GE2015 minus 38: “the most important election since [insert notable event]!”

Posted: 30 March 2015 in general election 2015, politics
Tags: , ,

“The most important election since… [insert notable event]”. I’ve heard this said by oppositions, and governments, and political pundits as long as I’ve been aware that general elections take place, and have been able to vote in them. In my adult lifetime, I’ve been through seven general elections so far, and taken an interest in eight. I’ve mentioned before that I was too young to vote in the 1979 election and had to limit myself to a mock election at school and watching the results on the television that evening. The most striking memory of the results evening – and the one that’s stuck – is the opening titles to the election broadcast. I was interested in computers; indeed, I was taking ‘Computer Studies; as an o-level, and the opening titles were basically ASCII art, (for any of those reading who remember that as a thing) combined with an homage to Doctor Who, I think.


But the phrase “the most important election since…” and the equally ubiquitous “most unpredictable election since…” irritate me for lots of reasons. For a start, despite what many people seem to believe about the unreliability of opinion polls, they’re usually pretty much on the mark. There have only been two elections I can recall where the polls ‘got it wrong’ to an extent that was material, and both involved Margaret Thatcher. The first was her 1983 win where the boundary changes, the Falkland Islands conflict/victory, and a Labour Party riven by internal disputes combined to increase her majority more than had been predicted. Thatcher had come to power in 1979 with a working majority of 44 seats, out of a total House of Commons of 635 seats. By the time of the 1983 election, the boundary changes meant there were now 650 seats, and a joint excercise by BBC and ITN reported that had the boundary changes been in effect in 1979, the majority wouldn’t have been 44 seats; it would have been 68 seats.  

The Labour party was going through a horrendous set of internal divisions, which only became obviously transparent (as opposed to obliquely known) when three four senior members of the party, previous Labour cabinet ministers, left to form a new party, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981. At the 1983 election, they formed an alliance with the Liberal Party, then led by David Steel, and for a time were a genuine threat to Labour. And of course, there was the Falklands… (huh. I just typed Flaklands instead of Falklands. Given what happened and its effect upon the election, that’s probably just as accurate.)

Anyway, Thatcher was returned to power, increasing their majority to 100, from 44 (or really 68 – see above). Labour was hit hard; their total number of votes was only 3/4 of a million higher than the alliance and many blamed both the leader and their manifesto, memorably described later by a Labour MP as ‘the longest suicide note in history’.

And while the polls had predicted a return to power, they hadn’t predicted the Tories’s majority would almost triple.

The other election in which I recall that the polls got it wrong, this time spectacularly, was the election that took place nine years later, in 1992. Although she was no longer Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher’s shadow loomed large over the election, and indeed the campaign. John Major’s government – he’d taken over in November 1990 – had staggered on for the full five years (five year terms were fairly rare back then) and no-one expected his return with even a working majority. For the first time since 1974, people were talking about – and the polls indicated – that there’d be a hung parliament, and even if that happened, it was anybody’s guess which would be the resulting biggest party. Labour were consistently, albeit narrowly, ahead of the polls despite the public seeming to have a problem with the very idea of Neil Kinnock as a potential Prime Minister; such feelings weren’t helped by a presidential style campaign by Labour that did no favours to Kinnock and a right wing print media that expressed contempt at the notion of Prime Minister Neil Kinnock.  

Well, he did return as Prime Minister, the government’s majority slashed to 21. What happened? Well, I think the initial responses were the correct conclusions: when it came to the opinions polls, after thirteen years of Conservative government (eleven under Thatcher), a government constantly at war over the UK’s membership and Europe a Labour party that was only just hauling itself into the late twentieth century… people were ashamed to tell the opinion pollsters that they were voting conservative. There’s also some truth in the idea that as far as the public were concerned, the 1978 winter of discontent was still a relatively fresh memory, and before the Labour party could get real votes, they needed to lose from their top echelons those who’d been in senior party positons during that period.

