Why the Tories didn’t win

John Rentoul

106 s Why the Tories didnt winI am a great admirer of Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Sussex, whose The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron is a model of contemporary history. He has a short article in Parliamentary Brief this month, which has the best three-paragraph encapsulation of what happened at the 2010 election I have read:

The key task facing Cameron when he took over in late 2005 was reassuring voters that the Conservatives could be trusted on welfare and public services.  All the market research suggested that this was the sine qua non — a necessary if not a sufficient condition — of a return to office … Just as important were the signals sent out to people working in the public sector — and not just those in the supposedly sacred ‘front line’– that the party no longer regarded them as a waste of time and taxes.

When the global financial crisis hit and Britain’s budget deficit ballooned, however, this task remained unfinished and work on it practically ceased.  Gambling on the fact that they would be given brownie points for honesty, and believing that, as the most likely next government, they should start softening up the public for inevitable spending reductions, the Tories switched from reassurance to rhetoric about the age of austerity.

This, far more than an admittedly lacklustre campaign, was what did for them at the election: Labour may have been a busted flush but it was still able to scare enough voters about the Conservative’s intentions to deny them an overall majority.

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    I think one also needs to factor in the relentless personal attacks on Brown, which many people found grubby, over-the-top and unfair. (This also applies to people who weren’t even that keen on Brown or Labour, but by a kind of reverse psychology began to feel he wasn’t as bad as all that.)

    Additionally, the fact that Cameron himself is seen as a slightly effete rich boy with a sense of entitlement and little idea about the reality of most people’s lives.

  • davepx

    Seems to me the piece overrates an election runup that was lacklustre all round, drawing back only a third of the millions lost to voting under Blair. Too many people who considered Brown a disaster just didn’t trust the Tories, and they were right not to. I don’t know that Labour succeeded in scaring many off voting Tory: the then Opposition’s “toff boy” image certainly didn’t help, but you didn’t need a call from Gordon to figure out that these were hardly sons of toil in touch with the lives of the less privileged.

    William’s probably onto something about the obscene anti-Brown frenzy, though I suspect the numbers were small: I wasn’t going to vote Labour after Iraq but I did in May because the right’s disgusting personal hatred was destroying our politics, Sadly I think far more were drawn to the frothing pack in a US Republican-style departure that may yet come back to haunt those who sought to profit from it.

  • capa75

    osborne didn’t help much either I suspect…

  • markfour

    Quite agree, the man who was going to do away with ‘Punch and Judy ‘, ended up the biggest Judy of all time.

  • Charles Barry

    Interesting. So you’re saying that if Cameron had done a Thatcher circa 1979 (campaign on reassurance – remember her words on entering downing street “where there is discord, I will bring harmony”), he would be able to be more hawkish in government. However what he actually did was play hawkish in the campaign and then have to be dovish as a result of the coalition.

    However, the thing that saved Thatcher was the Falkland conflict. Without an obvious parallel, if Cameron was more dogmatic – ‘cut like there’s no tomorrow’ than he had said in the campaign (and let’s be fair, everyone knew that the Tories would cut if they got in), I think he would be grossly unpopular and would lose the election in 2015 (or whenever).

  • Daniel Earwicker

    Cameron got more votes in 2010 (10,726,614) than Blair did in 2005 (9,566,618). Meanwhile Brown got fewer votes in 2010 (8,609,527) than Michael Howard did in 2005 (8,785,941).

    So depending on the state of the constituency boundaries, you can get a healthy majority of 66 (Blair, 2005) or fall short by 20 (Cameron, 2010).

    This vast difference in outcomes has nothing to do with the popularity of policies, the mood of the public, the image of the leaders, etc. All those factors are drowned out in the distortions of the electoral system. As long as we have such a system, analysis like this – which talks about the popularity of a policy area with “the public” nationally – is completely worthless. The real answer lies is in what happened in 50 or so marginal constituencies, and in many such places the Tories may have been denied a gain by the rising vote of the Lib Dems, not Labour.

    (The biggest absurdity is not that the Tories didn’t win a majority, but that the Lib Dems increased their vote count from 5,985,414 to 6,836,824 – a very significant increase – and yet ended up with 5 fewer seats than in 2005.)

  • Whyshouldihavetoregister

    with apologies for the cliché, why it interesting that a professor has discovered that turkeys don’t vote for Christmas?

  • Hampstead Owl

    It remains the case that in only one British general election in the last 100 years – 1970 – has a majority government of one party been replaced by a majority formed by the other Cameron’s task was historically huge, especially given the gross distortion of the parliamentary constituencies as Daniel Earwicker describes. The swing achieved from Labour to the Conservatives was the largest ever, with the sole exception of Mrs Thatcher in 1979.

    I suspect the reason that you are so attracted to Professor Bale’s opinion is that it rests the leftist assumption that the only legitimate role of government is to support an ever-expanding public sector. It would be hard to argue that Mrs Thatcher won three elections by trying to reassure people that she was a friend of the welfare state. Rather I suspect that her electoral appeal sprang from a hard-won reputation for economic competence and toughness, which the country badly needed after the horrors of the 1970s. It was only when the Tories lost that reputation that they started to get stuffed at the polls and the process of burying the “nasty party” image – which began after 1997 – was not noticeably successful until Gordon Brown made the defeat of Labour inevitable.

    I think there are plenty of lessons in this for yourself, Professor Bale and, for that matter, David Cameron.

  • ArabianPrincess

    I find it astonishing that Labour still got over 8 million votes considering the ruin of the country’s culture and economy under their stewardship.

    Labour got so many votes because people do vote for their own interests, welfare recipients (have never been so well off under a Tory government), public sector jobs and for recent immigrants the right to stay in the country and bring their families with them. The fact that a lot of hard working, working class voters abandoned them says a lot about where the votes actually came from..

    Over 1.8 million British passports were given to new arrivals, if I was one I would probably have voted for Labour too and wouldn’t have given a stuff about the economy, rather let that be someone else’s problem.

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