Jeremy Corbyn UK labour election
(Image: EPA/Neil Hall)

On the eve of Britain’s third general election in five years, late indications are that the Conservatives have a nervous night ahead of them, after starting the campaign hot favourites for an elusive parliamentary majority.

While continuing to rate that the most likely outcome, the final reading of YouGov’s multi-level regression and post-stratification (MRP) model appears to confirm a late trend to Labour, leaving a hung parliament scenario well inside the margin of error.

The model is being taken particularly seriously, as its skeptically-received prediction in 2017 was entirely vindicated by the result — a particularly remarkable achievement in the UK, where pre-election polling has long struggled to prove its worth.

A similar prestige was enjoyed in the US before the 2016 election by Nate Silver and his ilk, whose poll aggregation methods likewise enjoyed a record of near pinpoint accuracy — right up until they didn’t.

Whatever methods a pollster employs, the great imponderable at this election is how the age distribution of the voting population will break down on polling day.

Such is the extraordinary imbalance that has developed between old and young voters that even a small miscalculation in turnout projections will cause a pollster’s reading of the situation to be badly askew.

The emergence of age as a powerful predictor of voting behaviour comes at a time when social class, which has long provided the British party system with its defining cleavage, has ceased to carry weight.

According to the YouGov MRP model, the Conservatives now hold a 44-37 lead over Labour among voters without post-school qualifications, whereas Labour leads 39-33 among those with a university degree.

The Conservatives are accordingly plotting a path to victory through pro-Brexit working class seats in northern England and Wales, potentially offering a counterpoint to Labour’s 2017 victories in the once blue-ribbon seats of Kensington and Canterbury at the other end of the country.

While the situation in Australia is in all respects less dramatic, this dynamic should sound familiar from our own election in May, at which the Liberals suffered large (albeit ultimately harmless) swings in wealthy capital city seats. Blue-collar voters in regional Queensland and northern Tasmania turned decisively the other way.

Puzzling though it may seem that affluent voters should turn to a party running an unusually bold redistributive agenda, the trend makes more sense when viewed through the lens of the age-effect.

Seats like North Sydney and Higgins, which delivered Labor some of their strongest swings, are distinguished not only by wealth, but also by large concentrations of voters in their 20s and 30s.

This point was reinforced by the release this week of the Australian National University’s regular post-election Australian Election Study survey, which produced a sting in the tail for the winning party by finding its support had fallen to an historic low among those aged 18 to 34.

Notably, the beneficiary was not Labor but the Greens, who are rather a better proxy for Corbynite sentiment in Australia than Labor.

The Greens were credited with an unprecedented 28% to 23% lead over the Liberals among this cohort, blowing out to 37% to 15% among those under 25 (with due caution in this case for a small sample size).

In Australia as elsewhere, though, the new young left has appeared impotent in the face of a rising populism for which support has been concentrated among baby boomers.

Minus the Australian peculiarity of compulsory voting, this could be readily explained in most overseas contexts by young voters dropping out of the political process altogether, while their more conservative parents and grandparents maintained lifelong habits of civic engagement and belief in the efficacy of the electoral process.

Jeremy Corbyn’s demonstrated capacity to energise young voters, together with an upsurge in pre-election enrolments, offers Labour a flicker of hope that things might be different this time.

Although a Labour win must still be reckoned a long shot, and a parliamentary majority all but out of the question, it would be a considerable understatement to say that election night in Britain has surprised before.

Should it do so again, the result may yet demonstrate that the evident demise of the west’s liberal consensus offers just as many opportunities for the left as the right.

Peter Fray

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