The post election analysis suggests the Tories could dominate for the next decadeby Peter Kellner / May 15, 2015 / Leave a comment
With only a small amount of luck, and unless they behave stupidly, the Conservatives have not only won this year’s general election: they should win the next one, too.
Arithmetic underpins this analysis. Across England last week, there was a 1.4 per cent swing from Conservative to Labour—the latter performed well in its city strongholds of London, Manchester and Liverpool where it piled up votes. Had this swing been repeated in every seat, Labour should have gained 19 seats and lost none. Only in London did the party’s performance in Tory marginals match the national swing. Elsewhere, in the seats that mattered to Labour, there was a significant swing to the Conservatives. As a result, take away London, and the Tories gained more seats from Labour (eight) than they lost (six).
This was partly because of the “sophomore surge”, of which I have written before: Conservative MPs elected for the first time in 2010 did better than other Tory MPs. They enjoyed an average swing of 1.5 per cent to them. As they occupy almost every Tory seat that Labour was targeting, their success made the difference between a minority and majority Conservative government.
Looking forward, one consequence is that there are fewer marginal Conservative seats than normal. This will help the Tories next time: a small adverse swing will not lose them many seats. Indeed, one of the truths of the past two decades has been reversed. It used to be said that Britain’s political geography favoured Labour; if the two parties won the same number of votes, Labour would have more MPs.
Not so now. The Conservatives achieved a 6.6 per cent lead across Britain last week in the popular vote. A 3.3 per cent swing to Labour would bring the two parties to parity in votes, but leave the Tories with around 40 more MPs on the current boundaries. (Seat-parity would require Labour to regain every seat it lost to the SNP. Hands up all those who think that’s likely.)
That’s not the end of the Tories’ good-news arithmetic. David Cameron will now revive his plans to redraw parliamentary boundaries and reduce the total number of MPs from 650 to 600. My guesstimate—the detailed seat-by-seat analysis has yet to be done—is that had last week’s election been fought on the proposed boundaries, the Conservatives would have won 321 of the 600 seats: ten fewer MPs, but an overall majority of 42 instead of 12. Labour’s tally would have been 25 down, at 207. Boundary changes will increase the size of the mountain Labour must climb, and improve significantly the Tories’ view from the summit. (Conservative sources have denied a suggestion that Cameron might keep 650 MPs, to appease Tory MPs fearful of losing their own seats; but even if this did happen, it would not change the basic fact that the changes would be good for the Conservatives and bad for Labour.)
So much for the arithmetic, now the politics. The Conservatives won last week despite being hobbled by two handicaps. They still had a weak brand image, as an out-of-touch party that really cares only for the rich; and they presided over five years of stalled living standards. Cameron has signalled this week that he understands this image problem and want to address it; and there must be a good chance that he will be able to tell a story of higher living standards in 2020 than he could this year.
Indeed, the two things go together: rising general living standards will help the Conservatives improve their brand image. The Conservatives have some chance of doing something that no governing party has ever done since all adults have had the vote: increase its vote share in two successive elections.
What could go wrong? The most obvious retort to the above analysis is: remember 1992. Then the discussion was whether Britain had become, essentially, a one-party democracy, with the dominant Tories likely to stay in power for decades. Serious political scientists pondered whether Labour was condemned to permanent opposition.
Five years later, the Tories lost half their seats, and Labour won with a majority of 179. Could a similar turn-round happen this time? Well, yes, anything is possible. But two big factors propelled Labour to victory: the humiliation of Black Wednesday in September 1992, when Britain crashed out of Europe’s exchange rate mechanism and the Conservatives lost their reputation for economic competence—and the election of a truly exceptional MP, Tony Blair, as Labour’s leader.
So, if history is to be repeated, Labour needs another Black Wednesday and another Tony Blair. Unless Britain suffers an equivalent of the first, and Labour matches the second, the Conservatives will be hard to beat in 2020.