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Robert Worcester, Roger Mortimore & Paul Baines: Explaining Labour’s Landslip: The 2005 General Election (London: Politico’s, 2005, £20.00, 377 pages, ISBN 1842751468)Nicholas Deakin, London School of Economics

 

The 2005 General Election in the United Kingdom presented the curious spectacle of a contest in which every major contestant was in one way or another loser. This jaunty account by a team from MORI, the well-known social research and polling agency, offers some reasons for this paradoxical outcome. Labour, as the party in power, was clearly most at risk, but there was never any serious danger that it would lose. Sir Robert Worcester, as MORI’s managing director, makes a good deal—perhaps a little too much—of the accuracy of his own forecast, made a year earlier, of both the election date and the result. Nevertheless, the Government’s overall losses were sufficient to reduce an overwhelming majority in the Commons to what would normally be a comfortable level – but one at which backbench Labour rebels could realistically expect to play a more influential role. Meanwhile, nothing that occurred during the run-up to the Election or the campaign itself seriously suggested that the Conservatives could end their dismal sequence of crushing defeats; as it was, their limited advance confirmed that for them the process of recovery had barely begun. Nor were the Liberal Democrats anywhere near securing that eternal chimera, the third party breakthrough, and in the event their gains proved to be even fewer that their most pessimistic forecasts.

The element of predictability, coupled with the general air of disappointment with the outcome among all the contestants and the very low turnout (at 61% only slightly up on the all—time low of 2001) may suggest that this election was of no great interest except to psephologists and other election freaks. Not so. In the first place, there were those widely forecast events that did not materialise—the dogs that failed to bark. For example, it was widely assumed that the Prime Minister’s demonstrated loss of personal credibility would seriously damage his party. In the event, the electorate seem to have taken that conclusion in their stride and based their voting decisions on other criteria. Among them, the Iraq war and its consequences doesn’t seem to have weighed very heavily, except in a limited number of local situations. The Conservatives’ ‘dog-whistle’ tactics, imported from Australia, in which an attempt was made to tap into popular concern about immigration and refugees by innuendo, also failed to make any significant impact. The Countryside Alliance’s campaign against anti-hunting members of parliament and the Liberal Democrats’ attempt to ‘decapitate' the Conservative front bench had little measurable impact. And the Internet had almost no effect on the campaign or the outcome.

The MORI analysis helps us to understand some of these outcomes. Labour and Tony Blair’s credibility problems were glossed over by the electorate because they valued sound economic management and preferred Labour policies on the main issues which concerned them—predominantly health and education. This was reflected in Labour’s success in reversing the historical pattern and attracting proportionately greater support among women voters. Iraq was an issue for a segment of the middle class and for British Muslims: but only a few cases were it important enough to tip the scales in a local contest. The Tories’ failure to progress remained their image with the electorate—tired, out of date, tending towards the nasty. The public were prepared to accept that there were grounds for concern about race-related issues: but they didn’t want to hear about it from the Conservatives. And the Lib Dems remained caught in the perennial trap: should they be appealing to discontented Labour votes by branding themselves as a leftwing alternative, or to Tories as a safe option in the centre?

On all these major issue we are presented with useful data and sometimes provocative interpretations, crisply presented. There are some weaknesses, however. The analysis depends largely on data from national surveys and the writers’ focus is on events and the national campaign in England and occasionally Wales. The tables and maps exclude Northern Ireland and refer only in passing to Scotland. No serious attempt is made to sum up the implications of the campaign in the devolved nations or the impact of distinctive political developments there. Excluding Northern Ireland means omitting any account of the inexorable advance in Westminster elections of the radical parties in the Assembly, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists, at the expense of the former centrist partners, the SDLP and Ulster Unionists.

Although there is a useful passage on local government elections, there is no serious attempt to explore the dynamic of the campaign at constituency level. Some of the quirkier results therefore remain unexamined. There is an attempt to explore the Asian vote and the implications of their participation but only at aggregate, not constituency level. So the implications of the result in Bethnal Green and Bow (the first time since Common Wealth in 1943 that a newly created party has won a parliamentary seat at the first attempt) and the claim that Muslim activists contrived to oust Labour in Rochdale are not discussed. And the continued (unique) devotion of the electors of Wyre Forest to their Independent MP over two elections is mentioned simply as an anomaly, without explanation.

Finally, the general flavour may not be to everyone’s taste – the presentation of statistical data is user-friendly but the commentary verges sometimes on the facetious. There is also a near-obsessive desire to demonstrate that opinion polls have a near-perfect record in their forecasting. Yet you cannot help warming to authors whose declared intention is that readers should enjoy their text.

Six months after the election, the political landscape has been transformed. Two of the three major party leaders who contested it have departed. The Conservatives are being whisked off on a mystery tour in search of the hitherto elusive political centre by their new leader David Cameron (of whom only 2% of the electorate had heard before the election). His much-touted political honeymoon in turn precipitated the messy defenestration of the Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy, paradoxically the leader with the best ratings among the public, on MORI’s evidence. And on the Labour side, backbench defections have led to a series of defeats on Government legislation, which has in turn produced a hasty climb-down on Tony Blair’s flagship education proposals.

The immediate consequences of these changes are far too early to call. But MORI’s review of the evidence does offer some signposts for the longer-term future. One is the pervasive strong and continuing disillusion with the political class. The other is the steady growth in the importance of grey power as the numbers of voters over 65, who are disproportionately willing to fulfil their civic duty by voting, increases. A brighter future awaits the party—or leader—who can appeal in a fresh way that does not smell of spin and machine politics to that well-informed but increasingly cynical segment of the voting public.

Cercles2006
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