties remained roughly stable between 2015 and 2017; indeed, the percentage of the population with no attachment at all rose. See Jonathan Mellon, Geoffrey Evans, Edward Fieldhouse, Jane Green and Christopher Prosser, ‘Brexit or Corbyn? Campaign and Inter-election Vote Switching in the 2017 UK General Election’, 17 November 2017,

  17. 17.

    However, see Jonathan Mellon, Geoffrey Evans, Edward Fieldhouse, Jane Green and Christopher Prosser, ‘Opening the Can of Worms: Most Existing Studies of Aggregate-Level Turnout are Meaningless’, 8 January 2018, Their research argues that measured against the number of eligible voters, as opposed to the electoral roll, the turnout was actually in the range of 76–80%.

  18. 18.

    Ikran Dahir, ‘We Don’t Actually Know How Many Young People Voted in the General Election Yet’, BuzzFeed News, 9 June 2017,

  19. 19.

    There is a problem with comparability of some of these studies, as some use turnout as a percentage of registered voters, whilst others (including the BES) use eligible voters.

  20. 20.

    See Christopher Prosser, Edward Fieldhouse, Jane Green, Jonathan Mellon and Geoffrey Evans, ‘Tremors But No Youthquake: Measuring Changes in the Age and Turnout Gradients at the 2015 and 2017 British General Elections’, 6 February 2018,

  21. 21.

    The paper setting out this conclusion also contained an excellent illustration of the problems of using aggregate-level data, noting that whilst there was an apparent link between the types of seats which saw large rises in turnout and those which contain larger number of young people, there was also an even larger relationship between the number those aged under four in a constituency and the rise in turnout—yet no one would talk about a ‘toddlerquake’.

  22. 22.

    Curtice and Simpson, Why Turnout Increased.

  23. 23.

    See, for example, the articles by Peter Kellner (‘The British Election Study Claims There Was No “Youthquake” Last June. It’s Wrong’, Prospect Magazine, 30 January 2018, and Marianne Stewart et al. (‘Yes, There was a “Youthquake” in the 2017 Snap Election—and it Mattered’, New Statesman, 5 February 2018,

  24. 24.

    See ‘Youthquake—a Reply to Our Critics’, British Election Study, 12 February 2018,

  25. 25.

    For one example amongst many, see the work of the Resolution Foundation’s Intergenerational Commission, which showed that whereas the average household incomes of households aged 25–44 were still below pre-2008 levels, the incomes of pensioner household had increased.

  26. 26.

    Chris Curtis, ‘How Britain Voted at the 2017 General Election’, YouGov,

  27. 27.

    Gideon Skinner, ‘How Britain Voted in the 2017 Election’, Ipsos MORI, 2017,

  28. 28.

    Skinner, ‘How Britain Voted’; Ashcroft, The Lost Majority has a smaller lead, but a similar swing. In addition, Appendix 1 reports that where the Conservatives stood a BAME candidate, the party under-performed by 4.7%, but that Labour outperformed where it fielded such candidates in seats with a large ethnic population.

  29. 29.

    In 1987, there was no constituency with at least 30% or more BAME voters; by 2022, it is estimated there will be 120 such seats. Andrew Cooper, ‘On Diversity, Conservatives are Losing the Generation Game’, in Steve Ballinger (ed.), Many Rivers Crossed. British Future, 2018, p. 47.

  30. 30.

    A poll for the TUC found Labour won 63% of those who had not voted in 2015, while the Conservatives won just 27%. See ‘2017 TUC Post-election Poll’, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, June 2017.

  31. 31.

    See Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker, ‘The Bifurcation of Politics; The Two Englands’, Political Quarterly, 87 (2016); 372–382; and Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker, ‘Tilting towards the Cosmopolitan Axis? Political Change in England and the 2017 General Election’, Political Quarterly, 88 (2017): 359–69. See also Geoffrey Evans and Anand Menon, Brexit and British Politics. Polity, 2017.

  32. 32.

    Ashcroft, The Lost Majority, pp. 74–76.

  33. 33.

    See British Social Attitudes 34 (2017),

  34. 34.

    Lord Ashcroft, ‘How Did This Result Happen? My Post-vote Survey’, Lord Ashcroft Polls, 9 June 2017,

  35. 35.


  36. 36.

    Ashcroft, The Lost Majority, pp. 58–60.

  37. 37.

    Ibid., pp. 48–50.

  38. 38.

    See Mellon et al., ‘Brexit or Corbyn?’ Moreover, other periods of high levels of switching took place when the parties were close together; what was remarkable about 2017 was that this occurred when the parties were perceived to be relatively far apart ideology.

  39. 39.

    Peter Kellner, ‘Why Did So Many Voters Switch Parties between 2015 and 2017?’, New Statesman, 29 September 2017.

  40. 40.

    Ashcroft, The Lost Majority, p. 60.

  41. 41.

    John Curtice, ‘Labour’s Strategy Delivered—Up to a Point’, The Times, 9 June 2017. See also his blog post, ‘Why Did Brexit Not Work for the Conservatives?’, 24 October 2017,; and Ashcroft, The Lost Majority, p. 63.

  42. 42.

