All graphs created by me, except where noted.
Chuka Umunna is, of late, politically rather restless. Having not so long ago been a member of the Labour party, since February 2019 he’s been a member of The Independent Group; Change UK (now known by the snappy title of the Independent Group For Change); a simple independent in the good old-fashioned sense; and, since 14 June, the Liberal Democrats. Who knows if he finally feels ready to settle down.
For the purposes of this piece, however, let’s assume he’s now found a lasting political home. In which case—is there any hope for poor old Chuka? Can he keep hold of his constituency? Could the Lib Dems win Streatham?
The Basic Picture
Start off with the basics: the 2017 results in Streatham. From Umunna’s point of view, it’s not a happy picture. Labour won the seat easily with 68.5% of the vote; the Lib Dems came a distant third with 6.5%.
(N.B. For the purposes of this article, Lib Dem/Change UK vote percentages will always be added together, as will the percentages of UKIP and the Brexit Party. This is because  both Change UK and UKIP appear, for now at least, to be spent forces electorally; and  it seems reasonable to assert that the majority of previous ChUK support will flow to the Lib Dems, and the majority of UKIP support will flow to the Brexit Party.)
Streatham has been a Labour seat since 1992, and a safe Labour seat since 1997, when the party won 62.8% of the vote. So far, so bad.
Or maybe not. You don’t have to go too far back in Streatham’s electoral history to find the Lib Dems performing pretty well in the seat. In the 2001, 2005 and 2010 General Elections, the Lib Dems were the second-highest performing party in Streatham. In 2010, Umunna won the seat with only a seven-point margin over his Lib Dem challenger:
Lib Dem support in Streatham plummeted in the 2015 election, of course, following a pattern seen across the country. Nationwide, support for the Lib Dems fell from 23% to 7.9% as voters protested the party’s role in the coalition government and the abandonment of the party’s pledge to scrap tuition fees (among other things). But there is nonetheless a precedent for the Lib Dems having done pretty well in Streatham in the not-too-distant past. Much of the previous Lib Dem support in the area appears to have fled to Labour in recent general elections. The question is: as Umunna flips to the Lib Dems, can he take those erstwhile liberals with him?
The answer may well be ‘yes’. In the 2019 European Parliament elections, the Lib Dems took 19.6% of the popular vote—an increase of 13 points since the 2014 elections—indicating that the UK’s voters appear to have either forgiven, forgotten, or at least for now set aside, the party’s role in the coalition government. Lambeth, the London borough containing Streatham, followed the nation: Lib Dem support in the borough soared from 9% to 41%, leapfrogging Labour.
Streatham, of course, is only one UK parliamentary constituency within the London borough of Lambeth. Sadly, results are not (currently, at least) available for only Streatham’s voters. But there’s no particular reason to think Streatham’s voters would be an outlier within the larger borough. The other two constituencies in Lambeth (Dulwich and West Northwood, and Vauxhall) have pretty similar similar political profiles. All three seats are solidly Labour, but all three seats are also solidly Remain. The Lib Dems were competitive in allthree before they entered coalition.
So: the Lib Dems did well in Streatham until they entered coalition; and the party’s role in the coalition government may no longer be doing the party significant harm, either nationwide or in the borough of Lambeth. A projection by Chris Hanretty of Royal Holloway, University of London, concurs with my analysis, suggesting that the Lib Dems would easily win the seat in a General Election if they received the same share of the vote as they did in the 2019 European Elections:
But it Might Not Be So Easy
Sadly, for Chuka, there are several reasons why the party could well struggle more in Streatham in a General Election than they seem to have done in the European Elections.
The Strangeness of European Elections
Firstly, the European elections often deliver results that are somewhat strange. The example of UKIP is instructive here: the party received 27.5% of the national vote in the 2014 European elections, the highest of any party in the UK, but a year later received only 12.6% of the vote in the 2015 General Election. European Elections return strange results partly because of low turnout: just 35.4% in the UK in 2014, compared to 66.1% a year later in the 2015 general election. (Even in the 2019 elections, which had unusually high levels of media attention turned on them, turnout only reached 37%—the second-highest ever, but still awfully low.) Low-turnout situations tend to mean voters with extreme opinions—for whom there is therefore a greater sense that things need to change—are overrepresented in the result. In 2019 in the UK, the European Elections were entirely seen through the prism of Brexit, so the low turnout may have inflated the numbers of the Lib Dems and the Brexit Party, both parties with extreme positions on the issue of the EU.
