So, here we go again. If the framers of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act expected a regular tread of five-yearly May General Elections marching steadily into the future, they have been sorely disappointed. Only eight years on, and this is the third General Election since FTPA came into force.
In most election campaigns, the main weather-related hazards campaigners have to contend with are sunburn and the occasional soaking from an April shower. This time, however, there is the distinct possibility of frostbite, as the days grow shorter and the weather turns colder. This is the first General Election since 1974 not to be held during British Summer Time, and the first to take place in December since 1923, when the electoral landscape in Cambridge was rather different from today. For most of the 1920s, the city’s MP was Conservative George Newton, who was first elected in a by-election in 1922. He went on to defend his seat no fewer than five times over the following decade, with comfortable majorities each time:
His final and most emphatic victory was in 1931, aided by the lack of a Liberal candidate; Labour was represented by noted pacifist Dr Alex Wood, after whom the Cambridge Labour headquarters, Alex Wood Hall, is named.
In more recent times the pattern of Cambridge elections has been very different. It is now over 32 years since the city has elected a Conservative MP, the amiable and distinctly un-Thatcherite Robert Rhodes James, who topped the poll in 1987. Here is how Cambridge has voted since then (“Lib Dem” includes predecessor parties):
As you can see from the graph, it has been a pretty gloomy story for Cambridge Conservatives in recent decades, with Nick Hillman’s surprise second place in 2010 the only exception to the trend. Both Labour and the Lib Dems have experienced considerable ups and downs, with Labour twice winning the seat from 3rd place, in 1992 and 2015. Meanwhile the Greens have struggled to make much impact, despite periods of determined campaigning, and Cambridge has never been fertile territory for UKIP, who didn’t even nominate a candidate at the 2017 General Election.
After topping the poll in 2005 and 2010, the 2015 election was particularly disappointing for the Cambridge Lib Dems. As well as their party suffering a catastrophic national meltdown following five years of coalition, their sitting MP Julian Huppert lost his Cambridge seat to Labour’s Daniel Zeichner by just 599 votes, after a closely-fought campaign. Things didn’t get any better for Julian in 2017, with Daniel increasing his majority to a much more comfortable 12,661, the largest for a Cambridge MP since Labour’s glory days of 1997. Here’s the full 2017 result:
What, then, can we expect in 2019? Does Daniel’s majority give him enough of a cushion to hold on in Cambridge? There are several indications that things could be a good deal closer this time. For example, earlier this year Cambridge saw a rather different voting pattern in the European elections:
Compared to their triumphant 2017 General Election result, this was a truly terrible showing for Labour. It can’t have been much fun on the doorstep for their activists, who were clearly finding that Labour’s (to put it politely) nuanced position on Brexit was going down badly with the voters, compared to the rather less nuanced Stop Brexit policy of the Lib Dems. I’m not sure when Labour last came fourth in a Cambridge-wide election, but it was certainly a very long time ago. However, if history tells us one thing about EU elections, it is that they are not very good predictors of voting patterns at the next General Election. For example, in 2004, Michael Howard’s Conservatives topped the poll across the UK in the EU elections, but went on to lose the General Election the following year. In the 2014 EU elections, UKIP came first, but at the following year’s General Election they won a grand total of one seat in the Commons. All the same, it can’t exactly be cheering for Labour to know that 88.6% of Cambridge voters supported other parties just a few months before the General Election.
What do local election results tell us about how the political tides are shifting in the city in recent years? Here are the local election vote shares in the Cambridge constituency since 2015:
Labour have managed to stay ahead of the Lib Dems throughout this period, with the Greens and Conservatives battling for a fairly distant third place. The main thing this graph tells us, though, is that local elections don’t follow the pattern of General Election results very closely – the locals were actually closer in 2017, when Labour won the General Election in Cambridge with a huge majority, than they were in 2015, when Daniel Zeichner edged out Julian Huppert by barely 1% of the vote.
As well as recent elections, we also have a Cambridge opinion poll from Survation. This was conducted in mid-October, and although it was commissioned by the Lib Dems, it seems to have asked a straightforward voter preference question, naming the candidates, without any “softening up” from previous questions or asking about hypothetical situations. Here’s what it found:
The sample size was 417, giving a margin of error, Survation tells us, of 4.8%, a bit more than the 3% that is typical for national opinion polls. It must be said that this isn’t a completely ideal poll result from the Lib Dem point of view – a poll showing the Lib Dems narrowly behind Labour would be more effective as a tactical argument – but they will still be cheered by being out in front at this stage. They will remember, though, the 2015 Cambridge poll commissioned by Lord Ashcroft which gave the Lib Dems a 40%-29% lead over Labour, just a few weeks before Labour went on to gain the seat.
During the next few weeks, the parties will be doing all they can to influence the voters to support them on December 12th. Traditionally, General Election campaigns have two main components – the “air war”, national broadcast media, and the “ground war”, activists on the streets knocking on doors and delivering leaflets. Nowadays there is a third aspect, what I call the “secret war”, namely targeted social media advertising, though thanks to the Facebook Ad Library this isn’t quite as secret as it was. Labour can expect to benefit more than the Lib Dems from the air war, given their more prominent position nationally, and on the ground they have a large and well-organised Cambridge campaign organisation, though the Lib Dems are no slouches in this department either. My impression generally is that Labour do more door-knocking in Cambridge, but the Lib Dems deliver more leaflets. As to social media advertising, the signs are that the Lib Dems are more active locally so far, but this is still a relatively small part of the overall campaign.
Given all this data, then, what can we conclude? I think it’s pretty safe to say that either Labour’s Daniel Zeichner or Lib Dem Rod Cantrill will win the seat, and that the result will be closer than last time. Beyond that, it’s difficult to draw any very firm conclusions at this stage. The people who are out knocking on doors will have a better idea of how it’s going than I do, but you will be hard pressed to find any of them saying anything other than it’s all going marvellously well. For what it’s worth, my gut feeling at the moment is that Labour may do a bit better in Cambridge than some people are expecting, but my gut feeling has been wrong before. There is all to play for over the next few weeks.