How (not) to time a General Election (2017 edition)

This article first appeared in Conservative Home on 11 August 2017 Harold Wilson once described the Prime Minister’s power to call a general election as being the loneliest decision in politics. Having called three – one that went brilliantly, one that went OK and one that backfired – he has more experience in this than any Prime Minister except Lord Salisbury. David Cameron, Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain are in a rare club of Prime Ministers who did not have to make any decisions about election timing. Cameron was locked in to a five-year term under the coalition agreement and the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. Perhaps his relaxed style of leadership in 2010-15 owed something to the absence of the constant existential stress of thinking about election timing, although timing the referendum overshadowed his second government. Theresa May having discarded the comforting straitjacket of fixed terms, joined a long line of Prime Ministers who have faced this solitary dilemma, and a somewhat smaller group to have been damaged by their choice. We can break the elections since 1918 down into four slightly fuzzy categories – the ones that Prime Ministers can regard as complete successes, the ones over which Prime Ministers had limited or no choice, the debatable ones (including counterfactual elections like those of October 1978 or November 2007) and the ones that go completely wrong. Elections that go according to plan: 1922, 1931, 1935, 1955, 1959, 1966, 1983, 1987, 2001, 2005 In ten elections the incumbent party was re-elected with its authority enhanced and with at the very least a comfortable majority. Four Prime Ministers can therefore claim to have an unblemished record in choosing election dates; Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair both had two election calls and in each case won three-figure majorities.   Forced elections: 1918, 1929, 1945, 1950, 1964, 1997, 2010, 2015 Seven elections were forced on Prime Ministers at or approaching the end of the Parliament’s term. Two – 1918 and 1945 – were overdue. In 1945 the Prime Minister did not have the choice as his Labour partners would not extend the coalition and prolong the Parliament any further after VE Day. The elections of 1964 and 1997 came at the very end of five-year terms in which unpopular governments had lacked opportunities to call earlier elections. There was perfunctory discussion of a spring election in 1964, but it was not a serious prospect. The Tories had a good summer and lost only very narrowly in October– Alec Douglas Home’s timing was as good as anyone could have demanded. The election of February 1950 is more uncertain because it would have been possible for Attlee to have gone on until summer 1950....

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Two way traffic: the seats that switched in 2017 and what it means

Two way traffic: the seats that switched in 2017 and what it means

This article first appeared in Conservative Home 14 July 2017. The general election of June 2017 was the second in a row in which there were a handful of constituencies that went against the national swing between the Conservative and Labour parties. While Labour made 28 gains from the Conservatives, the Tories struck back in six constituencies including the by-election seat of Copeland. The account was more even in 2015, when Labour’s ten gains were offset by eight losses to the Conservatives. This cross-traffic has been fairly unusual in recent elections; elections where more than one or two seats flip in the ‘wrong’ direction tend to involve both small national swings and a political context where different regions or types of constituency react in very different ways, both of which applied in the last couple of elections but not for any other election since 1987. These wandering sheep, which stray away from the track indicated by the sheepdogs of uniform national swing, are always interesting to me, more so than the dutiful bellwethers. The outstanding Conservative gain from Labour in 2017 came in Mansfield, an achievement that has perhaps not been recognised enough because of the context of so many expected Conservative gains failing to materialise and the big swings to Labour in some of its targets. It was also historic, in that it had never had a Conservative MP as such before and Labour had represented the seat since 1923 – even in the 1931 landslide when the party was down to 46 seats nationally. Mansfield’s local communities still reflect some of the divisions from the 1926 and 1984 miners’ strikes. Its new Tory MP Ben Bradley celebrated its mining and working class history in his maiden speech: Coalmining was the centre of local communities throughout much of the 20th century, not just for work but for all kinds of other support. It is a heritage of which people are rightly proud, and I shall be supporting calls for the creation of a new museum in the town centre to protect that heritage and ensure that future generations know and understand it. (Commons Hansard 26 June 2017) Although Mansfield was the leader, most of the other constituencies that went from Labour to Conservative in 2017 bear a family resemblance. North East Derbyshire, Stoke-on-Trent South and Copeland are also ex-mining areas composed of tough little working class towns; Walsall North is similar although its heritage is heavy industry rather than coal. In all of these the Labour majority had worn thin in the 1987 election, suggesting that as well as movements triggered by the EU referendum and the changing culture of the main parties, there have been some longer-term...

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The biggest landslide ever: the general election of 1931

This article first appeared in Conservative Home on 12 May 2017. It ended up having rather fewer contemporary echoes than seemed probable at the time of writing…   Tracing the roots of the election back to the start, it was mostly down to May – although events rapidly gained their own momentum. The Conservatives ran on the basis of a ‘doctor’s mandate’, asking for national unity and a free hand to address the pressing problems of the time. The Labour vote dropped sharply and the Tories sucked up the votes that had gone to other parties in the previous election, producing an extreme landslide. This, then, is the story of the October 1931 election which began with the report of the May committee recommending various austerity measures including cutting unemployment benefit. The Labour Cabinet could not agree on a response to the crisis and broke up; instead, an emergency ‘National Government’ was formed in August from Labour, Conservative and Liberal elements and passed a supplementary budget introducing the cuts in September. The government had a perfectly adequate majority in parliament (59 at its first confidence vote test) and there was initially no talk of an early election. But events piled on, notably the forced departure from the Gold Standard, and the temptation of going for an election and getting a huge mandate to tide the Conservatives through what looked like a turbulent few years and extend the end of the parliament from 1934 to 1936 eventually became too much. The government asked for a ‘doctor’s mandate’ – the freedom to do what was necessary to tackle the economic crisis. The formula covered the hitherto transgressive Conservative dream of introducing protective tariffs, which had doomed the Tories in 1906 and 1923 but which were at last legislated in 1932 (and little good they did). They got what might have better been called a surgeon’s mandate – a completely comatose and compliant patient on which to operate. Contemporary observers were awe-struck by the scale of the landslide, but the ability of the electoral system to produce wildly unbalanced results when one party has a large lead in votes was not properly understood at the time – concepts like uniform national swing and the cube law had not been refined yet. But the old-fashioned cube law would suggest that a party or alliance with better than a 2:1 advantage in votes should get a better than 8:1 advantage in seats, which is what happened in 1931. The National alliance beat Labour with 67 per cent of the vote, of which 55 per cent was cast for its Conservative members, to 30.6 per cent, a lead – depending on how one counts it...

