When I quit investment banking in search of daylight in 2014 I thought my life was going to be little easier crunching numbers for political campaigns. It wasn’t to be. Over the last few years, I’ve worked on the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, the 2015 general election, the Scottish Holyrood election in 2016, the EU referendum and the 2017 snap election. What I’ve never been able to wrap my head around through all these campaigns is why we’ve seen so many political upsets. Just why has the political consensus been wrong so often these past five years?
When I worked on the Remain campaign, the upending of the consensus – against my own expectations – was a painful experience. Working for Ruth Davidson and her team in Scotland, the surprise result felt exciting and heady. Some political commentators have blamed innumerate polling companies and politically deaf journalists for failing to spot these upsets. These attacks have always struck me as wide of the mark, mistaking causation with correlation.
On a plane last week I was struck by a scene which got me thinking about these political upsets. Bear with me. There were two groups of returning stag parties, each of about nine or ten people. The first group – let’s call them group A – had group booked all their seats together in three rows of three. They were riotously talking to each other throughout the whole flight, mostly oblivious to other passengers. The other stag group – group B – found themselves, due to inferior planning, split up from each other. This group found it hard to recount details of their weekend as random strangers sat awkwardly between them. So this less-organised gang ended up variously reading and nodding off; some of the group engaged in conversation with the strangers sitting next to them.
Sometimes it can be hard to switch off from the day job, and this got me thinking about the distribution of the Remain and Leave votes in the referendum. In a way, Remain and Leave voters are political versions of stag groups A and B. When you mathematically model down to postcode level the Leave and Remain vote in England and Wales, it becomes clear that a large number of local communities (comprising half-a-million voters in total) exist where almost the entire postcode voted 90 per cent upwards for Remain. What is fascinating is that there is no similar big pool of uniformly Leave streets or communities. The 53.3 per cent Leave vote is spread much more thinly across England and Wales, and the 46.7 per cent Remain vote is much more heavily concentrated in London, Bristol, Cardiff, Oxford and Cambridge.
This is not just a mathematical quirk. This unequal distribution of Remain and Leave voters tells us why the referendum was such an upset and shock to some. It tells us why Remainers were shocked, but Leavers less so. This pattern of asymmetric distribution explains why you get Remain voters who say that they don’t have any Leave friends, but you get far fewer Leave voters who say the same thing of Remainers.
Leave voters – like stag group B – are far more likely as a consequence of being widely distributed to engage with people with a different view to theirs. This explains why, in the aftermath of the referendum, the hot topic at metropolitan dinner tables would likely have been shock at Britain backing Brexit. This isn’t a personal failing on the part of those people though; it just comes down to maths and geography. The EU referendum was a perfect storm for faulty forecasting because the talking heads and political commentators most likely to pop up on television happened to be the people least likely to know, understand or have even engaged with a Leave voter. At the same time, they were being asked to forecast what was actually going on. What’s more, group-think – which also contributed to this sense of shock in the days and weeks after June 23rd 2016 – is a phenomena more likely to occur in metropolitan environments, than in rural ones. That’s as true for the UK as it is for the US and other western democracies. France’s president Macron shows urban-led movements can succeed, but the bar and hurdles for success are higher than for populist, or rural movements.
This distribution also sheds some light on why Leavers are more likely to be tolerant of people’s differing political beliefs than Remainers are – the tolerance comes from engagement and personal experience. This weird distribution also partly explains why Britain has seen a clutch of niche, progressive and ultimately losing causes emanate out of urban areas: electoral reform, the Greens and, most latterly, the Remain campaign. I’m not holding my breath for the future of the Independent Group.
This Brexit paradox – that two groups of almost equal size can have wildly different opinions about the others side’s point of view – is at the heart of our political confusion.
James Kanagasooriam helped run the data strategy for the Scottish Conservatives 2015-17. He now sits on the board of centre-right think tank Onward and is a management consultant at OC&C