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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The 1992 General Election in retrospect

The 1992 General Election in retrospect

It was supposed to be a ‘time for a change’ election, but the results gave the Conservatives a record fourth term of office and John Major his own mandate as Prime Minister. With the 2015 election, when the Tories won another small majority in defiance of polling and expectations, in the recent past I look back on the general election of 1992.

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