    Interview with Emma Barnett, Radio 5 Live, 13 July 2017.

  43. 43.

    Tim Shipman, ‘I Look Stupid, Not Strong and Stable, May Said’, Sunday Times, 11 June 2017; and Henry Zeffman and Sam Coates, ‘May Wanted to Drop Hated “Strong and Stable” Slogan’, The Times, 12 June 2017.

  44. 44.

    Interview with Emma Barnett, Radio 5 Live, 13 July 2017.

  45. 45.

    For the polling consultants’ claims that they were ignored and that the manifesto was damaging, see Joe Murphy, ‘Revealed: How Theresa May’s Two Aides Seized Control of the Tory Campaign to Calamitous Effect’, Evening Standard, 16 June 2017.

  46. 46.

    Nick Timothy, ‘Where We Went Wrong’, The Spectator, 17 June 2017; and his interview with the Daily Telegraph, 5 August 2017.

  47. 47.

    Tim Bale and Paul Webb, ‘“We Didn’t See it Coming”: The Conservatives’, in Jonathan Tonge, Cristina Leston-Bandeira and Stuart Wilks-Heeg (eds), Britain Votes 2017. Oxford University Press, 2018.

  48. 48.

    See also Rachel Sylvester, ‘Attacks on Corbyn Do the Tories No Favours’, The Times, 30 May 2017.

  49. 49.

    Ashcroft, The Lost Majority, p. 43.

  50. 50.

    This was said in an interview carried out with Thatcher, then Leader of the Opposition, 9 August 1978, as part of the preparation for David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh’s The British General Election of 1979. Macmillan, 1979.

  51. 51.

    Christopher Knaus, ‘Tory Pollster Lynton Crosby Says Theresa May Right to Call Early Election’, The Guardian, 11 July 2017.

  52. 52.

    ‘Conservative MPs Do Not Believe That May Can Lead Them into the Next Election. Nor, Reluctantly, Do We’, 11 June 2017,

  53. 53.

    ‘Theresa May: ‘We’ve got to make the case for free markets all over again. That message has been lost’’ (interview with Lord Howard), The House Magazine, 28 September 2017.

  54. 54.

    Timothy, ‘Where We Went Wrong’.

  55. 55.

    Crace had coined the phrase in November 2016, six months before the election. See John Crace, ‘Theresa Struggles to Take Back Control—from Her Own Maybot’, The Guardian, 8 November 2016,

  56. 56.

    There are different claims about the precise words used (such as ‘I’m the person who got us into this mess, and I’m the one who will get us out of it’), but no disagreement about the sentiment.

  57. 57.

    Mellon et al., ‘Brexit or Corbyn?’

  58. 58.

    Ashcroft, The Lost Majority, p. 51.

  59. 59.

    Heather Stewart, ‘Emily Thornberry Accuses Chuka Umunna of Virtue Signalling on EU Vote’, The Guardian, 30 June 2017,

  60. 60.

    Alex Nunns, The Candidate. OR Books, 2017, p. 317; and Eunice Goes, ‘“Jez, We Can!” Labour’s Campaign. Defeat with a Taste of Victory’, in Tonge, Leston-Bandeira and Wilks-Heeg (eds), Britain Votes 2017, p. 65.

  61. 61.

    Ashcroft, The Lost Majority, p. xiii. Neither piece of research quite demolishes the idea that some Labour voters were doing so safe in the belief that Corbyn could not become Prime Minister. The BES asked about whether voters expected a Labour majority, but a Labour majority was never on the cards; the Ashcroft survey found Labour voters happiest with the outcome, but since Labour-Not-Corbyn voters wanted to vote Labour and yet not get Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister, and since this was exactly the outcome they ended up with, why would we expect them not to be happy?

  62. 62.

    This evidence too is inconclusive; post-election surveys are prone to people rationalising their behaviour in ways that were not necessarily true at the time. Plus, asking whether someone is ‘more’ likely to do something is fairly imprecise. Of the 24%, half said they were ‘much’ more likely to vote Labour because they thought Labour had no chance of forming the government, whereas half were ‘somewhat’ more likely, but even this does not tell us what proportions might not have voted Labour under different circumstances.

  63. 63.

    Charlie Cadywould, Labour’s Campaign Comeback. Policy Network, 2018.

  64. 64.

    See Paula Surridge, ‘Marginal Gains’, in Mark Perryman (ed.), The Corbyn Effect. Lawrence & Wishart, 2017, p. 250.

  65. 65.

    Alan Renwick, ‘The Performance of the Electoral System’, Election Analysis,

  66. 66.

    Rod McInnes, ‘General Election 2017: Turning Votes into Seats’, 11 July 2017,

  67. 67.

    Jess Garland and Chris Terry, The 2017 General Election: Volatile Voting and Random Results. Electoral Reform Society, 2017, p. 34.

  68. 68.

    Philip Norton, ‘The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act and Votes of Confidence’, Parliamentary Affairs, 69(1) (2016): 3–18; and James Strong, ‘Confidence and Caretakers: Some Less-Obvious Implications of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act’, Political Quarterly, 2018 (Early View).

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Cowley, P., Kavanagh, D. (2018). The Election in Retrospect. In: The British General Election of 2017. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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