Episode 21: Charge of the Light Brigade

John Lanchester

Hands up if you saw that one coming. I confess that I didn’t. The first line of the BBC announcement, ‘Conservatives largest party’, was no shock. Then there was a pause a few seconds long, and the projection of 316 Tory seats came up. I nearly fell off my chair. From that point on, the surprises only got bigger.

Why was it so surprising, though? If you’d asked me six weeks ago what was going to happen, I’d have said, a little reluctantly, that the likeliest outcome was a Tory minority government. From that point to an outright majority is a step, but not a gigantic one. If I’d been granted a glimpse ahead to the result, I’d have said the Tories did better and Labour worse than expected, but not amazingly, bizarrely, unforeseeably so. The thing which turned this into such a blindsiding shock was the fact that the election campaign was so flat and eventless. For six weeks, nothing happened. The numbers refused to move. Then everything happened at once. The talk in politics these days is all about ‘narrative’ and ‘momentum’, but there was almost no sign of that in this election. There was little evidence that the electorate were paying any attention. The Tory campaign worked spectacularly, but did so in a new and peculiar way: it was like a pill that the patient refuses to swallow, and holds off swallowing, and then downs all at once.

First-past-the-post is not especially fair, but it is supposed to deliver clear outcomes. In 2010, it didn’t. This time, against all expectations, it did. Lots more detail will come in over the next weeks as the data are analysed and the political scientists do their thing, but for me, a couple of things really stand out. If Labour had retained all of their 41 Scottish seats, the Tories would still be the majority government. So that must mean Labour got creamed in England, yes? Actually, no. Labour’s share of the vote in England went up by 3.6 per cent. That’s more than the Tories: their share of the English vote only went up by 1.4 per cent. Labour could even claim that they won the English campaign, in the same sense that the British army could claim it won the Charge of the Light Brigade.

So what did happen in England? The Tories smashed it in the marginals. In the battleground constituencies Labour were down on their 2010 performance by 0.7 per cent. Labour’s overall improvement in England was driven by success on their own turf: 3.5 per cent increase in the North East, 6 per cent in the North West. Where there was a genuine contest with the Tories, the Tories did better. People sometimes say that election campaigns don’t matter, but that is manifestly not the case this time. The Tories out-campaigned Labour in the places where they needed to.

What’s odd about that is that none of this showed up in the polls in advance. Lord Ashcroft has been regularly polling the marginal constituencies, and he found no evidence of this huge shift to the Tories. The Guardian’s last story about polls had the headline ‘Labour has one-point lead over Tories in final Guardian/ICM poll.’ The sample was twice the usual size, which means that it ‘gives more scope than usual for looking for different types of parliamentary seat. Doing so provides additional grounds for Labour optimism. In the English and Welsh battleground constituencies... the poll found the opposition running well ahead.’ That story was posted at half-past twelve yesterday lunchtime. This is the biggest and most embarrassing failure the polling organisations have ever had, and it comes after they’ve had more than two decades to learn from their roughly equivalent failure in 1992. It’s all the odder because the same methods that didn’t work in England worked fine north of the border, where the polling organisations accurately forecast the SNP triumph. The pollsters did something or things very wrong. We’ll find out what soon enough, but it was probably a mix of ‘shy Tories’ and people deciding at the last moment to buy the line about having to vote Tory to keep out the SNP.

As for Nick Clegg and his party... Byron once said that ‘I think it great affectation not to quote oneself’. In that spirit, I’m going to quote the last LRB blog entry I wrote after the last general election in 2010, as the lineaments of the Tory-Lib Dem deal became apparent:

As for the Lib Dems, I imagine about half their voters and activists are feeling physically sick this morning. Let’s hope that referendum on AV feels as if it is worth it. I don’t think Nick Clegg could have played his hand any better, in terms of extracting concessions from the Tories. But his concern must surely be that a. he has permanently alienated a vast segment of his own supporters and b. any moderating effect on Tory actions will benefit David Cameron more than if benefits the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems have wanted power for a long time. As all grown-ups know, more tears are shed over answered prayers.


  • 8 May 2015 at 2:11pm
    streetsj says:
    Quite right to quote your 2010 prescience. I wrote on another blog at the beginning of the election that i felt it was too early for people to admit that the economy was improving - hence the shy Tories in the opinion polls.
    Nevertheless I lost faith in my own view as the campaign wore on.
    I also wrote on here that I thought Scottish Labour MPs would be upset that Milliband had not attempted to lay a blow on Sturgeon in the Leader's debate.

  • 8 May 2015 at 2:37pm
    B says:
    "Will you be voting for the Conservatives?"

    "Not in a million years, not me, no sir, no chance, I'd never, God no."

    Conservatives: X
    Lib Dem:

  • 8 May 2015 at 2:40pm
    Neil Foxlee says:
    Only 1 in 4 of the electorate (as distinct from those who turned out) voted Conservative.

    Labour actually increased its overall share of the vote by 1.5%, the Conservatives by 0.8%.