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A projection of the 2017 election

A projection of the 2017 election

I did a lot of work before the 2015 election trying to anticipate what might happen seat by seat in that election, looking at local factors, candidates, demographics, recent local election results, Lord Ashcroft‘s constituency opinion polling and all of that. Like most prediction efforts in 2015, it was not very successful. It was swamped by three things – (1) the broad national tide in England and Wales  that submerged quite a lot of the local differences I anticipated. Part of the Conservative success was built on ‘nationalising’ the election choice, to the detriment of the Lib Dems in particular who were hoping for personal votes to salvage them as happened in elections when their tide has been receding, such as 1979. (2) the completeness of the SNP sweep in Scotland. (3) the extraordinary success of the Conservatives with their protective targeting of the marginals they gained in 2010 and a handful of Labour seats they picked off. I’ve tried out a different approach this time, with a mechanistic formula applied to all the English and Welsh Con/ Lab seats and nowhere else. Martin Baxter at Electoral Calculus has done a vastly more sophisticated and complete version of the same sort of exercise, but this is a crude formula incorporating rather few variables. It’s based on the swing to the Conservatives being partly proportional to the UKIP vote, an element of uniform national swing, a bump in one direction or another for seats at the outliers of referendum voting behaviour (Remain or 60 per cent plus for Leave). There’s therefore a double weighting for strongly Leave seats, which tended for obvious reasons to have high UKIP votes in 2015. The source for constituency referendum voting is Chris Hanretty’s compilation of published local results and his work modelling the others. An allowance has been made where the Greens have stood down or intervened. The initial model had a national baseline of the Conservatives winning by a 15-point margin, which is where a fair few polls were at the time. That would produce a Con gain of 44 from Labour. Allowing for a few gains from SNP in Scotland, and from UKIP in Clacton and possibly a couple from the Lib Dems, this would be a Con gain of around 52 seats for an overall majority of around 120. The way the model works skews the Conservative gains to the North and white working class England. Labour would hold apparently perilous marginals in London such as Ealing Central & Acton and Brentford & Isleworth, but lose some former heartlands. Strikingly, the Tories would win all three seats in Stoke-on-Trent (Labour since 1935) plus Newcastle-under-Lyme (Labour or radical Liberal since 1906) for...

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Westland – did the helicopter firm really bring Thatcher to the brink?

Westland – did the helicopter firm really bring Thatcher to the brink?

  From the perspective of hindsight, the middle term of the Thatcher government in 1983-87 may look like plain sailing. It did not seem like it at the time; it was the parliament of the ‘banana skin’ – a term then used to describe a number of unrelated mishaps which tripped up several ministers. The biggest, slipperiest banana skin of them all was the Westland Affair, the one that led Margaret Thatcher to speculate on 27 January 1986 that: I may not be Prime Minister by six o’clock tonight. How did the business arrangements of a helicopter manufacturing company in Yeovil bring Thatcher apparently so close to the edge? She even stepped back at one point after a long meeting between senior ministers and marvelled: Do you realise we have spent three hours of precious time discussing a company with a capitalisation of only £30 million? What is the world coming to? Westland was in financial trouble in 1985 and was looking for a commercial partner so that it could sort out its problems. There were two options: a tie-up with the US helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky (through its parent company United Technology Industries, UTC) or a European consortium. The Thatcher government was divided, in an increasingly public, embarrassing and vitriolic argument, on the best course of action. The main disruptive element was Michael Heseltine as Secretary of State for Defence, who actively supported the European option and worked hard for it, politically and commercially. Heseltine feared that Sikorsky was interested in Westland because it could be used to get a piece of the enormous Al-Yamamah arms deal agreed between Saudi Arabia and the UK in 1985, which allegedly mentioned an order of 80 helicopters. Defence procurement – the very word has a slight whiff of the illicit – has never been a simple or transparent industry and Westland was a cork bobbing on the surface above deeper currents. It should not have been a big political issue. The government professed neutrality, although Thatcher herself had sympathy for the US option. But it worked on fault lines that were already there. Although Heseltine had been a good Thatcherite in many ways, particularly in the 1983 election on defence, their personal styles clashed. Many suspected Heseltine was looking for a reason to have a ‘good resignation’ as part of a long term career plan. A confrontation about something was clearly in the air, and it coalesced around Westland. Heseltine grew frustrated in late 1985 that the future of Westland was not being discussed in Cabinet, and Thatcher felt that Heseltine was blatantly ignoring collective Cabinet responsibility. In retrospect Thatcher should have sacked Heseltine for insubordination in December 1985. She would have...

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