The elections seem a long time ago already, even though it’s only just over a couple of weeks. But I can still feel the sense of exhilaration when, firstly, the exit polls confounded the pre-election predictions and then the real results were even better than the exit poll had predicted. It’s been a long time since I genuinely felt so optimistic about the future of our country.
That’s better, of course, from my perspective. And that of other Conservative voters and candidates, as well as, probably, SNP supporters. Obviously, it wasn’t better for Labour, UKIP or the Lib Dems. In politics, as in sport, one side’s victory is another side’s defeat. The Blues have triumphed, the Reds have lost out, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about Parliament or the Premier League; the feelings of agony and ecstasy are broadly the same.
Why did we win, though, and why was the margin of victory bigger than expected? This is something that commentators haven’t been short of opinions on, so there may not be much that’s original in mine. These, though, are my thoughts.
In the end, Ed Miliband failed the Kinnock Test.
Times columnist Daniel Finkelstein came up with this theory back in 2008 (paywall, but you can get the gist from the opening couple of free paragraphs), and I, along with many others, successfully predicted the outcome of the 2010 election on the same principle. The electorate concluded that, even if they found his policies attractive, Ed Miliband simply wasn’t up to the job of being Prime Minister.
The Conservatives did a better job of appealing to floating voters.
This is related to my first point, and I explained it in more detail back then in 2009 when I correctly predicted defeat for Gordon Brown. But, in essence, the simple fact is that floating voters, by definition, are not party loyalists. Moreover, they are not primarily politics geeks and often care little for detailed policies. Instead, they will vote for the party that they believe offers the best prospect of a secure and prosperous future. In 2015, as in 2010, that party was the Conservatives.
People voted for hope, not fear.
A huge part of the opposition’s campaign was the prospect of all the bad things that might happen if the Tories got back in. Cuts to the NHS, cuts to welfare, giving US corporations power to sue the British government, forcing small children to work down coal mines. OK, so that last one is made up, although it still fits in with the narrative. Then there were the very different fears peddled by UKIP: the prospect of the UK being overrun by nasty foreigners. Maybe not stated in so many words, but implied in a lot of what was actually said. But, on the whole, the voting public didn’t swallow any of them. The Conservative campaign was more positive, and more people responded positively to it.
(As an aside, this also goes a long way to explaining the success of the SNP. For those north of the border, the nationalists offered a positive option, something to vote for rather than simply against.)
On the whole, the political centre of gravity in the UK is inclined to the right.
This may seem like an obvious point, given that a right of centre party won. But to listen to a lot of left-wing commentators you’d think we somehow stole the election from an otherwise left-leaning public. And that’s why it deserves a little more consideration.
An email from left-wing pressure group 38 Degrees contained the claim that “only 24% of the population voted for the winning party”. Which is true on a purely factual basis, but if the intention is to assert that only 24% of the public are happy with the result then it’s completely false.
Of those who voted, almost exactly 50% cast their ballot for a right-wing party (if we assume, not unreasonably, that the Conservatives, UKIP and the Unionist parties in Northern Ireland are, to a greater or lesser degree, right-wing). But you can also add to those the voters in Scotland who backed the SNP despite, rather than because of, its left-wing stance because they are nationalists first and right-wingers second. They may not be a particularly large number, but they certainly exist. And it’s also fair to describe the “Orange Book” wing of the Liberal Democrats as more centre-right than centre-left. Again, there may not have been all that many of them, given the Lib Dems’ disastrous election night, but they, too, certainly exist. So, overall, you can’t really to deny that a majority of the voting public are happy with, at the very least, a Conservative PM in Downing Street even if some of them might have preferred him to be accompanied by a coalition deputy.
As for those who didn’t vote at all, while it’s tempting (to left-wing commentators looking for excuses, anyway) to lump them in with everyone else who didn’t vote Tory, it’s equally true that they can be lumped in with everyone else who didn’t vote Labour – which is a much larger number. In reality, though, research suggests that the majority of non-voters would, if forced to vote, divide between the parties in much the same proportion as those who chose to vote. And, of course, there are many people who don’t vote, not because they oppose all the parties and politicians on offer, but because they would be happy with whoever won. If Ed Miliband was PM, they’d be happy with him. But, as it is, they’re equally happy with David Cameron.
What that adds up to is the simple fact that the majority of the electorate, whether they actually voted or not, are more or less happy with the outcome of a Conservative government. Some may be very happy with it, others more grudgingly so, but nonetheless they all prefer it to the alternative.
It really is the economy, stupid.
If the previous reasons are essentially symptoms, this is the one which gives rise to them. On the whole, people believe that the state of the economy, and its prospects for the future, is what really matters. Which is why people were willing to vote for the possibility of continued austerity and a tight rein on public spending. It also shows that the electorate are possibly better at taking the long-term view than many politicians give them credit for. More people voted for jam tomorrow than jam today. Which is another reason to be optimistic for the future.