    My rough calculation (made with a few results to go) of how many votes each party needed to win a seat (i.e. votes divided by seats:

    SNP 25.9k
    Con 34k
    Lab 40.3k
    LibDems 293.7k
    Greens 1.1 million
    UKIP 3.78 million

  • 8 May 2015 at 5:12pm
    Mat Snow says:
    Maybe there is something intrinsic in marginal seats where you get a socio-economic spread, with the less well-off people wanting to move up to their better-off neighbours' status and the better-off scared of dropping a grade. The tendency in such places, therefore, will always be politically up-market — aspirational New Labour or plain old Tory.

    • 8 May 2015 at 6:30pm
      MikeInBrixton says: @ Mat Snow
      What's special about marginals is the amount of cash the parties had to spend.

      The Conservatives were awash with cash from their City friends and they spent it to good effect where it counted - this seems the most obvious explanation of the difference between the swing in marginals com[pared with other seats.

    • 9 May 2015 at 9:09am
      Mat Snow says: @ MikeInBrixton
      Good point. But the Tories have always had more campaigning cash yet lost to New Labour in three successive elections, won by the less well-funded New Labour, wolves in aspirational sheep's clothing.

    • 9 May 2015 at 11:03am
      streetsj says: @ MikeInBrixton
      so what do they do with this cash? put up posters, send tweets? or are you suggesting that they actually buy the votes somehow?

  • 9 May 2015 at 2:31pm
    Michael Taylor says:
    No. of seats Tories gained (net) = 27.
    No. of seats Tories took from Lib Dems = 27.
    Tory contests with all other parties resulted in a net gain for the Tories of zero.
    The Labour-Tory contests resulted in a slight overall gain for Labour.
    Conclusion: It was the Lib Dems who let the Tories back in with a majority.

  • 9 May 2015 at 8:17pm
    cufflink says:
    Journalists think too much as copy; in fact the marginal deciding votes went to the Tories because they look and sound more English - at least conventionally.

  • 10 May 2015 at 4:58pm
    Michael Taylor says:
    If you ignore Scotland (which if Scotland goes independent, eventually, you may have to), Labour lost 8 seats to the Tories, won 10 and like the Tories creamed through the Lib Dems, taking 12. But even with Labour's lost SNP seats magically restored, it wouldn't have been enough -- Labour was starting with 258 seats from the 2010 election to the Tories' 304. So although Labour's campaign wasn't the catastrophe it may seem, it just wasn't good enough to recover from the 2010 defeat. In the longer term, Labour's concern ought to be that the Tories got 11.3m votes to their 9.3m. One of the first things the Tories are likely to do is revise constituency boundaries.

  • 10 May 2015 at 9:11pm
    Simon Wood says:
    Thank God the era of us say-one-thing, do-another, gushy Guardian readers is over. What a load of wee and wind we were.

  • 11 May 2015 at 8:23am
    robwitts says:
    Interesting thing here about the polls ( including questions over Lord Ashcroft's supposed impartiality, and the advisability of such a big media focus on opinion polls during elections - would be interested in peoples' thoughts on this.

  • 11 May 2015 at 10:45am
    Neil Foxlee says:
    Equally relevant is another article by Shaun Lawson (presumably no relation to other, better-known Lawsons), ‘When is a democracy not a democracy: when it’s in Britain': . It’s a simple, if unpalatable fact that under FPTP, the outcome of elections is decided by a tiny minority of swing voters in marginal constituencies, but this lays out the consequences more clearly than I’ve seen before. With the collapse of the LibDems and Labour in Scotland, and an estimated 20 more seats going to the Tories after constituency boundary changes, I fear that Britain has become a de facto one-party state, simply because the potential opposition has become more divided and fragmented than ever before.

    • 11 May 2015 at 10:56am
      Neil Foxlee says: @ Neil Foxlee
      (Of course, it was precisely the fear of Labour combining forces with the SNP - and thus the Scottish tail wagging the British dog - that was one of the main planks of the Tories' successful campaign in England (along with Miliband's perceived lack of credibility as PM and Labour's perceived lack of credibility on the economy.)

    • 12 May 2015 at 10:15am
      Joe Morison says: @ Neil Foxlee
      It was a joint Tory and SNP campaign. When it was becoming clear that the scare tactic was working, Labour started desperately saying it would have no truck with any SNP demands, at the same time Sturgeon was ramping up the rhetoric about the influence her party would have and the demands for truly radical government it would make.

  • 11 May 2015 at 11:53am
    Rikkeh says:
    One of the really interesting things will be to see what will happen to some of the red meat promises that were flung out at the last minute by the Conservatives (forcing independent housing associations to sell their houses at a discount, binding parliament with a statutory tax "lock") that look nigh on impossible for them to implement.

    I got the feeling that these promises were rashly made, with the expectation that they could be conveniently dropped as part of coalition negotiations. Now they don't have this excuse any more, it will be interesting to see whether they will press on with them, or try to wriggle free.

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