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November 01, 2019

Beware of the fallacy of composition and hindsight bias - Brexit edition

When Boris Johnson entered the Tory Party's leadership contest in the summer, the UK media were desperate to portray this as a genuine cliffhanger. Some readers may recall we kept on saying that this was no contest at any point. Of course, events intrude into politics all the time. But in this case they didn't. Johnson's lead was unassailable throughout. 

We note there is once again talk about this being a very close election. It is trivially true that an outcome of an election is never certain. But, as of now, the Tories are way ahead of the Labour Party. In addition the Brexit Party is very likely to play a co-operative game with the Tories, while Labour and LibDems are hostile towards each other.

An Ipsos MORI poll out yesterday had the Tories at 41%, up 8pp, Labour constant at 24%, and the LibDems at 20%. The Brexit Party is at 7%.

One of mistakes analysts and journalist often make is to extrapolate the last election into the current one. They expect Jeremy Corbyn to repeat his 2017 surge. This is the same mistake less experienced analysts make about financial stability. They forget that each financial crisis is different, just as each election is.

The big event today is Nigel Farage's campaign launch, during which he will explain the Brexit Party's electoral strategy. The question is whether the party will wage a nationwide campaign or fight selected seats, say 100. The Tories are not necessarily thrilled by Farage pulling his people out of most constituencies. They think of him as the usual idiot, strong enough to have an impact on pro-Brexit Labour supporters but not strong enough to win seats outright. In some constituencies, especially in the north, it would be useful to offer pro-Brexit Labour voters a choice of two Brexit supporting parties. They are not natural Tory voters, and we don't think that the Workington Man episode has improved the Tories' standing in those rugby-league constituencies of the north. 

The Tories and the Brexit party are gaming all sorts of scenarios right now. They are separately assessing how best to channel the Leave vote. We think that they might be over-gaming it. There will no doubt be more tactical voting than before, but there are limits to tactical voting and there is a danger that people simply miscalculate. We should not forget that Labour Remainers are very angry about the LibDem's recent switch in strategy. But we should also remember that hard-core Remainers probably do not find the Labour Party or Corbyn sufficiently reliable.

What is entirely unimportant is Donald Trump's sudden appearance in Farage's talk show. Barack Obama's controversial intervention in the referendum campaign was just as irrelevant. Journalists in particular are prone to both the hindsight bias and the fallacy of composition. If the referendum had gone the other way, Obama's intervention would have been  interpreted as critical for Remain's success. The reality is that it was neither here nor there. 

So long as Brexit is the big issue in the debate, and for so long as the cross-party split among Remainers and Brexiters remains what it is, this election is not a contest. What we will be watching out for is whether these two factors change during the campaign.

Tom Clark, the editor of Prospect Magazine, has looked Johnson's own constituency in west London and arrived at some interesting conclusions. Johnson had an absolute majority last time, but will probably not hang on to it. He may still end up with a large gap to the second-placed candidate, however. Clark notes that the anti-conservative vote is splintering, while all the Brexiters support Johnson. Some of the swing from Labour to the LibDems that happened at the European elections is likely to be sustained. There is no clear tendency for Remain supporters to switch in one direction or other.

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