If you’ve been listening to the excellent 13 Minutes to the Moon podcast recently about the Apollo programme, you’ll know that one of the biggest challenges was navigation. The challenge, as put by the presenter Kevin Fong, was to “find your way to the moon, across unchartered, featureless space, without magnetic poles, recognisable landmarks or maps to guide you.”
The solution found was inertial navigation – simply put, if you know where you start, how fast you are travelling, and in which exact direction, then you always know where you are.
Politicians rely on their own method of inertial navigation. In planning for election campaigns, politicians know where they are starting from (the result in the last election in each constituency) and can then draw on polls, canvassing and other methods to detect in which direction things are going (whether they are gaining or losing votes) and how fast they are travelling (how many votes they are gaining or losing).
It’s not perfect, and shocks still happen, but usually most politicians have a sense of what is coming, whether to their benefit or not. And that sense allows them to plan, and to try and make adjustments to change course.
But this navigation system works best when there are only two parties. When there are, as now, at least four major parties, then voter shifts becoming immeasurably more complex – and half of the voter shifts which can determine the outcome do not even involve your party. Put another way – it’s very hard for the Conservatives to influence how voters shift between the Liberal Democrats and Labour.
The Brecon and Radnorshire by-election exemplifies this. The Conservatives did well in what they could control – they halved support for the Brexit Party through the leadership of Boris Johnson, which is explicitly aimed at winning those other voters.
But they still lost. The reason is because the Liberal Democrats successfully squeezed Labour’s vote down to its lowest ever share.
Some commentators might see good signs for the Conservatives in this result. It shows they are squeezing down the Brexit Party, while there is little sign of a successful Labour squeeze on the Liberal Democrats (or vice versa). But this is based on national polls only – what they cannot show is how voters are shifting in individual seats, or how they might shift if an election is called.
Boris Johnson may still chance his arm based on national polling, but it’s pretty clear that the Conservative campaign would be flying without guidance. The Eagle might land safely – but it might not. And they will have no way of knowing until it’s too late to change course.
Written by Harry Spencer, Madano