The other reason why European Election results are often somewhat strange is that they are seen by many voters as something of a ‘free hit’. In a UK General Election, there’s always a risk entailed in voting for a smaller party. If you’re torn between Labour and the Lib Dems in a General Election (for example), you might eventually plump for Labour simply because you know that it’s extremely unlikely that the Lib Dems will ever form a government, and your priority—if you’re torn between two left-wing parties, at any rate—is probably to keep the Tories out of government. And in a Conservative-Labour marginal seat, you may not feel that there’s any chance of electing a Lib Dem MP. But voters often feel more at liberty to vote for their true preferences in European Elections and ‘send a message’ with their vote, because it has no impact on the makeup of the government at Westminster. (There’s far less risk in voting for an untried party like the Brexit Party if you believe it will make little difference to your life even if they win.) Moreover, the D’Hondt electoral system the UK uses in European Elections is substantially more proportional than first-past-the-post. Under D’Hondt, there’s less reason to worry that you might be splitting the vote by voting for a smaller party.
(Low turnout and the sense that European Elections ‘don’t matter’ are both caused in part due to confusion among the electorate regarding what MEPs actually do all day. The complexity of the EU’s bureaucratic processes, and the outsized power of the indirectly elected president of the European Commission, do little to help the EU. But that’s a topic for another blog post.)
Brexit Is Currently a Very Big Issue
The second reason why a General Election could be tougher for the Lib Dems than the European Elections concerns which issues voters are concerned about at the time of the election. There’s clear evidence that European Election campaigns hugely increase the ‘salience’ of Europe-related issues in voters’ minds—the extent to which they care about Europe-related issues, are thinking about Europe-related issues, and vote according to their positions on Europe-related issues. In the UK in 2019, the European Election campaigns were fought almost entirely on sending a message regarding whether or not you wanted Britain to leave the EU. It’s likely that Europe-related issues had exceptionally high salience for voters at the time of the European Elections, therefore. This provides another reason for the way that support for parties with clear, unambiguous positions on Brexit soared over the course of the campaign, while support for parties that attempted ‘broad-tent’, compromise positions on Brexit tumbled:
(The above graph is a poll tracker by the website Britain Elects.)
If the salience of Europe-related issues remains as high as it has recently become, that’s fantastic news for Umunna if he wants to hang on to his seat. The Remain vote in Streatham reached nearly 80%, according to figures calculated by the BBC. Should Brexit salience remain high and the Lib Dems’ position remain remainier than Labour’s, there’s a good chance Umunna can eat away further at the 21.4% of the vote Labour received in the European Elections, and a good chance also that the Brexit vote will remain split between the Tories and Farage.
But there are many reasons why Brexit salience might not be as high in the next General Election. In 2017, Theresa May called a General Election thinking that she would win a majority due to the Labour Party’s more nebulous position on Brexit. She was wrong: over the course of the election campaign, Corbyn successfully reduced the salience of Europe-related issues by focusing on a message of reversing austerity, reducing inequality and renationalising several key industries. He took a gamble that voters would care more about other issues if only they were reminded of them, and it paid off. Labour support climbed dramatically over the course of the 2017 campaign (see penultimate graph above), and the Tories lost their majority.
Come the next General Election, it seems likely that Corbyn will once again attempt to reduce the salience of Brexit through Labour’s election campaign. Whether he will be as successful as last time is a matter of debate. On the one hand, Brexit is by far the most-discussed political issue of the moment. The public is almost certainly more tuned into the process than they were two years ago; the country is now in a quite different place, having now extended the Article 50 deadline several times. On the other hand, public anger over the state of public services and the general crumbling of British society has only grown in the last two years. In 2017, nobody expected Corbyn to be able to win an election by simply ignoring Brexit. Perhaps if he is able to remind the electorate of All The Other Issues in British politics, he can surprise everybody once again. Such a campaign could be disastrous for the Lib Dems, reminding voters of the party’s complicity in the coalition government’s cuts to public services. Voters might have decided to forgive them for the purposes an European election; it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve regained voters’ trust on domestic issues. (I can’t find any polling on this.)
The extent to which European issues will remain salient also depends on where negotiations are at when the next General Election happens. If the UK is just about to leave, or if it has just left, Brexit is very likely to remain highly salient regardless of how Corbyn campaigns. Should the country’s next Prime Minister extend Article 50 once more, however, perhaps by a year or more, it’s quite easy to imagine voters slipping easily into 2017-levels of boredom. The weirdness of the country tearing itself apart over Brexit is just how objectively soporific the thing is.
Or, maybe not! Some have argued that the recent opinion polls suggesting a new, four-and-a-half-party era of politics, are not simply a result of unusually high salience for Europe-related issues, but evidence of a long-term realignment. The theory goes that the importance of the traditional left-right split over economic issues has been fading for years now across the developed world. More woolly, attitudinal divides between parties such as ‘open vs. closed’ could become the central faultline in British politics instead. Brexit is often seen by voters as an ‘open v closed’ issue by voters even if the details are often technocratic and economic. By this theory, Brexit has only hastened the realigning of British politics that has been taking place over the course of the last decade or so; the European Elections are the first evidence that a great realigning election is on the horizon.
