When waking up on the 9th June, as well as looking ahead to my upcoming history exam, I found myself in shock at finding out that the 2017 General Election had led to a hung Parliament. I was not alone in this view, with political commentators and voters around the country also scratching their heads at the astonishing election result. It is fair to say that almost nobody expected the Labour Party to do so well and fully saw the Conservatives increasing their majority but, looking back, the hints at the result were certainly there.
A theme of recent politics has been the elite finding themselves on the wrong end of results against all odds and, although Corbyn is no Donald Trump, the 2017 election result has once again thrown almost all pollsters and political commentators. Such omniscient figures as Piers Morgan predicted a Conservative majority of 90 to 100 seats as late as 9pm on Thursday night and almost every recognised political expert scoffed at those who believed that the results would even be close, let alone a hung Parliament. The lesson we thought we learnt after the 2016 EU Referendum was that social media was not reliable measure of voting intention so even though my Twitter timeline was filled with pro-Labour propaganda, I was very sceptical over whether that would translate to election results.
However, I and everybody else was comprehensively proven wrong by Friday morning as Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour had constricted Theresa May’s Conservatives to just 318 seats. Far from increasing her majority to gain a strong mandate to negotiate Brexit, the Prime Minister’s disastrous campaign arguably did the opposite and demonstrated the electorate’s lack of confidence in Mrs May to lead the country in the forthcoming negotiations. Of course, it cannot be denied that the Conservatives are the largest party and an alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party will prop up the minority government so it is important to remember that Labour did not win the election, however much they outperformed their expectations. The fact that there was a hung Parliament may have seemed surprising to 90% of people, but such a result could have been predicted if people had faith in their social media platforms.
Traditionally, social media cannot be trusted as a measure of voter opinion, mainly because there are far more young people using Twitter and similar platforms than any other age group. As it is often possible to predict voting behaviour by the age of voters, the view given by social media is often very disproportionate to the result of elections. Younger voters tend to be more likely to vote for Labour which means that a majority of people on social media endorsing Labour does not mean that it is representative of public opinion. Not only is the majority of Twitter made up of young people who tend to be left leaning, but even those young people who express political views on social media cannot necessarily be counted on to get out and vote. Turnout for 18-24 year olds is traditionally the lowest out of any age group, making the views given on social media even less reliable for predicting results. In the 2015 General Election, 18-24 year olds had a turnout of just 43% so it is understandable that a similar turnout was expected in 2017, no matter how many young people expressed an intention to vote on social media. However, the youth shocked everybody by keeping to their word on social media with a 72% turnout.
The only established company who put their trust in young people were YouGov, who published a poll on 7th June – one day before the election – which predicted that there would be a hung Parliament with Labour getting just 4% less of the vote than the Conservatives. At the time, YouGov were ridiculed and many wondered if the pollsters would lose their credibility further after the disaster of the EU Referendum last year, but they ended up a lot closer than the majority of commentators. In the end, YouGov’s poll actually wasn’t as close as the result, as the gap ended up being just 2.4% of the vote rather than YouGov’s predicted 4% so they can feel very pleased with themselves that they managed to successfully predict how narrow the gap between the vote share would be. The poll ended up slightly too generous to the SNP, predicting them to win 44 seats when they only won 35, leading to predicting the Conservatives 302 seats compared to the 318 they actually won, but it is a very admirable effort by the pollsters. The question is, why didn’t the wider public trust the poll when it was published?
One might think that the recent inaccuracy of the polls might encourage the public to take counter intuitive polls more seriously, but once again the public found themselves surprised by the result. Is it possible that young people will finally consistently come out and vote to protect their futures rather than failing to turn out and then blaming the elderly for ‘deciding their futures for them’? Unfortunately I doubt that this will be the case, but it is certainly encouraging that the younger voters were more politically active during this election. Maybe the recent outcomes with Donald Trump and Brexit have convinced 18 to 24 year olds that they can no longer trust the previous generations to make decisions on their behalf and they will will start representing their views at the polling booths rather than solely on social media. Although I don’t think the young can be relied upon to turn out in every election and referendum, recent patterns could suggest that they can be motivated to vote by causes close to their hearts, as seen in the Scottish Independence Referendum and Corbyn’s promise to abolish tuition fees.
It would be wrong to say that social media is now a reliable means of predicting politics because Labour would have had a huge majority if that had been the case, but there is a strong argument to say that it needs to be taken more seriously than it has in the past. It can no longer be completely discounted, and could be seen as further evidence of anti-establishment politics in modern times. Not only are anti-establishment politicians such as Trump, Sanders and, to an extent, Corbyn becoming more electable, but maybe the established media is no longer the hotbed of political predictions. We will have to see if this pattern continues in future elections, but if it does it will be very interesting to see if this is evidence of yet more evolution to the political situation. Maybe in a decade or so we will not be surprised by these sorts of results and we will learn to judge the situation on social media along with the traditional polls and commentators’ predictions the way YouGov managed to this campaign. It is fairly likely that we will get another chance to see how voting behaviour and predictions will align just as soon as Brexit is dealt with, if not before.
The anticipation is already building…