One of the most remarkable of all sites connected with politics is UK Polling Report – the site run by pollster Anthony J. Wells, which far from taking a party political line, attracts people from all sides of the political debate who are interested in the numbers and analysis. However, if the predictions that were made by many of its denizens are anything to go by (amazingly collated by one of the contributors – see UK Polling Report to find a link to the spreadsheet) then most of those frequenting the site will be scratching their heads today as they consider what went wrong – not with the campaigns, but with the polls over the last few weeks.
It’s a legitimate question to ask given how things turned out. Almost every poll going seemed to indicate a very tight election, almost certainly a hung parliament, and a new coalition or a minority government propped up by less formal agreements. And then came the results of the Exit Poll, greeted with almost stunned disbelief even by those who found their wildest expectations exceeded. Paddy Ashdown said he’d eat his hat, Alaisdair Campbell his kilt if the exit poll was right; even Michael Gove seemed to think that they might not do quite as well as the initial prediction. The fact that the Exit Poll if anything very slightly understated the result – Conservatives gaining even more seats, Labour and the Lib Dems losing even more – suggests that all the polling companies are going to have to take a long, hard look at their methods.
Meanwhile, the political inquests are already starting at Labour and Lib Dem HQs. Both of them will need to do some careful analysis; whether they will reach satisfactory conclusions though is open to question.
First, a quick comment about the Lib Dems. Coalition has often been a difficult expeerience for the junior partner, and for them it was a particularly bad one: in some ways, they have found themselves completely squeezed out. For what we might call the progressives, the softer left and centre, they became a scapegoat in my view: blamed for much of the austerity and perceived injustices of the last five years when, brutally, they failed to stand up to their senior partners. The Conservatives didn’t suffer because most of their voters in 2010 knew that this was what they expected from their chosen party; if anything, the Tory vote may have been firmed up by being able to write off any unfilled pledges as being due to the demands of coalition, while the Lib Dems never escaped the perception that they’d sold their soul for a bit of power and a Referendum on AV. To a large number of the “Anyone but Tory” vote, they became anathema, while they failed to appeal to the centre ground who might normally consider them.
Labour however suffered for more complex reasons and they need to spend some time thinking about them. First, possibly one of the key factors was that they simply failed to convince enough of the electorate to trust them again; after the car crash of the Brown years (not entirely Brown’s fault, but he didn’t seem to know what to do about it) Labour needed to lay out an Economic Programme that looked sound, imaginative, and inspiring – a true alternative vision. They tried, but too many people simply didn’t believe them; they couldn’t bring themselves to trust the people who, rightly or wrongly, in the public mind carried the can for the problems since 2009. The average voter isn’t going to read about the issues in depth; they’re not going to care about the worldwde economic situation, or the American-led bad debt issues that enveloped so many financial institutions. “It’s the economy, stupid” said Bill Clinton many years ago – and Labour didn’t convince on the economy and will have to work hard to change that.
There’s also the issue of what their campaign focussed on. In some ways, under Ed Milliband, Labour attempted to head back towards its roots somewhat – champion the working man, tax the rich, social justice. But the perceived betrayal of the Blair years, when Labour seemed to be less the party of Socialism and more the party of “whatever will get us elected” means that it has lost contact with those roots; while many still voted for them, the ties that bind have weakened and you do wonder if some of those traditional Labour households no longer feel that it’s their party any more. Instead, they latched on to UKIP – a party with a keen eye for a populist policy or seven, the Greens (albeit in smaller numbers) who seem to be offering a sort of Environmental Socialism, or simply stayed at home. However, for the centre ground – which Blair won from so convincingly – they looked too much like the party of, if not Tony Benn and Michael Foot, then at least Neil Kinnock and John Smith.
However, one must also acknowledge that agree with them or not, the Conservatives actually won the election as much as anyone else lost it. They presented a vision that enough people bought into to elect them; they presented themselves as a strong party of government, and you suspect that many were swayed not so much by the political principles as by the image of a party ready to govern with a plan on how they were going to do it. To this end, Cameron’s refusal to participate in the leader’s debate was actually a good thing for him; he dealt from a position of strength and left the others to argue it out. Arguably Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP were the only other party to benefit – looking strong and forceful, and already governing in Scotland. They provided the only other leader who looked Prime Ministerial – and they were no threat to the Tories anyway as if anything they were already going to make it harder for Labour to become the largest party. People who maybe aren’t so political can sometimes be swayed by that perception; they won’t read the manifestos, but will go by that decision of will they offer stable government. Thatcher managed it; Major didn’t. Blair did, for a time at least; Brown didn’t have the same appeal. Cameron built on his time as Prime Minister to make enough of the apolitical ones decide they’d prefer him to the alternatives.
Finally, it will be interesting to see where UKIP goes now. Nigel Farage is at least going to allow a leadership contest, and his party have surprised many by showing that they are not about being a party merely of disaffected Tories, but a real challenger for the votes of the centre ground too. They will talk of a broken voting system – something pretty much every party other than the big two will always do – but with no real prospect of change. The challenge for them is whether they can maintain their momentum, hold onto their place in the spotlight, and become a real alternative to the established parties for a long period of time. Will they replace the Lib Dems as the third force and a destination for those who’d never vote for the other of the big two? Or will their fragile patchwork of party machinery across the country disperse before it can be more permanently harnessed? Only time will tell.