Making social science accessible

07 Nov 2019

Politics and Society


When I arrived in parliament in 2015, as the newly elected Labour MP for Cambridge, I reflected on the need for tenacity in politics. As I said in my first speech, I had run for election in 1997, and then again in 2001, and then again in 2005. In 2006, I finally thought I had cracked it after being selected for a much more winnable seat, so tried again in 2010 – and came third.

I then finally achieved my goal in 2015, getting over the line by just 599 votes. I was the same person as in 2010, running for the same seat.

The conclusion: politics is volatile, very volatile.

On election day in 2015 in Cambridge I had probably over 500 people out helping me. A year later, on the day of the EU referendum, despite an excellent local cross-party effort, I wryly reflected that I was out alone on my bike.

The following morning, people wondered what would happen next. The most astute observation was that the only certainty was uncertainty, and since then – to borrow a Theresa May phrase from the 2017 election – ‘nothing has changed’.

British politics remains febrile and highly unpredictable.

Pundits and pollsters agree that we go into the 2019 election with probably the most volatile electorate ever – apparently between 2010 and 2019, 49% of people have changed the party they vote for.

And looking at Jo Swinson’s band of MPs doing their launch in Westminster recently, it was striking just how few of them had actually been elected as Liberal Democrats just two years ago – many have switched sides in the last year, defecting from Labour and the Conservatives.

So it isn’t just the electorate that is volatile.

In my seat in Cambridge, we are used to huge swings from election to election; I lost by 7,500 in 2010, won by that very tight 599 votes in 2015, and then won again by a whopping 12,600 in 2017.

How is 2019 shaping up? Polling commissioned by Lord Ashcroft in both 2015 and 2017 predicted wins for the Liberal Democrats in Cambridge. This time, polling commissioned by the Liberal Democrats puts them nine points ahead in my constituency.

That felt about right a few weeks ago, but we noticed a big shift back when Swinson broke the Remain ranks and pushed for an election. My sense is that that was a big moment – but as we’ve seen over recent days, weeks and months, the polls oscillate and lurch, and don’t stay stable for long.

More and more, voters are willing to switch.

In Cambridge, with our engaged electorate, I’ve spoken to voters – sometimes on the same day – who have told me they will cast their ballots differently in all three of this year’s elections: local, European and general.

This voter volatility, coupled with a fracturing global political rulebook, suggests that making any predictions at this stage is unwise.

On the doorsteps, a December election has also caused a stir. Many people resent having to go to the polls less than two weeks before Christmas, and aren’t thrilled with the prospect of opening their doors to canvassers in the dark, letting the heat out.

But as we get closer to polling day, my volunteers are already noticing shifts in the issues that concern voters – the NHS, energy bills, and funding for the public services that keep us safe throughout the winter.

I talk to voters in Cambridge every week, week in week out, and have been doing so for a decade so I’m attuned to changes in mood, tone, or even look.

My partner uses a near neighbour as a barometer: they regularly cross paths going over the Jesus lock bridge, and back in 2017 the smiles were new and genuine; they persisted until June this year, when they were replaced by a slightly guilty look over the shoulder.

During the prorogue debacle, eye contact returned, and just this week she wished us luck! And that pretty much mirrors my experience – Labour support held up well in council elections in May, plummeted in the European elections, and has begun to return during the Johnson premiership.

It strengthened particularly with outrage at the proroguing, waned slightly again, and then strengthened again as the Liberal Democrats opened the door to Johnson and conceded the Christmas election.

Such twists and turns are likely to continue through the campaign – that is the joy of politics and election campaigns.

Only time will tell whether in a few weeks our neighbour will once again be hurrying past, or dropping in a congratulations card. She will be getting a Christmas card from me whatever the outcome!

By Daniel Zeichner, Labour Party candidate for Cambridge.

This piece is part of a series of blogs by political party candidates in the upcoming general election. 


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