Politics is a complex business, people say things, other people react to those things (often not in the way you’d expect a sane person to react) news outlets report these words and actions (usually in a way that happily coincides with the story they’ve been telling for years) and, somewhere down the line, millions of people draw little crosses and we all get to hate new people for 5 years.
Spreadsheets are often considered complex by those who are all too happy to publicly demonstrate their political ignorance, but are really much simpler. With a spreadsheet and your wits you can make data do what you want, it never throws a curve ball of pig’s head being bigger news than the rewriting of our human rights or the number of people below the poverty line.
Thanks to the nice people at the Electoral Commission you can combine politics and spreadsheets, because they let you download the voting data from general elections – for every constituency, for every candidate, you can see how many people voted for them (and how many people could have voted but didn’t).
With that data we can re-run the last election and assume everybody voted just the way they did last time!
Amazingly nothing changes – the Conservatives end up with a small but definite majority in the Commons and Labour fall 98 seats short of them.
Since the election though something has changed. Labour have elected Jeremy Corbyn as leader, with an unprecedented mandate to take the party to the left. The hope is that in 2020 his anti-austerity, socialist politics can take on and defeat the Tories. A gap of 98 seats is a lot to make up, so let’s start small…
To win one seat, specifically Gower in Wales, Corbyn needs 27 votes. That seems achievable. He could go there himself, talk nicely to people, promise he won’t have the royal family shot, offer them a lift to the polling station and so on. With his 27 new friends, and nothing else changing, Conservative and Labour would tie, in which case…I don’t know, perhaps they arm-wrestle or something (I did say politics was complex).
Unfortunately for Jeremy to win two seats he doesn’t just have to convince 54 people, he’s got to convince 68, but that’s still doable, even if the new 41 potential voters are across in Derby.
Then for the third seat he has to lay the charm offensive on another 165, and has to go to Croydon to do it.
By the time he’s won 10 seats he’s across in Cheshire and has given 4,411 people a lift and his personal assurance that the Queen’s life isn’t in danger.
You’re thinking that does sound so bad, but the next 10 seats mean coaxing an additional 20,820 voters into putting their cross next to Labour on the ballot paper, and even if the party buys Corbyn a minibus that’s still a lot of trips. Plus this is working with a static model. Nothing else is changing and we’re magicking these voters out of thin air.
Corbyn’s supporters say that he’s not going to compromise his principles to win over voters from UKIP and the Conservatives, and that his new brand of politics will tempt back those who abandoned the Labour party because it had become too centrist. In real terms this means there are exactly four groups of voters of any size from this year that Labour can now draw upon for electoral success:
- Those who voted Lib Dem
- Those who voted Green
- Those who voted SNP
- Those who didn’t bother voting at all in
From that list we can cross the SNP off straight away. The party is tied to the cause of Scottish Independence, and those who support that cause feel that Labour betrayed them. So three groups, then (I didn’t even need my spreadsheet to work that out).
The Lib Dems and the Greens between them total around 3.5m voters, so attracting them certainly seems easier than bombing round the country in a minibus and, thanks to the magic of spreadsheets, I can give some of them to Labour.
How many, though? Politically the Greens have a lot in common with JC, the Lib Dems not so much (and the Lib Dems are the larger block of voters, 2.4m to the Green’s 1.1m). Let’s be kind and say, across the board, one-quarter of all voters for these parties switch to Labour. This is a generous, and unlikely gift, but swelled by 900,000 new voters Labour would…
…take 7 new seats, and still be 86 seats behind the Conservatives.
How can this be, when just a few paragraphs ago I said that 4,411 people gave Labour 10 new seat? Well, inconveniently, the Green and Lib Dem voters don’t live in the right place. Take Clwyd, where Labour were only 237 votes from taking the seat in May; a quarter of the Lib Dem votes there yields a disappointing 229 people and the Greens didn’t field a candidate.
We need to also consider that Labour voters aren’t universally behind Mr Corbyn. Certainly a lot are happy to see the return of traditional Labour policies, but some also believe that centrist policies are the way to electoral victory, or just the way to run a country. Maybe they worry a little when nice Mr Cameron tells them that Labour are going to borrow their way into economic ruin, that we’ll be back to the Winter of Discontent and all of the other stuff he says.
The Telegraph trumpets that 37% of Labour voters won’t vote for Corbyn, but then that’s the sort of thing The Telegraph likes to say. Polls show Labour support holding fairly steady, but as the vote-share of the Lib Dems and especially the Greens is down that’s likely to be those disenfranchised ex-Labour supporters returning to the fold and back-filling those who are leaving. It would be reasonable to expect that to step up as a general election looms and people feel it’s a straight up-and-down choice between Corbyn or 5 more Tory years.
Let’s be generous again and say that, across the board 6% fewer people vote Labour than did in May, but leave the 25% of Lib Dems and Greens still moving behind Corbyn.
If 6% of May’s Labour voters (about 500,000 people) for 25% from those other parties (900,000 people) sounds like a good deal the numbers show that, compared to May, Labour would take 3 new seats…and lose 4, making them a nice round 100 seats behind the Conservatives in the Commons.
Bugger. That isn’t good for Corbyn, is it?
Wait! We haven’t factored in the non-voters. They weren’t just idle or uninterested in May, they felt disillusioned with politics and disengaged from it. A new broom could sweep them out of their houses and into the polling stations, determined to be citizens of a Labour-led country. Gawd Bless ’em. How many of them to we need to make Corbyn Prime Minister?
For an absolute Labour majority we need a whisker shy of 37% of them, or 5,761,000-ish people.across the country.
Perhaps two minibuses will be required.
Let’s lower our sights a bit. The SNP have a big block of seats in the house and claim to be anti-austerity and progressive. How many former non-voters would we have to coax out to form a majority coalition government with them?
Ah, that’s much better – now we only need 20% of the non-voters to (a) turn out and (b) vote Labour. That’s 3.1m people, so we’re probably still going to need that 2nd minibus, but it’s 2.6 million people fewer to be awoken from their political slumber.
Amusingly, depending on how far Tories get with EVEL reform in this parliament, those 3.1 million votes could lead to the unusual situation where a Labour/SNP coalition is in power, but Labour number 25 fewer English MPs than the Conservatives, making them unable to get through legislation affecting only England.
It would be a cruel irony if, against massive odds, left-wing Labour drew in over 3 million non-voters (the defining feature of whom is that they don’t vote) only to then be unable to run the country for them.
What I haven’t done in all of this is consider how the Conservative vote might change. The EU referendum next year should cut UKIP’s legs out from under them, securing the Tory’s right flank. Then there’s Osborne’s budget; the parts of that about raising minimum wage and chasing corporate and non-dom tax avoiders were him setting up his pitch for what, at the time, he probably expected to be a battle for the political centre-ground against Burnham or Cooper. How delighted he must have been to discover he wasn’t going to have to fight for that space at all, just shoo off the Lib Dem party, who really would fit in a mini-bus.
So Labour’s best hope is that between now and 2020 the SNP run Scotland so badly that the nationalists return to Labour and, simultaneously there’s a huge crash that Osborne can’t blame on Labour and which ruins the Conservative’s economic credibility. If those things happen then Jeremy Corbyn can take his place as head of a shattered, divided and ruined country and, by god, he’d better know a man who can work a spreadsheet.