Should British politics truly be realigning, the salience of Brexit could remain high even if Brexit day is once again put off. And a realignment along lines of ‘open v closed’ could help the Lib Dems more generally. The party is one that is united around general attitudes of openness and liberalism that translate well into social policies but often generate somewhat fuzzy economic policies. A realignment would reduce the importance of the party’s weaknesses relative to the Conservative and Labour parties, and increase the importance of the party’s strengths.
The complications here are that (1) we have no idea when Brexit will be; and (2) we have no idea when the next General Election will be. The Times reported on Wednesday that Johnson—if he becomes the next Prime Minister—is planning an election sooner rather than later. But it’s unclear if that’s truly the plan of Johnson himself, or something being pushed by the ‘senior allies’ of Johnson on whom the journalists of The Times are basing their reporting. As well as this, it should be remembered that the government’s majority is wafer-thin. A general election could well be forced upon the government through a vote of no-confidence at any time should the government take steps that seriously displease members of the House of Commons.
So far, then, we have a mixed picture. Umunna stands no chance if Streatham’s residents vote as they have done in the last two General Elections. And they could well do so if Brexit is a less salient issue than it is currently and/or if voters have still not truly forgiven the party over its role in the coalition government. On the other hand, there are good reasons to think that Brexit could still be a highly salient issue come the next General Election; and if voters truly have forgiven the Lib Dems over their role in the coalition, the party could well return to its healthy pre-2010 levels of support in the area.
Could anything else affect the result? Sure. Umunna is a politician with unusually high recognition, for one. He has long been mentioned as a possible future leader of the Labour party (RIP that idea).Since Corbyn became the leader of the opposition, Umunna has been a high-profile advocate of a second referendum (excuse me, ‘People’s Vote’). And since leaving Labour, Umunna has generated a new headline every time he joined a new party.
Whether this name recognition will help Umunna much remains to be seen, however. Incumbents in the US Congress can usually count on a sizeable advantage due to their higher name recognition over their challengers, but the evidence in the UK that name recognition helps a politician substantially is much more mixed. The good news for Umunna is that Lib Dem MPs appear to enjoy a far higher incumbency advantage than those from other parties. The bad news for Umunna is that he was not elected as a Lib Dem, so whether he will enjoy the same incumbency advantage as other Lib Dems remains to be seen.
Another thing that might affect the result in Streatham could simply be activist enthusiasm. Though the party has in the past had mixed views on Umunna joining the Lib Dems (and he’s had mixed views in the past on the Lib Dems), the party leadership has welcomed him with open arms since his announced defection. If local activists feel the same way, a new Lib Dem incumbent could greatly increase the enthusiasm of potential volunteers during an election campaign. But they might not: Umunna’s votes on the Snooper’s Charter, the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 (read about that one here), electoral reform, and investigations into the Iraq War all jar quite remarkably with the Liberal Democrats’ positions on these things. In 2011, he indulged a whole article dwelling on ideas of ‘tradition’ and ‘One Nation Labour’, emphases that don’t sit particularly comfortably with the Lib Dem vision as outlined in the preamble to the party’s constitution. Some argue activist enthusiasm was a major factor in Labour’s 2017 election performance. Whether Streatham’s local Liberal Democrats will throw their heart and soul into campaigning for someone with this record remains to be seen.
The final thing to consider could be the ‘Tinkerbell effect’. University of Manchester professor Rob Ford has argued on Twitter that the Liberal Democrat party ‘knows, from long, bitter experience, that the biggest hurdle for them is in voters heads—convince people they are a credible challenger and the rest becomes much easier’. So perhaps one of the most bullish indicators for Umunna in Streatham is the simple fact that he’s already won—not because of any incumbency effect, but simply because it might well persuade voters to take him seriously. So many Lib Dem candidates are simply ignored by voters because they don’t seriously believe they could win. But if Umunna’s already won, even if it was under a different banner—well, it stands to reason he might well win again.
To conclude, therefore, Umunnna probably has a pretty good shot—more than a first glance at the topline figures from the 2017 election would indicate, anyhow. But his success, if it is to come, depends on either the voters in Streatham having forgiven the Lib Dems for their coalition years and/or Brexit remaining at the high-salience level it is currently at. Whether one or both of these conditions will be fulfilled remains to be seen—and he may need all the help he can get from his name recognition and local activists in Streatham.
What seems clear, however, is that would be extremely bad news for the Lib Dems should he lose his seat. At this point, they’ve banked almost their entire electoral strategy on opposing Brexit; Streatham—urban, metropolitan, Remainy, multicultural—is exactly the kind of seat the party must hope to win from Labour it is to regain its position as a serious political force.