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Political Gambling Not Paying Off

by Glenn Baird - June 14, 2017

If there is one thing that punters should have learned about politics over the last 2 years, it’s that no opinion poll, media analysis or civic intuition is ever worth listening to. Clinton was a shoe-in. Some polls suggested that she had a 74% chance of winning the US election. She was backed by all sections of the media, at home and abroad and yet the unbelievable happened. The man perpetually criticised in the press for his archaic treatment of women, for his unyielding approach to foreign policy, for his unscientific views on climate change, for his uncaring take on healthcare and, most famously, for his plastic hair and orange skin, something that our image obsessed media would not stand by idly and ignore. There was no way the pantomime villain could win. He was there to entertain, to stimulate outraged conversations, to provide comedians with an endless supply of material and to fill the pages of tabloid and broadsheet publications. He was his own reality TV show that had snuck its way out of Channel Five and found a permanent home on 24-hour news channels. He was the one in Big Brother that pisses everyone else off. The one audiences love to hate but certainly do not love. He was our Richard III, our Darth Vader; he was our Killer Clown from Space. Trump was fiction, a badly written character in a Roald Dahl novel.
And whilst he could ignite the deepest, darkest most disturbed parts of our imaginations there was something he could never be. The one thing the media kept assuring us of. He was most certainly, not, the next president of the United States.

In the UK, divisive, polarised politics found its battleground, fighting back years of Blairite centrism and Tory austerity in the form of an EU referendum. Brexit was unthinkable. So unthinkable that even the politicians leading the British charge back towards its borders didn’t really believe it could happen. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove were so surprised by the outcome that they forgot to plan any sort of exit strategy. The status quo would not change because we were told it wouldn’t and our betting trends reflected the message with three quarters of the £40m gambled on the election placed on Remain.

The Leave campaign was championed by the sort of politician that you might expect to appear in a Captain Flash novel, or an episode of Last of the Summer Wine. Like Trump, Nigel Farage wasn’t the face of politics that the public had grown accustomed to. Coincidentally, like Trump, Farage had a face (I’m sure he still does) that could be most accurately depicted in orange crayon. The designer suits were gone, replaced with tweed, leather elbow patches and offset by years of neglected dentistry. Nigel Farage was another caricature destined to fail in his attempts to change the fabric of society. All expert advice suggested that Brexit would fail with the odds of success the same as Mr Trump’s would later become.

Fast forward to June 2017 and the UK has its first snap election since 1974. Back then Harold Wilson’s Labour party managed to gain a narrow 3 seat majority, the gamble paying off amid a backdrop of political strife and uncertainty. The miners were on strike and conservation of electricity was so important that for the first three months of the year anyone in the UK working outside of services deemed essential were only permitted to clock in for 3 days each week.

Unlike Wilson’s urgent need to create stability within a fractured society, Theresa May called her snap election because she saw an opportunity to cement her party’s majority. She saw a Labour Party on its knees and instinct kicked in; a predatory impulse that if successful would decimate her biggest rivals and give her party a huge majority to enter into Brexit negotiations without opposition.

At the time, few questioned the logic. Even on election day experts sat in TV studios and placed rosettes with Theresa May’s face on them far to the right of the hung parliament line. One plucky Labour supporter laughed at his own optimism and ideological duty as he reluctantly placed Corbyn’s head on the hung parliament line. No one saw what was coming, the Tories would form a majority government, the only debate to be had was just how big that majority would be.

This was different from previous political debates because council elections had taken place only a month before and the embarrassment felt by Labour councillors still stung. A £70,000 gamble wasn’t really a gamble. It was an easy return. The £20m spent on a Tory majority was likely to cost the company money, but keeping the odds short would take the edge off. In some instances punters were placing bets on a Tory majority, with odds as poor as 1/16.
What happened next doesn’t need to be poured over. The UK’s exit from the EU, the shock of a Trump victory, and the Conservative party failing to hold on to their overall majority are political events that have defied the odds. Punters have lost money and bookies have raked in the winnings.

Yet, it is unlikely that many will be deterred from placing bets in the future. On the surface, there’s something safe about gambling on politics. Unlike casino gambling or betting on sports the result is already decided before the bet is placed. All we have to do is wait for the information to be collated via an election. If enough quality data is gathered beforehand, you won’t just be able to guess what the outcome will be, you’ll know what the outcome will be. We assume when we turn on the TV that those making their predictions have spread their net wide and gathered all the information they need to know what the outcome will be. We don’t have to worry about injuries, the weather, or the roll of the dice. Elections are not in the hands of Lady Luck, they are in the hands of the people.

Despite this apparent certainty, few, other than the bookmakers have profited from gambling on politics in the last couple of years. The truth appears to be that no one actually knows how anyone else will vote. Perhaps the media claims to know because they think they can influence which box our cross will fall into, an assumption that will have to be revised. The one thing we do know is that the years of beige politics and politicians appears to be over. The introduction of colour, albeit hues undiscovered in nature, into world politics is the result of shifting ideologies brought about by dwindling standards of living for the 95% of us who don’t have a seat in the VIP section. Nothing can be certain anymore which means there’s no such thing as a safe bet in politics.