UK Politics

General Election Betting Guide: Five lessons to learn from past general elections

Britain will go to the polls on 4 July

With over 20 years experience of betting on elections, Paul Krishnamurty marks your card with five strategic pointers to help your politics betting...

  • Every election is unique

  • Micro-targeting has changed the dynamics

  • Try strategies that can pay even when wrong

1: Never refight the previous election

No matter which election, or country, this is the most common mistake. We remember the most recent and are tempted to assume the same dynamics apply. Trends regarding demographics, turnout, regional support. Even polling firms are guilty on occasion. Don't do it. The context of every election, anywhere, is unique.

Consider examples from recent UK general elections. In 2019, despite overwhelming evidence that the Tories were headed for a majority, that Brexit supporters were rallying around them and that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had become deeply unpopular, many bettors couldn't forget the previous election.

On that occasion, Corbyn had stunned the polls and markets with an historic late surge. Remainers turned out in disproportionate numbers for Labour. Their left-wing messaging and manifesto enthused younger voters and drove higher turnout than usual amongst them. Labour's vote in Brexit heartlands didn't collapse.

Consequently, the odds about a Tory majority held up despite evidence to the contrary. All it took was some Twitter rumours about higher turnout to lengthen those odds on polling day. But the polls were right and result at the very low end of Labour expectations.

One reason why 2017 was such a shock was that, in the two previous general elections and EU referendum, turnout amongst younger voters and Remainers had flopped. A belief grew that parties of the Left always underperformed. That proved extremely costly when Corbyn's Labour landed 99/1 and 249/1 bets on the vote share bands and defied Theresa May a majority.

Going back to 2015, the big miss was underestimating a Conservative majority. The market assumed that, as in 2010 and before, the Lib Dems would hold their own in the seats they held and force another hung parliament. In fact, their vote collapsed as anti-Tory supporters punished them for joining their coalition, and those better inclined towards the Tories feared a 'coalition of chaos' with Labour and the SNP. Again, big odds bets up to 33/1 were landed.

2: Largely ignore national swing

Media coverage will almost always report the average swing between parties across the country. Only rarely will regions, let alone voter sub-groups, be mentioned. But this measure is merely a guide to average sentiment and varies widely between regions and constituencies.

The higher a party's starting position, the further they have to fall. The lower they start, the further they have to rise. This is basic logic.

Consider various recent by-elections. In seats where the now unpopular Tories had previously been completely dominant - Tamworth, Wellingborough, Selby and Ainsty - the swing against them was way beyond the national average. The pro-Labour swing was historic.

But on the same day Labour produced their best ever result in Selby and Ainsty, they massively underperformed in Uxbridge and Ruislip - on the outskirts of London, where they had previously performed very well even in massive national defeat. The Tories landed an enormous upset.

Do remember this when pundits claim "Labour need x% swing to gain a majority". Don't translate average swing into seat total calculations. Instead study the critical seats needed to reach those particular targets.

3: Focus instead on demographics and MRPs

The best means of monitoring the state of play in those seats is the ever-growing number of MRP surveys produced by pollsters. A relatively new process, these have proved very reliable in the UK. These surveys analyse and calculate the demographics of each constituency and marry it to polls.

In 2017, Survation and Yougov were mocked when predicting that shock Corbyn surge and hung parliament. But by, for example, identifying a large student population in Canterbury, they were able to predict that huge upset.

Micro-targeting may partly explain it. We no longer all receive the same political messaging, as in the days when a handful of TV channels and national newspapers dominated.

Now, we are targeted by parties who have the tools to analyse our personal data and tailor the message to our individual taste. Our hopes, fears, prejudices, identity. The effect is, in my opinion, that we voters are now ever easier to read, to convince, to drive into smaller factions. Accurately measuring what and where those factions are, creates opportunity.

4: Don't overstate importance of TV debates

Britain never had TV election debates until 2010. The first ever transformed that election, generating a temporary surge for the Lib Dems based on their leader - known as 'Cleggmania'. However it is highly questionable that any debate since has really moved the needle.

Last time, Boris Johnson did not fare especially well. The audience laughed at him during the BBC's Question Time. He dodged another debate, yet still won the highest Tory majority since the 1980s. A similar phenomenon has applied in recent US election debates. For example polls showed Donald Trump losing all three by large margins in 2016, yet he won the election.

These debates will be hyped to the max. We will all be on tenterhooks waiting for a gamechanging gaffe. Of course, anything can happen in a live situation, but don't bank on them actually changing very much.

5: Reduce risk by focusing on constituency bets

This is my favourite tactic. Rather than bet heavily on the overall result, identify the critical seats for each party and back both sides. That way, your overall prediction may prove wrong but you may still win on the constituencies. Two examples.

In 2019, rather than back a Conservative Majority at short odds-on, I backed 26 Conservative constituency gains. All Leave-voting seats, the odds ranged from around 1.51/2 to 7.06/1. I couldn't see a way in which they could win a majority without at least 18 of them. 24 won and the profit was much higher than would have been the case from a straight bet on the majority.

In 2015, this strategy saved me a fortune. I didn't expect anything like a Tory majority. But I had ten constituency targets that, again, I was certain would have to be part of any Tory majority and which they could win and still fall well short. If memory serves, they ranged from around 1.84/5 to 3.7511/4. All ten won. Instead of losing thousands from getting the overall result wrong, I emerged with a tiny profit.

In due course, I will be analysing dozens of key constituencies and in the final week, will share lists of the best bets for each party.

Now read General Election: Five questions to be answered during the campaign


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