‘The UK general election, 2015: Surprise! Or maybe not….’, Report for German-Southeast Asian Center of Excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance (CPG), July 2015

One  does  not  need  to  be  a  political  scientist,  let  alone  a  rocket scientist,  to  know  why,  broadly  speaking,  the opposition  Labour  Party  lost  the election and why its rival, the Conservative Party, won a second term in office –this time without having to govern alongside the Liberal Democrats, with whom it governed the country in coalition between 2010 and 2015.

Opinion  polls  failed  to  predict  the  fact  that  the  Conservatives  would emerge not just as the largest contingent at Westminster but end up with a slim overall  majority  of  twelve  seats  (based  on  37%  of  the  national  vote)  in  a parliament  of  650.    As  a  result pollsters  and  the  newspapers  which  so  eagerly commissioned their work have been the subject of much criticism since May 7th.  However,  a  handful  of  surveys  taken  of  the  electorate  in  the  immediate aftermath  probably  give  us  enough  to  go  on  in  order  to  hazard  an  educated guess as to what happened.

The Conservatives clearly benefited from the fact that a sizable majority of  voters  was  persuaded  that  the  economy  was  at  last  going  great  guns.  The same polls suggested that the Tories’ relentless trashing of Labour’s record in office prior to 2010 had hit home. Partly as a result, and partly because Labour’s leader,  Ed  Miliband, and  its  main  economic  and  finance  spokesman,  Ed  Balls, failed  to  come  up  with  a  convincing  counter-narrative,  voters  simply  did  not trust them to not to spend and borrow too  much. As a result, the Conservative managed  to  build  up  a  huge  (and  in  the  event  unassailable)  lead  as  the  party rated best able to handle the issue.

This  lead  on  the  economy  helped  the  Conservatives  neutralise  Labour’s strongest trump card, namely the idea that they couldn’t be trusted with the nation’s  National  Health  Service  (the  NHS) –the  free-at-the-point-of-need system  funded  by  general  taxation  which  has  been  hugely  popular  (and, according to myriad studies, very good value for money) since its establishment back in 1948. By promising not just to protect it but to provide it with additional funding,  the  Conservatives  could  then  turn  the  argument  back  toward  which party  was  must  trusted  to  achieve  the  economic  growth  to  generate  the necessary extra revenue. The Tories were probably helped, too, by the fact that a concerned public was in the end prepared to give the benefit of the doubt on the  NHS  to  David  Cameron,  who  has  always  made  a  great  deal  of  his  own family’s use of the service and his personal commitment to it.

The  benefit  of  the  doubt  was  not  something  which  many  voters  were prepared  to  extend  to  his  main  challenger,  Ed  Miliband.  Indeed,  given  what some  argue  is  the  increasing  importance  of  leadership evaluations  in  deciding elections,  the  Labour  leader’s  woefully  low  ratings  may  well  have  been  a significant  influence  on  the  eventual  result.  Not only did he come across  to focus group participants as ‘weak’ and ‘weird’, he clearly failed to convince people more generally that he was up to the top job in British politics.

This  is  not  always  an  impediment  to  victory:  it  is  easy  to  forget,  for instance,  that  Margaret  Thatcher  failed  to  impress  large  numbers  of  voters before she became prime minister for eleven years.  However, the low opinion in  which  the  leader  of  the  opposition  was  widely  held  was  even  more  of  a problem  this  time  round.  This  was  because  it  was  evident  to  everybody  that Labour’s only realistic chance of forming a government relied on being granted permission  to  do  so  by  the  Scottish  Nationalist  Party  (SNP)  who  polls  were predicting  (quite  rightly  it  turned  out)  were  going  to  take  almost  all  the  seats north  of  the  border –most of them at Labour’s expense. Had the party had a more credible leader, voters may have been prepared to discount Conservative accusations  that  such  an  arrangement  would  cause  chaos  and  see  English interests sacrificed to keep the Scots on board.  As it turned out, they were not.  Large  numbers  of  voters  in  marginal  seats  south  of  the  border  seem  to  have voted Tory to deny Scotland’s first minister, the highly-able SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, any say in the government of the UK.

Labour wasn’t the only party to suffer in this respect.  What turned out to be  widespread  concern  about  the  Scottish  tail  wagging  the  English  dog  may well  have  helped  turn  an  inevitable  defeat  for  the  self-styled  centrists,  the Liberal  Democrats, into  an  absolute disaster,  ensuring they  were  reduced from 57 seats in 2010 to just eight in 2015. That said, the party’s fate was probably already  sealed  from  the  moment  its  leader  Nick  Clegg,  after  fighting  the  2010  election on a platform which seemed much closer to Labour’s than the Tories’, decided on a counter-intuitive coalition with the Conservatives. Some Lib Dem voters  turned  away  (and  to  Labour  and  the  Greens)  in  disgust.  Others simply couldn’t see the point of Clegg and his colleagues anymore and switched to the Conservatives,   who   were   more   than   happy   to   cannibalise   their   coalition partner’s vote.  Meanwhile,  the  fact  that  some  Labour  voters  who  had  voted tactically for the Lib Dems in 2010 refused to do so in 2015 may have helped the Tories in a few Lib-Con marginals. Labour also suffered at the hands of the radical right-wing populist party, UKIP   and   its   anti-immigration,   anti-‘political  correctness’,  and  anti-EU platform which seems to appeal so strongly to older voters with little education and  highly  traditional  views  who  feel  left  behind  by  the  modern,  globalised, multicultural world. In Labour’s northern heartlands this was unsettling (UKIP achieved large numbers of second places) but not catastrophic. But in marginal seats in the Midlands and in the South of England the fact that some potential Labour  voters  switched  to  UKIP  may  have  helped the  Conservative  candidate win contests they otherwise might have lost.

The eventual result, then, came as a surprise –but only because so many pundits [and academic observers like me!] had allowed themselves to become bewitched by polls which pointed to another ‘hung parliament’ and by a  campaign  which  appeared  at  times  to  be going better for Ed Miliband than it did for David Cameron. In fact, most of the fundamentals had been in place for a Conservative victory for some time. The only  reason  perhaps  that  the  margin  of  that  victory,  at least  in  parliamentary terms,  turned  out  to  be  so  slim  was  that  the  Tories  have  still  not  managed  to convince  the  public  that  their  supposed  competence  is  balanced  by  sufficient compassion and a sense they are on the side of ordinary people rather than those who are doing spectacularly well.

If David Cameron decides to use his victory wisely, he may be able to fix this  ongoing  problem,  especially  while  Labour  is  so  obviously  struggling  to come up with a convincing alternative (and a convincing leader). Certainly, the electoral  arithmetic  looks  favourable –and  will  be  made  more  favourable  still by  changes  in  parliamentary boundaries  and  the  franchise. However,  Cameron may  find  it  harder  to  complete  the  decontamination  of  the  Conservative  brand than many ‘modernisers’ hope. Many  of  his  colleagues  remain  determined  to slash  spending –particularly  welfare  spending –on  a  scale  which  is  bound  to call into question their assurances that ‘we are all in this together’. And then, of course, there is the upcoming referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. If the early signs mean anything, Cameron’s party looks like it may go back to the  future  by  descending  into  the  internal  faction-fighting  that  helped  alienate voters back in the 1990s, ushering in thirteen years of Labour government.

Originally published here


About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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