2005 General Election Post Mortem, Pt I: the Tories’ rigor mortis

by Stephen Tall on May 9, 2005

“I mean, how hard can it be to win an election?” Perhaps the best part of Thursday night for those of us who gain some sadistic pleasure from watching the Tory Party in pain is that they did just well enough to think they actually did well. Self-deception is a wonderful anaesthetic, and I can only hope the Tories continue to enjoy feeling comfortably numb for another four years. It will make the Liberal Democrat task that much easier. Am I being harsh? Is this just party partisanship? Am I breaking my self-imposed principle not to toe-the-party-line? Not a bit of it. Here’s why…

In 1997, the Tories polled 30.6% of the national vote. This surged to 31.7% in 2001. It soared at this election to 32.3%. Despite eight years of Tony Blair and New Labour – Iraq, tuition fees, ID cards, pensions, Council Tax, spin and Railtrack – the Tories increased their popularity by all of 1.7%, most of which they achieved under William Hague. The party of Disraeli, Churchill and Thatcher appears to be incapable of persuading more than one-third of the British public to entrust them with governing this country again.

Officially, the BBC records the overall result of this general election as showing a swing of 3% from Labour to the Conservatives. Such a figure is, though, pretty misleading. The layperson would infer from such a statistic that Labour lost support to the Conservatives. Hmmm, not so much. What it shows is that Labour’s share of the vote dropped by a startling 5.5%, while the Tories put on 0.6%. (Combine the two figures then divide by two to calculate the swing.) It would be a far more accurate representation of the election to show an overall swing from Labour to the Liberal Democrats of 4.5% – because that was the real story of these results.

To show how this worked in practice, let’s take the seat of St Albans, which I looked at in one of my earliest articles. ** If you’re at all allergic to smugness, by the way, I recommend you skip the next few paragraphs, and I’ll see you again at the sentence beginning, “In fairness, it should be conceded…” ** For those of you immune to gloating this was what I projected the result could be:

“[My] assumptions give you the following result:

Conservative, 15,423, 37% (+2%)
Labour, 14,917, 36% (-9%)
Liberal Democrat, 10,830, 26% (+8%)
Conservative majority = 506

In this model, the Conservatives would gain this Labour seat – even though they won not one single extra vote – as a result of an 8.5% swing from Labour to the Lib Dems.”

Here’s what actually happened on 5th May:

    Conservative, 16,953, 37% (+2%)
    Labour, 15,592, 34% (-11%)
    Liberal Democrat, 11,561, 25% (+7%)
    Conservative majority = 1,361

The headline swing in St Albans was 6.5% from Labour to Conservative – yet you can clearly see how little of the story that bald statement reveals. The swing which mattered was 9% from Labour to the Lib Dems. The Tory vote scarcely shifted from 2001, and what increase there was is largely attributable to higher turn-out. In short, I got it right.

In fairness, it should be conceded that not all Tory gains were the result of Labour voters switching to back the Lib Dems. (Welcome back, by the way, fans of non-smugness.) There were 30 straight Conservative gains from Labour, and in 15 of these the swing from Labour to Lib Dem was larger than was the swing from Labour to the Tories. Now I should clarify – for fear of lending credence to Labour’s maliciously untrue “Vote Lib Dem, get a Tory” slogan – that this does not necessarily mean the Tories squeaked these victories as a result of Labour supporters switching to the Lib Dems. In some instances, the Tories won enough support directly from Labour to win regardless. But it does highlight how those voters looking to give the Government a kicking in Tory target seats did not automatically choose the blue option.

This is a worrying development for the Tories, as is perhaps the most significant underlying trend of this election: the number of seats in which the Lib Dems are in second place is up to 190, almost double the 2001 tally – 126 of these are Labour seats, of which 40 are vulnerable to swings to the Lib Dems of 10% or less.

