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Thursday, 21 May 2015

How the Conservatives Won It

So, the general election is over, and the dust is settling following the Conservatives' unexpected majority victory. I will be upfront - I am at heart pretty liberal and left leaning, and like many liberal lefties, I was disappointed, and a little taken aback by the result. However, I am also a pragmatist and a great believer in the existence of complexity and nuance in all things. Questions over the fairness of our electoral system aside, we are where we are, and the change occurred because more people voted Conservative this time than last time. The question is why?
 
Political pundits have provided all manner of pet theories and have analysed to death the voter demographics and statistical swings that resulted in the Tory's return to full control. I've been frustrated by the lack articles that take a holistic overview of things however, so I thought, while I waited for an impossibly delayed train, I'd have a go at pulling together something myself. As you do.
 
Perhaps the best place to start is by looking at the things that influence party political affinities in the first place. A quick Google (I'm so NOT an academic!) of the question "what influences the way people vote?" brings up a range of answers, which can be sorted into three basic categories. The first might be best described as voter attributes, such as: 
  • Income
  • Class
  • Age
  • Ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Religion
  • Sexuality
  • Health and disabilities
  • Family, friend and colleague opinions ('peer pressure')
  • Profession and personal interests
  • Personality type
The second category covers the actions of the political parties (and their MPs): what the parties say they're going to do as part of their manifestos, but also what they have done (or not done) in the past, and what they say about their rivals.  
 
The third is a conduit between the two previous categories: the media, and more precisely, the way the media represents the policies, activities and values of the political parties.   
 
In addressing the first of these categories, we can be reasonably confident that the UK demographic will not have changed significantly in the 5 years since the last general election.  Attributes such as the above tend to indicate general voting trends (i.e., older populations tend to lean to the right and younger ones to the left), but as they shift so slowly, they are rarely the catalyst for any significant change in the seats held or lost from one election to the next. That said, one attribute that has shifted a bit is income: the economy is stronger than it was in 2010 (if not as good as it might be) and unemployment is down, so for many families, income is more dependable now than it was then, if not necessarily higher. However, for those still unemployed, or on benefits for other reasons, their income may now be less due to the cuts made to welfare provisions. While I don't have the resources to crunch the numbers, it is plausible that any shift towards Labour by voters fed up with benefits being slashed would be offset by a swing towards the Tories by voters pleased to have jobs again, and glad the economy is largely back on track.
 
Of much greater significance is the actions, policies and rhetoric of the parties themselves. The Conservatives won because some parties did badly - primarily the Liberal Democrats - and others did well in areas they were never going to win, knocking Labour out of contention - think the SNP. The Huffington Post and others have provided a very good overview of why the Lib Dem's lost so many seats this time around, so I won't reiterate in any detail, but essentially it boils down to a lack of understanding/belief amongst voters of the Lib Dem's achievements while in the Coalition (mostly because the Lib Dems failed to shout about the few there were), their slightly negative/weak "we're only worth voting for because we can stop the other parties being nasty / fiscally irresponsible" campaign, and the trust that the party lost when it backtracked on tuition fees. Many voters switched to the Lib Dems last time round because they were fed up with Labour, but couldn't bring themselves to vote Conservative. This time, the issues above, together with the fear that voting for them might have unintended consequences (such as a Labour / SNP coalition - see below), meant the Conservatives didn't seem such a bad option (or even the Greens, who stole a fair few votes too). 
 
The seats lost by the Lib Dems are only half the story however. Labour, who were always going to be the Conservatives' main rivals, managed to lose a fair few seats themselves. In Scotland, traditionally far more left-wing than the rest of the UK, virtually the whole country switched to the SNP from Labour. The strong feeling left in the wake of the Scottish referendum is probably primarily responsible (the recent sting of losing caused many more SNP supporters to actively turn out to vote than Labour supporters), but the SNP's leader, Nicola Sturgeon, also proved herself to be sharp and likeable, and did very well in the leadership debates. Labour also lost ground in the South of England and Midlands, but here, some believe that this was due to them being too leftist, as opposed to the view in Scotland that they just we're quite leftist enough (see Larry Elliott's piece in The Guardian for more on this). What this means for the future of the party is unclear, but the impossible quandary makes me very glad I'm not in any way involved in the debate.
 
Finally you have the role of the media in all of this. The media are the filter through which we receive the majority of communication from the parties concerned, whether directly, as in party political broadcasts or leadership debates, or indirectly, through news on the parties' campaigns and reporting on the latest polls. The newspaper you read and the news you watch is to a large extent governed by your political leanings: people like to have their own opinions reflected back at them, and most papers (in particular) also do an excellent job of perpetuating and reinforcing those opinions, and making sure alternative options are never really explored (at least not in a truly 'balanced' way). It's a generalisation, but if you vote Green, you're unlikely to read the Daily Mail, nor would you likely read The Guardian if you voted UKIP; both because you wouldn't like the content, but also because the paper you do read would probably, subtly or not, have persuaded you that all supporters of the other guys - and thus readers of rival papers - are raving lunatics. 
 
