Now that the dust has had a bit of time to settle, I plan to write a five-part series on the results of the election. To anyone who feels intimidated by that prospect, I’ll say only this: each part will be short. In order, I want to look at why the Conservatives won, why the SNP took nearly every seat in Scotland, why Labour lost, why the Liberal Democrats were wiped out, and why UKIP won 12% of the vote but only one seat.
Strap yourselves in, here we go.
The most striking thing about this election is not so much the result itself as the utter failure of pre-election polls to predict it. Even the exit poll, which was much more accurate than what came before, fell far short of predicting the Conservative margin of victory. What explains this?
Some have blamed the polling methodology, but I don’t think that explains matters at all. For one thing, there was an impressive unanimity across many pre-election polls conducted by many organisations, all of them saying it was going to be very close between Conservative and Labour. And everyone was saying the one thing we knew for sure was that it would be a hung parliament (i.e. with no one party winning an overall majority). I doubt all the polling organisations had methodological flaws that resulted in the same mistake.
Other blame “shy Tories” — people who voted Conservative, but were ashamed to admit it to pollsters. I’m not completely convinced by this, either, in part because I’d expect people who were ashamed to say they were going to vote Conservative would also have been ashamed to say they just had voted Conservative. No doubt shy Tories had some effect on the outcome, but I don’t think they can explain the radical shift we saw.
Instead, I think that shift from pre-election polling to actual voting was real — that people who had been planning to vote Labour or LibDem changed their minds. Probably more importantly, people who’d not made up their minds at all ultimately decided Conservative. (Remember, I myself was not sure who I was going to vote for right up till I walked into the polling station, and the Conservative candidate was one of the options — albeit due to a perverse constituency.)
So why did the undecided voters all jump to the right on election day, taking some LibDem and Labour voters with them? Is it because the Conservatives laid out a compelling and inspiring vision?
I don’t think so. I admit I have a bias here — I believe it’s more moral to take money from rich people than from poor people — but it’s not just that I didn’t see a compelling and inspiring Conservative vision. I know quite a few Conservative voters, and none of them seemed excited about their party in the run-up to the election. No-one was telling me “The Conservative policies are the ones this country needs!” No-one was saying “David Cameron is the man to lead us to prosperity!” Even among habitual Conservative voters, all I was hearing was a dutiful sense that, well, OK, time to vote for their party again.
So if that level of enthusiasm was the best that even habitual Tory voters were able to summon, why did others join them when it counted on polling day?
Here’s my tentative conclusion: the Conservatives didn’t win the election. The other parties lost it. It’s true that the Conservatives didn’t present a compelling vision, but neither did Labour or the LibDems. (I will look at why that was later in this series.) The alternatives didn’t give the electorate anything to vote for.
My take is that in the end, undecided voters looked at what was on the menu, gave a little sigh, and put their cross in the “seems like they know what they’re doing” box. Merely by virtue of having been the dominant party in government for the last five years, the Conservatives have gained a lustre of responsibility, an air of competence, that Labour can’t match. Cameron has acquired — we may as well admit it — a certain gravity that Miliband and Clegg lacked, purely by virtue of having spent half a decade as Prime Minister.
I think the Conservative majority in this election was primarily a vote based on fear that anything else meant we’d get a less experienced, less competent version of what we already have.