By now, also, the Liberal party had merged with the remnants of the SDP and had become the Liberal Democrats. This was their first election under that banner and they did… “all right”. They lost a couple of seats, but given the other results that night, no-one was much paying attention to them… which was kind of the theme of their fortunes during much of the the next five years. I’m still of the view that the Lib Dems sneaked in under the radar in the final couple of long, horrible-for-John-Major years of the 1992-97 parliament and somehow, almost by accident, the Lib Dems more than doubled their seats in the 1997 election.

The 1997, 2001 and 2005 election results surprised no-one and, given the polls leading up to the last election, nor really did the 2010 results. What did surprise people was what happened next, not only who formed the government, but what each party had to give up to get there. I’ve said before that anyone who thinks the Tories got the better deal out of the coalition agreement is almost certainly right and those who think the Lib Dems got nothing are certainly wrong.

And so we’re now in the campaign period for the 2015 election and the polls are screaming out, even moreso than last time, that it’s going to result in a hung parliament. They’re probably right. And what happens next? Well, that won’t really surprise anyone; it’ll shock them. We’re still unused to coalition government and minority government in Westminster (you can’t extrapolate from one example) although it both happen all the time in regional and local government. Everyone will learn from the mistakes of last time and won’t make those mistakes.

I’m entirely sure, however, that new mistakes are waiting to be made on 8th May, 2015. And 9th May 2015 and… all the way through to 2020… or at least 2019 if someone does the sensible thing and reduce the term to four years. Now that’s a policy I could get behind.

Until tomorrow.

  1. The quote “the longest suicide note in history” was by Gerald Kaufman. Who also, when challenged about minorities in his local party, retorted “I am a minority”.

    The policies Kaufman was objecting to were described by the press at the time as “far left” and included;

    Getting rid of nuclear weapons (favoured by the SNP today)
    Leaving the European community (today UKIP and the far right of the Conservative Party)
    House building (the last time any government talked seriously about house building)
    Employment and training
    Raising child benefit to support families
    Increasing NHS spending
    Equal pay legislation
    Improved maternity rights
    Rail electrification
    Set international aid to 0.7% of GDP (didn’t Cameron recently do this)
    Fighting low pay
    Capping high fuel prices
    Set up a securities commission to regulate banks
    Provide financial services through an expanded Girobank to promote inclusion
    Strengthen occupational pensions and saving
    Increase anti-discrimination legislation at work
    Employment protection for the disabled

    Outrageous far left ideas at the time. It’s no wonder they were condemned by the press. Instead we had neo-liberal free market economics for 32 years.

    • To be fair, Steve it wasn’t only the press who condemned them. Many natural Labour Party voters were just fed up with a party that seemed far more interested in destroying parts of itself than fighting the conservatives.

      I don’t think the manifesto was solely responsible for the Labour losses. I say as much in the piece above. But it didn’t help matters. Nor did it help that you couldn’t get candidates to argue convincingly on the manifesto when faced with challenges by the right. And Foot as leader, with Healy as deputy, did nothing but exacerbate the problem. When they should have been angry, they were conciliatory and when they should have reasoned, they became dictatorial. It was a mess. There was a reason Kinnock won his election to leader afterwards. That entire generation of politicians was harmed by the 1983 campaign.

  2. We didn’t double our seats in 1997 by accident, we won them by intense targetting, set up well in advance (even before 92) by developing seats to give solid second places and a community politics record of action. That also partly explains the suprising lack of progress in 2010 – in 2005 rather than sensing how things were likely to pan out and targeting a bunch of Labour facing seats, we concentrated on the decapitation strategy against the Tories, giving us a whole one victory, and putting us in a bad position to take advantage of the fall of popularity of Labour under Brown.

    • I’m not convinced that anyone could have predicted the doubling in seats, or that it would have worked had the two main parties pretty much ignored the Lib Dems and concentrated their attacks on each other.

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