Should Rishi Sunak even care? What we know about how election campaigns influence the pacemaker


Sunak surprised everyone by calling the election earlier than expected. (File photo: @RishiSunak/X)

Polls have shown Labour to have had a comfortable lead over the Conservatives for over a year. As the election campaign gathers momentum, a key question is whether Rishi Sunak can do anything to turn things around in the next few weeks. After one of his own ministers reportedly went on holiday rather than attend the first days of campaigning on the ground, some members of his team appear to have already given up.

In fact, there was great scepticism among political scientists when the first nationwide surveys of voting behavior were carried out in Great Britain in the 1960s. They were not sure whether the relatively short British election campaigns would have any influence at all on the results.

The argument was that by the time the campaign officially started, it was too late to have a significant impact on the outcome. With only 25 working days to appeal to voters, there was a widespread feeling that a party's victory or defeat was already a foregone conclusion when the campaign began.

But polling has helped to change that view. There is now plenty of evidence to suggest that a lot can change during the election campaign itself, as parties set out their policy positions, meet with the public and knock on doors. One way to show this is to observe the extent to which voting intentions change during a campaign.

The 2017 general election is an example of such a shift. A YouGov poll on 3 May – early in the campaign – showed that the Conservatives were planning to take 47% of the vote, Labour 28% and the Liberal Democrats 11%. When the votes were counted after the 8 June election, the Conservatives had won 43%, Labour 40% and the Liberal Democrats 7%. So there was clearly a lot of movement during the campaign.

The then Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May inherited a comfortable parliamentary majority but then delivered one of the worst election performances ever. She had little to say on Brexit, the most important issue of the day, and surprised everyone, including her own ministers, with a welfare policy that was so poorly communicated that she had to reverse course during the election campaign while claiming she had not implemented it.

Can the tide turn in 25 days?

To get an idea of ​​how important campaigns are in general elections, we need to look at them over a longer period of time. The graph below shows the relationship between Labour voting intentions at the start of each campaign and the party's share of the vote in the subsequent election. It covers all 21 campaigns since the end of the Second World War.

How Labour’s voting intentions are changing during the election campaign

A chart showing how some elections since 1945 have been influenced by the campaign trail and others have not.A chart showing how some elections since 1945 have been influenced by the campaign trail and others have not.

Labour at the beginning and end of the official election campaign, 1945–2019. P. WhiteleyCC BY

The summary line points upwards, indicating that if Labour does well on voting intention, it will also do well in the election itself, which is not surprising. The correlation between the two is quite strong (+0.73), meaning that much of the voter support for the party already exists before the campaign begins. The summary line provides a measure of pre-campaign support that has nothing to do with what happens in the month or so of the campaign.

The 1959 election stands out in the graph because it lies exactly on the summary line, meaning that the campaign that year had little or no influence on the outcome. The result, a third consecutive victory for the Conservatives, was fully predicted by pre-campaign support.

In other words, deviations from the summary provide information about whether the campaign was a success or a failure.

If an election appears below the summary line, it means that the Labour Party did much worse than predicted, meaning their campaign failed. This happened in 1983, when Labour had an unpopular leader, Michael Foot, and was challenged by both Margaret Thatcher, who was in power at the time, and the newly created Alliance between the Liberals and the Social Democratic Party, a splinter group of the Labour Party formed in 1981.

When an election result is above this line, it means that the outcome for Labour has been much better than predicted. This was the case in 1951, when Labour received almost 49 per cent of the vote, its highest share of the vote in the entire post-war period. When the election was called, polls had suggested that Labour would receive 44 per cent of the vote.

This election was particularly interesting because, although Labour won more votes than the Conservatives, it lost the election because it ended up with fewer seats. The post-war Labour government had many successes, and the loss of seats in the 1950 general election mobilised support for the party in the 1951 election. However, this support was so geographically concentrated that the Conservatives had the upper hand, leaving Labour in opposition.

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If the 2024 election campaign is unsuccessful, the Conservatives can expect to receive 23 percent of the vote, while Labour will receive 43 percent. This was the result of the poll of all polls on May 25, a few days before the dissolution of Parliament to start the election campaign.

At the moment, however, it looks like the Conservatives could do even worse, if the early signs of the election campaign are any indication. They have had a bad start: Sunak's election announcement was drowned out by rain and protesters, and his first policy proposal, the introduction of national service for 18-year-olds, was derided as “crazy” by former military leaders.

If the Conservatives' election failures continue, they could end up underperforming their own target. Sunak surprised everyone by calling the election earlier than expected. Could this be because he has basically given up and wants to return to Silicon Valley as soon as possible?The conversationThe conversation

Paul Whiteley, Professor, Department of Government, University of Essex

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