One of the perils of punditry of any sort is that there are hugely powerful incentives towards being dramatic, and very little downside for being wrong. Dramatic predictions grab the media’s interest, the approval of social media algorithms and the audience’s emotions. All of which give the predictor they payoffs long before anyone gets round to being able to tell whether or not their predictions are right.
It’s why research into the accuracy of pundits shows that what makes for a successful pundit is at odds with what makes for a successful predictor. Caution, doubt and self-questioning are the hallmarks of the successful predictor. They’re not the hallmark of political pundits.
Which is why also I’m reluctant to be too dramatic, but the graph below is really quite something. It shows the combined vote share for Labour and Conservatives in the general election voting intention opinion polls and at the general elections since the 1983 contest.
Just look at that dramatic dive we’re living through at the moment. It is way off the scale compared with anything seen in the last thirty-five years.
What’s more, there are good reasons to think this is about more than just a blip.
One is that whatever happens, Brexit isn’t going to disappear as an issue any time soon. Whatever route the country ends up taking, it’s going to be a live issue for a long time. Even if there is a People’s Vote and a decisive vote to Remain, there will still be long and bitter memories from Brexiters about how they were let down by Theresa May and the Conservatives. And if Brexit goes ahead, we have years and years of further talks and negotiations to come. The point we are currently stalled at, remember, was meant to be the quicker, easier stage.
Suez, the Winter of Discontent, the Miners’ Strike, Britain’s intervention in Iraq… all influenced political choices for years after. Brexit is not going away any time soon.
Even when an issue itself is over quickly, the long-term political impact can be massive if that issue has altered a basic part of how a party is perceived. Britain’s tumble out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism (the ERM) in 1992 was exactly this. The issue itself was over pretty quickly and cleanly. It took once announcement and Britain was out and that was it. Britain was out. There were no years of new negotiations to hold. No sets of dozens of new international agreements required. Britain was just out and that was that. Save, that is, for the political impact. It destroyed the Conservative Party’s reputation for political competence for a generation – and indeed the Conservatives have still not won a comfortable overall majority at any general election since despite six opportunities to do so.
For the Conservatives, it’s a destruction of the idea they are competent (yes, people who voted Conservative did think that of them), magnified by the damage of having repeatedly said they would deliver Brexit and then failing to do so. The nuances of who in the Conservatives did what is beyond the public’s general interest in politics. What matters is the basic picture: a party repeatedly said for several years that its top policy was to do something – which it hasn’t done.
As for Labour, it’s a divorce in values between the life-long Euroscepticism of its leadership and the values of a huge part of its activists and voter base. (Many Labour held constituencies may have voted Leave, but it was Remain voters in them that elected those Labour MPs.)
It looks, rather, like we could well be on the verge of a major remarking of British politics.