Election 2017: Labour is winning the fight for Google searches
As an unapologetic politics nerd, general elections are like my World Cup. But while football fans get their showpiece every four years, thanks to the cruelty of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011, I had to make do with one every five years. Assuming an average lifespan of 80 years, that adds up to four fewer elections than World Cups. And that’s not even taking European Championships into account.
Thankfully, Theresa May took pity on me and my fellow nerds and killed off that rule, so we now have an election tomorrow.
With less than 24 hours to go, I thought I’d return to the Google search trends I looked at during the first week of the campaign. I wanted to see if the unexpected narrative of the past two months – that it would be much closer than originally anticipated – was borne out by what people are telling Google.
The short answer is “yes”, but there’s more to it than that. For example, are more people searching for more ambiguous terms because the media has told them it will be close, or because they’re genuinely reconsidering their vote? Let’s dig into the stats and try to find out.
1. The polling is right – smaller parties are getting squeezed
Back in April, this was the search split between the five most-searched-for parties:
Now? Two-party politics is back everyone! Stand down proportional representation campaigners: it turns out people are happy with the status quo.
In April, Labour and the Tories shared 54% of the search traffic. Now it’s 71%. All the parties have been squeezed, but it’s the Liberal Democrats who have suffered the most, dropping from 26% to 15%. Conventional wisdom suggests that the Lib Dems lost their momentum when they failed to have a breakthrough in the 4 May local elections. Let’s see if that’s true:
Not obviously, in an immediate way. What seems to have happened is that the Labour Party has eaten Tim Farron’s lunch:
However you slice it, though, it seems Theresa May’s message of “it’s me or Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street” seems to have cut through. Unfortunately for her, that message seems to have resulted in a lot of people saying “I guess I’ll vote Corbyn then”.
(And yes, it does bug me that I couldn’t put the Lib Dems as a yellow bar. Complaints to Google, not me.)
2. Search terms for Labour no longer reek of pessimism
Back in April, these were the top search terms associated with the Labour Party.
Now, things are looking a lot more rosey.
“How many seats will Labour lose?” has dropped right off the list and “Will Labour win?” has come from nowhere, knocking “Can Labour win?” down to fourth place. The power of positive thinking.
Yes, it’s semantics, but this mood stuff matters – it’s not necessarily positively for Labour, however. One school of thought says that the more people believe Labour can win, the higher the chance they’ll get out and vote Conservative. So consider this sudden Google change a double-edged sword. It’s why Tory leaflets overplay the chances of a Labour victory: it’s a deliberate strategy to get out the blue vote.
Nonetheless, the search terms for the Conservatives look a little more edgy than back in April too. Compare:
3. People are beginning to take the prospect of a hung parliament seriously
On 31 May, The Times published a shock YouGov projection forecasting a hung parliament. The British public replied with one clear voice. And that voice said: “What’s that then?”
This week, it’s still the second most-searched-for general-election term:
…but on balance, they’re not taking it AS seriously as when we actually elected one seven years ago:
But it’s clear that some people have short memories.
4. Skipping TV debates may have hurt Theresa May, but it’s done Amber Rudd no harm
Theresa May doesn’t want to debate Jeremy Corbyn on TV. There are plenty of reasons for this and – I can’t stress this enough – none of them are anything to do with utter cowardice. None of them.
They are, in fact, due to being too busy thinking about Brexit, prefering meeting voters face to face (at 7pm in the evening, apparently), having already debated Jeremy Corbyn at PMQs, and of course not wanting to exchange soundbites with other politicians. She’s above that, and itjust wouldn’t look “very strong and stable” given the “coalition of chaos” any seven-way debate would inevitably end up being.
Anyway, home secretary Amber Rudd stepped up to the plate, and is now 11/2 to be next Tory leader. A lot of people ended up Googling her during the debate, which will have done her profile no harm at all:
Of course, all of these things are just Google searches, and it’s not always possible to read sentiment into search. On top of this, different demographics use search differently, and some won’t use it to do their research at all. Given the generational split in announced voting intentions, these searches may well show nothing at all:
Not to mention that parties spend a lot on Google ads. That’s why the Conservative Party bought up the term “Dementia Tax” and then denounced it as a scaremongering Labour term in the very same day.
And of course, Google searches don’t even give us a full online picture. Plenty of people will have heard everything they need to know about the election through the incredibly shady world of unregulated Facebook advertising.
What is clear, though, is that perceptions are changing – and the interesting thing about that is how they’re changing. The changed outlook is visible in the very search terms people use, and not the results the terms generate.
You can be sure that the language will shift considerably on 9 June, when the winners and losers are no longer left to speculation.