Just Like a Slow-Motion Car Crash

This is The Disappointing Election. Britain’s 2015 party political campaigns have varied from the uninspiring to the mediocre: the policy platforms are dreary, the parties remain cagey on the finer details of their proposals, and the polls reflect a widespread desire for everybody to lose. Yet, as the most unpredictable election in decades, it has all the fascination of a slow-motion car crash.

For Conservatives, Is the Mating Season All That’s Left?

It should be the Conservative Party’s to lose. They ought to be bounding ahead. The year started with a £78 million war chest for the party. And, as Armando Iannucci has argued, they have gone for the tried-and-tested designated bastard strategy, placing their trust in a prominent, well-remunerated campaigning guru who hopes to turn around their fortunes by appealing to voters’ base instincts. But it doesn’t seem to have worked on anything like the scale hoped for. Yes, the Opposition’s customary mid-parliament opinion poll lead over the Government has been reversed, but the parties remain mired in deadlock, evenly tied.

A long-term malaise has beset the Conservative Party. Historically the most electorally successful party in British political history, governing for 68 years of the last century, it now finds that election campaigns are not something that it culturally “does”. Part of the secret of Conservative success has been the integration of socializing into political campaigning: Lord Randolph Churchill’s Primrose League of the nineteenth century trialled this, and by the 1950s, the Young Conservatives alone boasted 150,000 members (more than the national Conservative Party today), and their dinner-dances remained the best place to find a prospective match during the party’s “mating season”.

But the parties and the campaigning no longer seem to go hand-in-hand. Conservatives still throw the best parties (I hold a lifetime ban from ever attending events of the Cambridge University Conservative Association, yet can confirm that they know how to party hard); but members increasingly don’t campaign afterwards. Campaigning is seen as rather vulgar. As such, money is thrown at campaigns, professional consultants are hired, leaflet deliveries are paid for, billboards are erected; every possible kind of political activity save actual volunteering. Such is the disdain by many Conservatives for the hurly-burly of electioneering that the party’s money doesn’t stretch nearly as far as it should; instead, much of it is squandered on making up for deficiencies in the party’s voluntary base; a palpable irony given David Cameron was elected on the back of Big Society rhetoric on voluntarism. Should the Conservatives fail to gain a majority this election—as is almost certain— then they will enter the 2020 election having not won an election outright in 28 years.

But they should not be written off entirely—Cameron is absolutely magnificent in a crisis (like the election that never was in 2007, when his spirited performance reversed the previous commanding Labour poll lead), but he is a lacklustre campaigner much of the rest of the time; and so the prospect of sleepwalking into Labour victory may yet play to Cameron’s strengths in the final days.

“Slightly Less Than This, Please”

A focus on campaigns should logically benefit Labour. After years of seeing their campaigning machine languish throughout the 2000s, they learned to maximize their resources, particularly in refining telephone canvassing. Since at least the 1980s, the Labour Party has fetishized the importation of cutting-edge campaigning techniques from America, not necessarily with the best of results (treating the Mondale and Dukakis campaigns of ’84 and ’88 as exemplars was a questionable strategy in the UK general elections of 1987 and 1992, which both resulted in Tory wins); and the importation of everything Obama is still the order of the day. (Labour campaign managers’ ranks are filled with people all claiming to have single-handedly run the Obama campaign and to be responsible for securing his re-election in 2012.)

Ego aside, these techniques have been quietly effective; in 2010, for instance, the Lib Dems were baffled when they failed to overturn Labour’s wafer-thin majority of 963 votes in Oxford East after having fought an aggressive leafleting campaign, sometimes flyering each home several times per day. It was only after the election that it emerged that Labour had personally spoken to at least 70% of the constituency’s voters over the phone, while the Lib Dems had focused on dumping paper through letterboxes.

Yet Labour are doing nowhere near as well as they should be. With an unpopular incumbent government responsible for massive austerity cuts, one might expect a golden opportunity for the Opposition. Instead, five years on from Ed Miliband becoming Labour leader, voters are still baffled as to what his party stands for or whom it represents. It still resembles a rump of class-based voters from Scotland, Wales, and the North of England who are unable to form a majority in themselves, but who can slavishly provide a base on which to piggy-back another group of MPs, free from the shackles of ideology, that is more palatable in the key southern marginal where elections have recently been won and lost. Five years on, there remains no coherent binding narrative and no uniting theme. Even in their opposition to the government’s austerity, Labour has managed little more than “slightly less of this, please”.

Labour’s Achilles’ heel remains Scotland, a socialist bastion where the party reliably sweeps up well over half the seats, but which, polls suggest, is now on course to be dominated by the Scottish National Party. The SNP’s stunning growth should come as no surprise; they made the most of the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence to break into areas like Glasgow that had previously been considered “black holes” for them. They have also been ably assisted by distinctly Prime Ministerial debate performances from their leader, Nicola Sturgeon, which help dispel their swivel-eyed image. One viewer of the debates memorably described Sturgeon’s performance as “A Scottish Columbo who keeps popping into David Cameron’s peripheral vision with ‘Just one more thing’; I expect that by the end of this session, he’ll be confessing to the murder of the NHS.”

