In elections, we expect there to be a winner. At some point in the early hours of Friday 13th, we assume, either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn will hoarsely address a crowd of exhausted but exhilarated supporters, declaring victory and promising — depending on which of them wins — either to get Brexit done or to do in the bourgeoisie.
But what if it’s a draw? This may seem an absurd question, but I don’t think it is. A lot of things in life are draws. In the English Premier League last weekend, four out of 10 matches were draws. Last season’s frenzied Calcutta Cup game at Twickenham was a draw. Why are elections never draws?
This one could be. Yes, I know, according to the poll of polls, the Conservatives are 10 points ahead of Labour. Johnson may be a bluffer who can’t face another grilling by Andrew Neil, but Corbyn is irreparably tainted by association with anti-semitism. This should all end with a nice, fat, double-digit Tory majority.
Yet here are a few reasons why Tories should curb their optimism, aside from the well-known unreliability of British opinion polls. First, history. If you count the general elections of 2010 and 2017 as wins — in the sense that the Tory leader became prime minister after them, despite lacking a Commons majority — the Conservatives have won the past three elections.
The last time the Conservatives won a fourth election in a row was in 1992, when John Major only just scraped home with a majority of 21 (a result not predicted by the polls). There is no other example of four consecutive election victories in British political history — not even in the days of Lord Salisbury.
Here’s another reason. Voters can’t resist bad policies. According to Deltapoll, the public approves of Labour’s pledge to deliver free broadband for all by a margin of 47% to 41%. Other terrible ideas are even more popular: voters support raising the minimum wage to £10 an hour by 58 points and nationalising the railways by 26 points.
Finally, a third cause for Conservative concern. For reasons I cannot fathom, most British journalists pay next to no attention to social media data, despite the evidence that a rising share of voters follow politics on Facebook and Twitter. Two of my former students have done some online digging. The results are sobering.
Across social media platforms, Corbyn leads all other political figures in terms of followers and engagement. On Facebook, Corbyn has almost 1.6m followers, compared with less than 800,000 for Johnson. On Facebook and Twitter, Nigel Farage has more followers than Johnson. Indeed, the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has nearly as many Facebook followers as the prime minister.
What’s more, Corbyn posts to Facebook more often than Johnson, and his page’s posts — especially his videos — are far more widely shared. The Labour leader’s following on Instagram has increased dramatically during the election campaign. From November 11 to December 5, his follower count rose 28%. In the same period, Johnson’s followers grew by just 9%. In short, this ain’t over, despite what financial markets think (the pound is up to $1.31) and prediction markets imply.
So what if we don’t get a decisive result this week? What if the Tories come up just short of a majority? I, for one, don’t expect a repeat of 2010, when the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg signed up for a coalition with David Cameron within a week of the result. The dilemma for Clegg’s successor, Jo Swinson, will be an agonising one. How to choose between Brexit-loving Boris and Jew-baiting Jeremy?
If you want to know what a deadlocked democracy looks like, visit Holland, where it took 208 days of negotiation after the March 2017 general election to cobble together a coalition. Or take a trip to Israel. After April’s election was in effect a draw, the country had to have another vote in September. Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party emerged slightly ahead of Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud, but neither leader was able to form a government. Last month, Netanyahu was indicted on charges of breach of trust, bribery and fraud. He’s still clinging on as prime minister, but it looks increasingly likely there will need to be . . . another election.
Now ask yourself what the consequences might be if something similar happens next year in America. What if the result in November 2020 is as close as it was in 2000? Remember those nail-biting days? George W Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore. Everything hinged on who won Florida, with its 25 electoral college votes. On the night, the networks called it — first for Gore, then for Bush, then for neither. The returns showed that Bush had won the state, but by such a slender margin (just 537 votes) that state law required a recount. A 36-day legal battle culminated in the Supreme Court, which decided by five votes to four to end the recount.
Despite the strength of an economy juiced by tax cuts and easy money, Donald Trump is not a popular president. Recent polling by The New York Times gave the Democratic candidate Joe Biden a tiny edge over Trump in the key swing states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — but gave Trump an equally slim advantage over Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Meanwhile, independent voters seem more displeased by the president’s Ukrainian skulduggery than they were by the former FBI director Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 US election. In short, this could be another close one.
In 2000, Gore ultimately accepted defeat with a modicum of grace, grew a beard and went off to save the planet. But two decades have changed American political culture for the worse. I find it hard to imagine Trump and the Maga-hat-wearing faithful being so stoical if he is denied a second term by hanging chads or their equivalent in Michigan — especially as there is every reason to fear more foreign meddling in 2020, including direct interference with the far-from-secure voting systems in the various states.
Conversely, many Democrats would lose their minds if this Supreme Court, with its two Trump appointees, voted to give him four more years.
“I’ve never played for a draw in my life,” my fellow Ferguson, Sir Alex, once said. Wise words. May Johnson — and all voters who care for this country — heed them on Thursday. It’s not just Britain that needs a win. Democracy does.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford