Mark's Musings

A miscellany of thoughts and opinions from an unimportant small town politician and bit-part web developer

Why Gordon fails the Kinnock Test


There’s a theory which has been doing the political rounds for a while now, which is that the result of every British general election in the modern era (that is, since the advent of universal suffrage) has been the “right” one in terms of putting the party best equipped to run the country into Downing Street. Times columnist Daniel Finkelstein wrote a good piece on this in August 2008, in a column titled “Would you pass or fail the Kinnock Test?“. Now, that may seem like old news now (what’s the point of blogging on a media article from over 12 months ago?), but as we get closer to the next general election it’s worth taking a look to see if history will repeat itself.

As it happens, I think that Finkelstein (and anyone else putting forward the same argument) is essentially right, and all the modern elections have been won by the party best equipped to govern. Die-hard supporters and activists of any of the main parties may find that a rather unpalatable assertion, but I think it holds true nonetheless. And the reasons why it’s true are, in essence, fairly simple.

Only once in the modern era has the popular vote of the losing party in the general election dipped below 30%, and that was a rather unusual election in that the combined effects of the Falklands war and the early flowering of the SDP pushed Labour’s vote to well below normal levels. The last time a genuinely seismic shift in voting patterns took place was when Labour displaced the Liberals as the main party of the left, but most of that change happened prior to the modern era. If we take 30% as the base level of support for the two main parties, and then add in around 20% for the combined core totals of the other parties, this implies that no more than 20% of the electorate can truly be described as floating voters.

There’s a well-known saying that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. And the reason they lose them is because they lose the support of floating voters. One of the primary reasons that floating voters are floating voters, though, is because they’re not hidebound by ideology. Instead, they tend to cast their vote on other factors, of which perceived competance is almost certainly one of the most important. So it’s not at all surprising that the party most fit to govern is the one that wins (or tends to win), since that’s precisely the attribute that most appeals to the ┬ápeople capable of delivering the win.

The fact that a small minority of floating voters decides elections isn’t news, least of all to the party strategists. But, if Finkelstein’s “Kinnock test” theory is right, then they may still be aiming at the wrong target. In the run-up to an election, all the parties tend to focus on producing voter-friendly policies in the hope of attracting floating support. But the lesson of history is that floating voters seem to care more about competance than policies. If that really is the case, then that’s bad news for the policy wonks. But what it also means is that no party, even one that gets a large majority, can ever really claim a mandate for their policies. For any general election winner, the majority of their votes will have come from core supporters who would have voted for them no matter what. You can’t claim a popular mandate from people who haven’t given any real thought to what they’re supporting. And the party that attracts the most floating voters will do so, not because of its policies, but because it’s perceived to be the one that will do a better job of the nuts and bolts of running the country.

So, what does that mean for the general election next year? Well, I think it’s pretty clear that the current government has lost the competance plot. Unless something really, really unexpected happens, it will be David Cameron who gets the call from Her Majesty to form the next government. I just hope that when he gets his feet under the desk at Number 10, he remembers why he’s there and who put him there.