If Brexit wasn’t enough for the British public to contend with, it is now facing a snap election around one of the busiest, darkest and coldest times of the year — the run-up to Christmas.
It’s well known that Brits are obsessed by the weather and when you combine that with an election at a time of huge political crisis it’s no surprise that some British newspapers have gone into hysteria mode over the timing of the vote on December 12.
Headlines predicting wild wet and icy weather have abounded with headlines ranging from “UK election weather warning” to “General Election may be hit by coldest winter in 30 years” and “General election 2019: Can snow delay the vote and your questions answered.”
Because the vote is the first election to be held in December since 1923, it’s uncertain what impact the busy festive schedule, shorter daylight hours and potentially bad weather will have on voter behavior — but some experts are debunking the theory that weather matters that much.
Stephen Fisher, associate professor in Political Sociology at the University of Oxford and whose work looks at political attitudes and behavior, told CNBC that the weather “is unlikely to be a serious factor affecting turnout, or the outcome, on 12th December.”
“While there is research showing that turnout at local elections has been sensitive to weather conditions, there’s no correlation at the national level for general elections,” he said Wednesday.
The snap election matters more than most as the result will shape the country for decades to come as the next government will have to contend with the unwieldy beast that is Brexit.
Bookmakers and voter polls put the ruling Conservative Party led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the lead to win a majority in the House of Commons, the lower house of Parliament.
Snap votes and cold snaps
British elections are usually held in late spring or early summer. The 2019 snap vote comes after the last election in June 2017 produced a shock result that saw former Prime Minister Theresa May lose her overall majority in Parliament.
The result meant that the May government had to make a deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to get a working majority; the arrangement has often overshadowed and derailed Brexit proceedings.
In December, meanwhile, the average U.K. temperature is 7 degrees Celsius (45 degrees Fahrenheit) but it could be far colder in northern parts of the U.K., like Scotland. Council officials north of the border have already asked for the right to delay the election count in the event of extreme weather.
Election data shows that cold weather has not deterred voters in the past, according to John Curtice, a politics professor at the University of Strathclyde and top polling expert. In fact, Curtice told CNBC that the highest ever turnout in a post-war election was seen in a winter election.
“We obviously don’t have much experience of winter elections but we have had two at the back of winter, in February 1974 when turnout was almost 79%, six (percentage) points up from 1970, and the highest ever turnout in the post-war period was in February 1950 when the turnout was almost 84%,” he told CNBC Thursday.
“So there’s limited evidence and the evidence we have suggests it’s not an issue,” he said. As for the shorter days, Curtice noted that “December is dark but it’s not the coldest or darkest month” with January and February often worse.
One academic study on the effects of weather and temperature on voter behavior has shown that these can have an effect, however. A 2017 study led by the Belgian University of Ghent and published in the ‘Frontiers of Psychology’ journal looking at voter behaviors and temperature in U.S. elections found that for each increase of 1°C (1.8°F), voter turnout increased by 0.14%.
Researchers in that study claimed that, based on their model, an increase of only 1°C would have made Al Gore president rather than George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential race.
Allan Monks, an economist at JPMorgan, also noted Wednesday that house research and Met Office records show there was no correlation between average temperatures or weather and voter turnout at previous U.K. elections.
“There have been several winter elections, but there does not appear to have been a clear tendency for these to produce lower than normal turnout. Indeed, the highest turnout seen during the prior century was recorded in the winter election of 1950, when the average temperature for the month was 4°C,” he said.
“The greater concern would instead appear to be whether there could be heavy snowfall or other adverse conditions on the day which prevent people from voting. The conventional wisdom is that this is more likely to deter Labour voters, and by region any impact might be most prominent in Scotland and the rural areas of the U.K. According to the met office, however, December is the least snowy month of winter with 3.9 days of snowfall on average.”