Surviving Cleggism

If it is a hung parliament, spare a thought for the Liberal Democrats. Five years ago, they were the kingmakers. Yet five years of their ministers being spectacularly inept in managing their first spell in government in seventy years has seen them lose between two-thirds and three-quarters of their vote. The most symbolic issue for them has been the leadership’s U-turn on tuition fees—the party drew much support in 2010 for its long-standing pledge to abolish fees, but the coalition’s move to triple them just five months later dealt the party a mortal blow and a reputation for hypocrisy from which it has yet to recover. It has not helped that since 2007 the leadership of the Liberal Democrats has rested with Nick Clegg, whose views are significantly to the right of the British public, let alone to his own (largely left-wing) members. In 2010, the party’s appeal was based on its long-standing, left-leaning radical policies, and it polled 23% of the vote. 2015 will be the electorate’s first chance to deliver its verdict on what Cleggism has meant, and the party is expected to poll in single digits and lose over half of its seats. It will almost certainly be eclipsed by the SNP and be relegated to fourth party; so whereas everyone five years ago was speculating on what the Lib Dem negotiating position would be in a hung parliament, it is now seen as an irrelevance.

Just Plain Bonkers?

The anti-European UK Independence Party also looks set for a disappointment. There are two certainties about UKIP: their capacity to build themselves up again from nowhere and do shockingly well in each European election (they actually won in 2014); and their extraordinary capacity for collapsing shortly thereafter amidst a series of rows over racism, sexism, xenophobia, corruption, assault, personality clashes, and just being plain bonkers. The party only won its first House of Commons seats a few months ago, but whereas it was riding high in the opinion polls then, it now seems stuck around 11-13%—a perfectly respectable performance for a minor party, which would see it outpoll the Lib Dems, but not achieve the long-heralded breakthrough. Furthermore, there seems to be a glass ceiling on its ambition: its voters are overwhelmingly older, poorer, less educated, less liberal, and almost exclusively white. UKIP taps into a sizeable—but shrinking—population. With the passage of time, it can expect its vote to shrink, too.

Of the other parties, the Greens have attempted a breakthrough, and certainly their membership has seen an impressive surge in recent months; but a lacklustre campaign and a series of gaffes by their leader has seen them struggle to capitalise on their grassroots support, and like UKIP, their realistic parliamentary ambitions are between three seats and none. As with the Liberals in 1974 and 1983, the SNP and Plaid Cymru in 1979, and the Liberal Democrats in 1992 and 2005, it seems likely that the insurgent smaller parties can face a “squeeze” as polling day approaches, and while this will not deliver the “big two” a majority, it could see them do better than expected.

None of the Above

Overall, the winner of this election looks set to be the “none of the above” party. Since 2001, each election has seen more people not vote than have voted for the victor, and while turnout rose in the two elections since 2001, a widespread sense of apathy prevails. Party membership across the board is dying, and trust in politicians remains low (though not much lower than in the past few decades). Certainly, recent years have done nothing to provide much reassurance in the political process, with a combination of the 2009 expenses scandal, periodic donor scandals, and (I have an interest to declare here) the recent cash for peerages scandal broken by my colleagues and I. Politics may not be any more or less corrupt than it was before—there’s good reason to believe that it is less so, but that we’re better at detecting scandals—but we live in times of low expectations yielding low results. And this election has been an exercise in managing already-low expectations amidst a climate of disillusionment. So far, this largely forgettable campaign is set to go down in history as the election that was mainly memorable for offering smoother buttocks as a good reason for voting UKIP.


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Image Credit: Stig Nygaard from Flickr

About The Author

Seth Alexander Thévoz

Seth Alexander Thévoz is a political, cultural, and social historian of Europe from 1800 on. He holds degrees in history and politics from the Universities of Cambridge, London, and Warwick. His doctoral thesis, supervised by the History of Parliament Trust, was on the political impact of London gentlemen’s clubs in the nineteenth century, and his current research is on the history of British legislators’ outside financial interests from World War II to the present. He has first-hand experience of having worked with all political parties at Westminster over the last decade; and in his spare time he is Honorary Librarian of London’s National Liberal Club, where he curates a significant collection of rare political material covering the last two hundred years.

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  • Queen Mab

    This is precisely why you should not analyse an election before it happens.

    • Seth Alexander Thévoz

      In what way?

      I made no predictions on the outcome, I offered some reflections on the campaign – on paper, the Conservatives should have been absolutely storming it by a landlside, but they weren’t; Labour have a serious ideological problem that affects their ability to campaign effectively; the Lib Dems have been reduced to an electoral irrelevance; the SNP were set to take most seats in Scotland; UKIP and the Greens had a disappointing campaign; there is a long-term crisis of participation. All of these were valid observations.

      I made no attempt to call the election result, and don’t claim for a moment that I foresaw the unexpected Conservative victory; but I did make some modest observations on how the campaign had gone, and I’m happy to stand by them.

      • Queen Mab

        Oh, I know all that. It’s quite simply because one man’s disappointment is another man’s right-wing Christmas! That’s all.