Yet to form a future government, with a majority of just one, the Tories need to win 324 seats, 127 more than their current total. The Lib Dems’ gradual replacement of the Tories as the main challenger to Labour in dozens of urban seats makes this an all but impossible attainment. The only places where the Tories showed any real sign of increased popularity was in the South-East (+2.1%) and East of England (+1.5%), and in London (+1.4%). However, there are just 55 seats in these three areas currently held by Labour where the Tories are in second place. If – and it’s so big an if as to be an almost worthless hypothetical – the Tories won every single one, they would still require a further 71 seats, in areas where their vote share is static or even decreasing, to hit that magic figure of 324 MPs. All of which, remember, would give them a majority of one.

To date, I’ve kept my powder dry when discussing the Tories’ campaign svengali, Lynton Crosby: the only fair way to judge him, after all, was by results, and I came a cropper thinking Karl Rove had messed-up President Bush’s re-election by focusing too much on the Republicans’ core vote. But the only conclusion now to draw is that Mr Crosby made an almighty hash of the Tories’ campaign.

There are, though, some positives which must first be credited before I deliver him the dissing he so richly merits. First, he stymied the Lib Dems’ gauche decapitation strategy; and to take on the Lib Dems’ strategy guru, Lord Rennard, and win takes some gumption (and, of course, a lot of cash). Secondly, the Tories smartened up their act some, and ran professional campaigns in their key marginal seats. Thirdly, this was the first election in 22 years when the Tories made a net gain of seats, and it would be churlish not to acknowledge such an advance.

Now for the debits. First, the Tories’ alleged secret weapon of ‘dog whistle’ policies (heard only by those at whom they are aimed) was conducted at a high-pitched, and self-defeating, screech fully audible to all. The focus on immigration may have helped shore up the core Tory vote, but it halted moderate floating voters in their tracks, and energised Labour supporters who otherwise might happily have sat on their hands.

Secondly, the Tories failed to broaden their base, essential for their future development as seen earlier. They simply cannot win again as a government unless they can give Labour a run for their money in its northern and urban heartlands. In this, the Tory campaign made no advance at all; indeed, in the East Midlands, North West, Yorkshire and Humberside, and North East their support slipped back.

Thirdly, they failed to communicate their policies, except on immigration. What utterly bewilders me about the Tories’ campaign was their refusal to take the fight to Labour on the big issues where the Tories could have hit them hard. Top of my list would be pensions, the one public policy area where it is commonly recognised Labour – and even their new Messiah, Gordon Brown – has botched the job. Not only would this have helped highlight one of the Tories’ few genuinely popular policies – restoring the link between earnings and the state pension – but it would have tangentially aided them in tarnishing Mr Brown’s teflon reputation. And, of course, pensioners vote in numbers, oftentimes for the Tories.

Why did they not go after Labour on Council Tax? I bet more voters were aware by the end of the campaign of the Lib Dems’ pledge to scrap Council Tax in favour of local income tax than knew about the Tories’ half-hearted £500 cash-back promise to pensioners.

Why did they not deploy the still-popular Kenneth Clarke on the day the closure of Rover was announced to emphasise the economic clouds on the horizon which Mr Brown’s public spending largesse has, in part, conjured?

Instead, they appeared to have taken a Trappist vow never to mention any policy area on which the polls suggested Labour might have an advantage. The trouble was, this excluded everything except immigration and crime. Such was Mr Crosby’s mastery that, after four weeks of the Tories’ shrill, negative campaigning, Labour had drawn level even on these two issues.

The Tories messed-up this election big time, few more so than Mr Crosby. As yet, the full scale of their defeat has not become apparent. It will do so. For now, they have some displacement therapy with which to busy themselves: another leadership contest. Tory MPs like these: the media takes them seriously, and the public shows some flickering interest (a bit like the snooker, it’s nice when it’s on). In a few years’ time, they will wake up to their predicament; but, until then, we should just let them sleep, and think of it as a kindness they don’t deserve.