Post Match Analysis: basic maths, campaign realities of UK Coalition Government

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(Editor’s Note: In the home stretch of the first 100 days of the UK’s Coalition Government, Nick Keable starts a three-part series that will look at how we got here, the impact of the new Coalition Government on planning reform and whither national housing policy.)

By Nick Keable, Vice President, UK Operations, The Saint Consulting Group

The event is over.  The victors are enjoying their glory.  The losers are squabbling amongst themselves.  The punters are looking to their next fix.  No, not the World Cup, I’m talking about the UK General Election.  The caravan has moved on, but what really happened?

Like most analysts in the political world, Saint Consulting had been pointing out for more than a year that it was most unlikely that the Tories would ever win the General Election outright.  Why?

First, some basic maths.

a) The steadily increasing number of third party votes since the 1950s has made it progressively harder for the two main parties to win outright at each election.  Just in raw votes, think about the growing number of votes that have been cast in recent elections for the Lib Dems, SNP, Plaid Cymru, DUP, UUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP, UKIP, Respect, BNP, Greens, English Democrats, Monster Raving Loony Party, various Independents – you get my drift.  In terms of seats, in 1951 there were only 9 non Labour or Tory MPs; by 1970, there were 12, by 1979 this had risen to 27 and now in 2010 we have 85.

b) The significant size of the swing needed by the Tories in many of their key 116 target seats because of their low starting point after a poor performance in the 2005 election. The Tories required the second largest swing to them in UK electoral history (after Labour’s landslide in 1997).

 

c) The inbuilt mathematical bias right now of the number of safe seats in favour of the Labour Party (historically this used to be the other way, and the ‘Boundary Commission’ has been playing with this for decades but population movement has always been ahead of them).

d) The differential between the disproportionally large number of inner city Labour held seats (in London, Birmingham, Merseyside, the North East and Glasgow) versus disproportionally smaller number of rural Tory seats.  This is in part due to the population shift from rural areas to cities in recent decades.

Secondly, maths aside, there are some election tactics reasons for this result as well.

e) The Labour campaign was always going to be a negative campaign in the ‘better the devil you know’ vein.  It was good politics to do that as sadly history has shown repeatedly that negative campaigning is more effective than positive campaigning.

f) The Tories’ strategy had been to keep their cards close to their chest to stop Labour stealing and/or savaging their policy ideas (remember the months and months of the political commentariat saying ‘the Tories are all spin, they haven’t told us one policy yet’).  This meant that they could unleash their policy agenda as the election was called.  This gamble relied on having a compelling agenda to wow the electorate.  Which, as it turned out, they didn’t.

Lastly, there are some election campaign realities that hurt the Tories.

g) The Labour vote held up surprisingly well.  Most surprised were Labour themselves!  Some quick analysis would indicate that the vote held up particularly well where there is a significant ethnic minority population and a large number of public sector employees.  I guess ‘Tory hatred’ is a factor we should use in election analysis from now on as this election showed that this is a real driver for some Labour voters.

h) The agreement by David Cameron to join the Prime Ministerial debates was in some ways a massive error.  It allowed Nick Clegg into the game.  No party leader ahead in the polls – including Tony Blair – had ever said yes before for exactly this reason, which had always stopped the debates due to the proportionality guidelines all broadcasters must follow during election campaigns under electoral law.  The so called ‘Clegg bounce’ meant that the Lib Dems were able to stop the Tories from winning any of their Lib Dem target seats, needed by Cameron to get over the 326 seat line.  (Many media pundits have said that the Lib Dems did badly because they had such good polling for a time and then actually lost 8 seats.  Not so.  This was a good result for them.  A year ago, they thought they might lose 20 seats).

i) If UKIP had not been standing, the Tories would have won a majority.  In round numbers, the 16,000 UKIP votes in the 20 most marginal constituency battles, robbed the Tories of an outright win.

j) Frankly, the Tories ran a poor campaign.  It was not very coherent, had no driving central narrative and lacked enough eye-catching policies.  Its central theme of the ‘Big Society’ was launched on an unprepared electorate, the lesson being that if you want a policy or position to be understood, then you have to lay the ground early.

Nick Keable is vice president, UK operations, for The Saint Consulting Group, email: keable@tscg.co.uk or phone +44 207 592 7050

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