Notes on the Election

David Runciman

One reason this election is so hard to call is that history offers a very unreliable guide. For each preferred or predicted outcome there is a historical pattern from which to draw comfort. If you think the Tories should win you can point to the fact that almost no government in the modern era has been turfed out of office after only one term. The exception is Heath’s 1970-74 administration, so unless you think Cameron is Heath – and maybe he is – then everything suggests he’ll be given another turn. This is sometimes taken as evidence of the basic sporting instincts of the British electorate: people don’t like to rush to judgment and want to allow newcomers a fair crack of the whip. On the other hand, no government in modern times has increased its share of the vote from one election to the next (even Macmillan, who added seats when he went to the country in 1959, scored a lower vote share than Eden had four years earlier). The Tories barely scraped together enough votes to form a government last time, so they have almost no wriggle room. If they lose more than a handful from the total they polled in 2010, they will lose office. History indicates that Cameron should certainly win this election; it also suggests that he can’t win it.

Anyone who would like to see Miliband in Downing Street can take heart from another notable trend: since the passage of the Parliament Act in 1911, which reduced the maximum life of a parliament from seven years to five, no prime minister who has gone the full distance has survived the subsequent election. There have only been three full five-year parliaments outside of wartime in the past hundred years: from 1959-64, when Douglas-Home lost; from 1992-97, when Major lost; and from 2005-2010, when Brown lost. But here we see the obvious flaws of this kind of analysis. Not only is the sample very small, it is clearly skewed. Prime ministers who cling on until the very end of their term, in the hope that something will turn up, are obviously in deep trouble (as those three were). Putting off an election until the last moment is a good indication that an election is the last thing you want. Cameron is not in that position: once he had bound himself to a five-year fixed term at the start of this parliament he lost the ability to signal whether he wanted an election or not. If he had retained his freedom of manoeuvre he almost certainly wouldn’t be going to the country at the very last possible moment. But the fact that he is doesn’t mean he has reached the end of the road.

The ability to choose the timing of a general election was an extraordinary power possessed by British prime ministers and its absence is one of the things that makes this one so different. Every previous election came in the form of an executive decision to force the issue, except in those rare cases when it was a decision to defer it for as long as possible. Even Major in 1992 went a couple of months earlier than he had to (April rather than June), in order to retain a minimal element of surprise and show that he was his own man. It worked: he won that election in part because he seemed to be the one who was putting the question, which helped to put his opponent on the defensive. It doesn’t always work. Heath, again, shows the perils of executive enthusiasm for the moment of choice. He went to the country early in 1974 (barely three and a half years into his term) in order to press the question: ‘Who governs Britain?’ – the government or the unions. If you need to ask it isn’t you, came the answer. Few other prime ministers have made that mistake. Turning a general election into an explicit invitation to endorse the incumbent has usually proved effective: that’s the reason so many first-time governments have been given a second chance.

Major’s unexpected victory over Kinnock provides the backdrop to David Hare’s 1993 play, The Absence of War, which Richard Seymour discussed in the last issue of the LRB. The play’s lasting appeal seems to derive from what it says about the travails of Labour in opposition, as principles contend miserably with the demands of packaging. But in many ways it’s more interesting about the Tories, though they remain noises off for most of the action. The plot turns on the decision by the Tory prime minister, Charles Kendrick, to call a snap election, wrong-footing his Labour opponents, who assumed he would funk it (it’s December, which makes it even more reckless: no one goes to the country in the depths of winter). ‘Why’s he going when he’s six points behind?’ one of the Labour leader’s aides wails. ‘For God’s sake we should have known. Why didn’t we know?’ another demands. (‘Because we weren’t watching Ceefax,’ is the wonderfully dated reply.) Kendrick justifies his decision by saying that it’s time to stop the opposition talking the country down. ‘Number 10 is briefing, there must be an end to uncertainty. The economy cannot be damaged any further, that’s what he says. The only way of ending the uncertainty is … ’ Four weeks later Kendrick’s six-point poll deficit has turned into a decisive win at the ballot box.

The campaign that Kendrick’s Tories run – against a Labour leader who seems to be an electoral liability – is strikingly similar to the campaign now being run by Cameron (or Lynton Crosby). The central pitch is to remind the voters that to elect Labour is to put an inexperienced idealist in charge of their money, ‘because that’s where people don’t trust him at all’. They paint the Labour leader as a prisoner of his party, likely to cave in to its irresponsible elements as soon as he acquires power. They go strong on national security (in an uncertain world) and economic security (ditto). It’s a classic Tory campaign. But the 2015 version is missing something. Part of what’s gone is the ability to use the election as an invitation to clarify things. Kendrick cites the markets taking fright at the prospect of a Labour victory as a reason to end the uncertainty. At present the markets would probably welcome a Labour victory. What scares them is the thought of no one winning and neither party being in a position to govern effectively. No current party leader looks well placed to pose as the clarifier of electoral confusion. They all appeared boxed in by a mess of their own making.

The other thing that’s missing from this Tory campaign is the swagger. It feels as though it’s been infected by the uncertainty it would like to ask the voters to help banish. The datedness of The Absence of War helps explain why. It was the third in a trilogy of plays Hare wrote in the early 1990s about broadly liberal institutions suffering crises of confidence and conscience: first the Church of England; then the law; and finally the Labour Party. It seems a long time ago. The public institutions that have been in crisis over the past decade are different: the banks; Parliament; the press. These weren’t on the whole crises of conscience. They were scandals of incompetence and negligence on the part of bodies that often seemed more or less oblivious to their public responsibilities. Hare’s interest has always been in liberals on the cross, not hacks on the make. The tabloids, like the Tory Party, feature as implacable noises off in his trilogy, goading and hounding the liberal agonisers. In Racing Demon a gay priest is driven out of his job by a monstrous News of the World reporter. This confrontation derives its poignancy from the implicit powerlessness of one in the face of the other. Who would have guessed that a quarter of a century later the gay clergy would be setting the agenda while the News of the World would be dead?

No political party has been immune from the fallout of the financial crisis, the expenses scandal or the revelations about phone-hacking. But it’s been worst for the Tories. This is partly because they had closer ties to some of the most tarnished institutions, through their links in the City and with the Murdoch empire (via Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks in particular). The expenses scandal was fairly ecumenical in the politicians it took down, but Tory duck moats have stayed longest in the public mind. But it’s also because the Conservative Party, unlike Labour, doesn’t really know what it’s like to have the ground pulled from under it. Yes, the party eventually suffered a thumping defeat at the hands of Tony Blair in 1997, an experience that was repeated in 2001. This prompted a certain amount of soul-searching, but nothing too arduous: the familiarity of the current campaign is evidence of how little really changed and how much the party sees its ability to put Labour on the spot as its surest route back into office, where it still feels it belongs. Yet in an age of coalition politics, of curtailed executive power and of deep public mistrust in all politicians that is much harder than it used to be.

It helps Labour that it once went through the near-death experiences described by Hare. This hasn’t made the party any clearer about its overall objectives, but it has made it more resilient. It’s almost impossible to imagine a similar play being written about the Tory Party, in part because it’s not an institution that goes in for agonised introspection. That used to be one of its strengths. Certainly Hare suggested back in 1993 that the Tory absence of self-doubt was what gave them the edge in any tight contest. I’m not sure that’s true any more.