COM 04/2015

The UK General Election, 2015: Surprise! Or maybe not….

Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London


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 marginal 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 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.