Welcome back to the tracker, old friends and new! I've teamed up with fellow Professors Harold Clarke, Marianne Stewart and Paul Whiteley to break down the key trends, numbers and events. Suffice to say there is going to be a lot to discuss!
In the coming weeks and months we will look mainly at Britain's Brexit debate and the looming 'Brexit election'. This election, which will be Britain's fifth nationwide contest in only four years, looks set to be one of the most consequential in the entire postwar era. It will determine not just who governs but could also decide what type of Brexit will emerge, whether Britain will hold a second referendum, whether Brexit will even happen at all and whether the country will see the arrival of the most radical left-wing government in its entire history. The stakes could not be higher for all involved.
First, the polls. As you can see in the chart above, Britain's party system is experiencing profound change. This used to be one of the world's most stable two-party systems. But ever since Britain failed to leave the European Union earlier this year it has imploded into a four-horse race.
Amid the fallout from Brexit, the two main parties -the Conservatives and Labour- find themselves under pressure from the resurgent Liberal Democrats and also Nigel Farage and the populist Brexit Party. One irony of Britain's Brexit moment is that ever since a majority of people voted to leave the EU the country's politics have looked more European. Fragmentation, populism and volatility are the specials of the day.
Our poll trend analysis is based on 157 polls that were conducted between November 4 2018 and September 17 2019. The Conservatives are currently 9 points ahead of Labour, although this is also 10 points down on what the party won in 2017.
There has been much criticism of Boris Johnson but it should also be noted that of the past forty opinion polls Labour has only held a lead in one (and even this was not outside the margin of error). There might be widespread calls for Prime Minister Johnson to resign but both his leadership ratings and the Conservative Party's average level of support have increased in recent weeks, even if his honeymoon has now stalled.
Remarkably, the two big parties combined are now only attracting 57% of the vote. They have shed more than twenty points since the election only two years ago. Brexit is part of the puzzle but it is not the only part. What is happening in Britain also reflects wider winds that are sweeping through many political systems where older mainstream parties are under pressure and new challengers are enjoying unprecedented gains.
The surge of the Liberal Democrats, who have pledged to revoke Article 50, is striking. This reflects the party's strengthened relationship with Remainers. According to YouGov polls, in early 2017 the Liberal Democrats were only attracting 17% of Remainers. Today, they are attracting 41%. And worryingly for the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, Jo Swinson and her Lib Dem movement are making serious inroads into Labour's 2017 electorate. One in four people who voted Labour at the election in 2017 are now planning to vote for the Liberal Democrats.
At the other end of the political spectrum, meanwhile, Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party, remain a significant force. While their offer of an electoral pact was rejected by the Conservative Party, on 12% of the vote Farage and his party still have more than enough support to cost Johnson seats and bring him problems in the all-important marginal constituencies.
Nigel Farage -who has made no secret of the fact that he distrusts Boris Johnson and his advisor Dominic Cummings- is attracting more than one in four Leavers, although his grip over these voters has weakened. Back in June, 56% of Leavers and 45% of 2017 Conservative voters sided with Farage. Today, those numbers are 29% and 16% respectively. If these pro-Brexit voters continue to drift back to Johnson and the Conservatives then their task of winning a working or even commanding majority becomes much easier.
So, what does all of this mean for an election? Based on a fairly simple but indicative swing-based model*, the polling numbers above would leave Conservatives with 323 seats, Labour 222, the Scottish National Party 48, Liberal Democrats 32, Plaid Cymru 4, Greens 2 and Brexit Party 1.
This would leave Boris Johnson and the Conservatives the largest party but with another minority government. Rather than break the parliamentary gridlock such an election would likely see it continue. Obviously, though, a lot could change during the campaign.
One thing that could change, for example, is if Boris Johnson and his party were to continue to eat into Nigel Farage's Brexit Party electorate. If Johnson captures at least half of these voters then we estimate that the Conservatives would win 365 seats -a comfortable majority. Labour would be left with only 191 seats -their lowest since 1935. For Conservatives, this underlines the critical importance of cannibalising Farage's vote.
Estimates of what might happen in specific seats should always be taken with a pinch of salt. Our model suggests that under our headline scenario above the Conservatives might capture Labour seats like Ashfield, Barrow and Furness, Battersea, Bedford, Bishop Auckland, Lincoln and Canterbury while losing the likes of Cheadle, Cheltenham, Hazel Grove, Lewes, Richmond Park and St Albans to the Liberal Democrats. If Farage wants to finally enter the House of Commons then he should probably stand in Thurrock. The SNP, meanwhile, look set to have a good showing north of the border, scooping up eight Conservative seats, a handful from Labour and losing one to the Lib Dems. But, as we say, unless there is a clearer shift in the polls then Boris Johnson is still not sitting safely in majority waters.
Yesterday's decision by the Supreme Court that the suspension of Parliament was unconstitutional has put the cat among the pigeons, and makes the Prime Minister’s job of managing the Brexit process harder. So for the moment the turmoil continues. And we shall be here to crunch the numbers as it unfolds ...
Technical Note *We estimate votes to seats through a simple but indicative swing-based model. We estimate trends in vote intentions (using Hodrick-Prescott filter) and then compare the most recent vote intention figures with what each party received at the 2017 election. Differences in the percentages are applied to the vote shares each party received in each constituency in Britain. The party with the largest resulting adjusted percentage is the expected winner in a seat.