I often wonder what would happen if every paper in Britain radically shifted their position on the political spectrum for a week. Would people simply throw their cornflakes over the pages and cancel their subscription? Or might some minds be opened to other ways of thinking?  If reactions to The Sun's flip-flopping between Labour and the Tories is anything to go by, only about a third of readers would actually notice, but as it's never going to happen across the board, let's get back to the point...
 
In the same way that they make their position on the political spectrum apparent, many media outlets will be quite upfront about the associated Leader they back, with their choice influenced by vested interests (think the Murdoch media empire) or traditional readership (think the Guardian). Others remain neutral, though even organisations such as the BBC are accused of bias - most commonly towards the left, although as a number of commentators have noted (see the Independent and Guardian), their more recent coverage has focussed predominantly on traditionally right-wing issues. How much leadership backing actually influences the way people vote is debatable - as Jane Martinson explains, it is very difficult to gauge such things accurately, but experts on the subject are largely of the opinion that any real influence is marginal. However, it is notable that the bulk of newspapers backed the Tories this time around, most notably The Sun, The Times, The Daily Mail, The Telegraph, and even the Independent towards the end. Rupert Murdoch's media empire in particular is often credited with swaying the vote - The Sun has backed the eventual victor in every election since it was founded - though whether this is due to real influence or simply a canny knack for predicting a winner is unclear.
  
What is fairly clear is that social media, despite being seen as displacing the traditional print media, has less influence than those traditional channels, at least if the weirdly but wildly popular #Milifans campaign is anything to go by. I don't see the attraction myself, but Ed Miliband's Twitter fans were certainly very enthusiastic, and their campaign of Ed worship was by far the most prominent Twitter trend of the election. If nothing else, at least he got to step down in the knowledge that an army of young women regarded him as something of an geeky Adonis, not something that poor old plastic-faced Dave is ever likely to experience in his lifetime. 
 
A potentially more influential factor was the media's reporting on the polls leading up to the election. Polls on voting intentions are meant to help parties gauge the impact of their election campaigns and tweak their targeting accordingly. Interestingly however, they can also influence the result of the election by encouraging tactical voting in marginal seats. Ethical or not, the neck-and-neck finish predicted by so many pollsters is likely to have pushed some voters to vote for a candidate that they didn't necessarily support, but whom had a much better chance of blocking a candidate they really hated than the candidate they might more naturally have gone for. With a bit of a frenzy whipped up by the Tories and the media that voting Lib Dem could open the door for 'Red Ed' and a Labour / SNP coalition (which apparently would have been a BAD thing), tactical voting for the Conservatives was encouraged by a number of papers, particularly in areas where the polls suggested it was too close to call. The Liberal Democrats have blamed this tactical voting 'craze' for losing them a huge number of seats, though again, exactly how much it contributed to the final outcome is difficult to fully quantify, at least at the moment.
  
If it did influence things however, it begs the question why did the pollsters get it so wrong, and might the result have been different if they had predicted a Conservative victory all along? The BBC presents a useful overview of possible reasons for their failures, including the 'Shy Tory' factor (essentially a reluctance to admit to pollsters that you vote Tory, presumably due to their reputation as the 'Nasty Party'); a lack of representative voters participating in polls; a sudden and largely inexplicable last minute swing to the right; and the 'Lazy Labour' voters who simply failed to turn up on election day. As to whether the result may have been different - this is essentially a paradoxical question, as a prediction of a Conservative victory that prevented quite so much tactical voting may well have resulted in a hung parliament after all, and the pollsters would still have got it wrong. Once again, it's difficult to say!
 
What we can be reasonably sure of however, is that the election result proves the old adage that change at the top does not happen because the opposition campaign changes people's minds, but because the party in power loses it. The Conservatives are not loved with a passion in the UK (as the 'shy Tory' phenomenon suggests). There was no great upsurge of joy when they won. As yet however, they've not done anything that has caused the nation to turn against them, as Margaret Thatcher did with the Poll Tax, or Tony Blair did with the Iraq War. David Cameron has been reasonably competent and comparatively inoffensive as Prime Minister, and evidently most voters couldn't really conceive of anyone else doing the job any better, even if it is likely that his party's policies will be rather harsher now the Lib Dem's mollifying influence is gone. So the Tories stay, for now, while the more liberal sectors of the country wait and hope that they slip up in some major way, preferably before the country is turned into a living nightmare by NHS privatisation, welfare cuts and an idiotic exit from the EU.

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