Wednesday 12 January 2011

The evidence for a snap election that Cameron must ignore

When David Cameron is being advised by first Simon Heffer and now Tom Watson to call a snap General Election this Spring or Summer, he may doubt whether either has his best interests at heart.

It isn't going to happen. Engineering a publicly plausible way to shaft his Coalition partner "in the national interest" would be very difficult, even were the Prime Minister motivated to try.

If David Cameron is not going to take their advice, as he is not, then we can state his task simply:

To seek a Majority Mandate for the Tories to govern alone, and to secure one on his preferred election date in May 2015, David Cameron will have to break almost all precedents in British electoral history.

Let's admit there are so many known unknowns. We don't know the electoral system for the next election. We don't know the size of the House of Commons, but its probably 600, in which case we don't know which constituencies will disappear, and the vast majority will have different boundaries. (And we don't know the impact of all of this, except the boost it gives the Conservatives is likely to be less than they hope and their opponents fear). It is very difficult to predict the economic or political situation.

So let's just look at one issue for now.

Let's assume that 36% will not be enough for a Tory majority.

How often has a governing party increased its share of the vote?

In the post-war period, the answer is once out of thirteen, when looking at full Parliaments, but three more times in short Parliaments.

The Conservatives have fought a general election having been in government on eight occasions, three times as a new government facing the electorate for the first time since taking office.

1951: 48.0%
1955: 49.6%

This is the positive case. It involved Churchill governing in as conciliatory a way as possible, accepting the welfare state settlement of the Attlee government to close down echoes of the "same old Tories" of the 1930s, and eschewing radical measures - such as rejecting the Robot plan to float the pound in 1952, because of their austerity implications - so as to benefit from rising prosperity.

And then changing the Prime Minister to hold a snap election with a (briefly) very popular Anthony Eden. (Should Jeremy Hunt bring his boots along in 2015 just in case!)

The Tory vote share then fell to 49.4% in 1959 and to 43.3% in 1964.

1970: 46.4%
1974: 37.8%

Ted Heath is not a happy model. He began on a right-wing anti-state agenda ('Selsdon Man' making a similar pitch to Nick Clegg's 'alarm clock' Britons) before the u-turn, and then using a confrontation with the unions to ask "who governs", and finding that it wasn't him.

1979: 43.9%
1983: 42.4%

David Cameron is getting a lot of advice about the lessons from Thatcher in standing firm and reaping a reward. But - while successfully turning political battles with Michael Foot and Tony Benn, and a war with General Galtieri to her advantage - Thatcher could afford to lose a small amount of support and win by a landslide.

The Tory share then fell to 42.2% in 1987, 41.9% in 1992 and 30.7% in 1997.


Apart from 1955, the only time in the post-war period that a governing party has increased its share of the popular vote, have been Labour governments in short parliaments.

Labour has done this three times, after a one year Parliament in 1951 (+2.7%), the 18 month Parliament of 1964-66 (+2.2%) and the seven month Parliament of 1974 (+2.1%).

All five Labour government's which have gone to a fourth or fifth year saw the governing party lose popular support.

1945: 47.7%
1950: 46.1%

1966: 47.9%
1970: 43.0%%

1997: 43.2%
2001: 40.7%%

With the Labour share falling further to 35.2% in 2005 and 29% in 2010.


But a good blogging theme for 2011 is "Questions We All Should Ask More Often".

And Heffer and Watson raise a good starter for ten:

"Does David Cameron have a [plausible] strategy to get re-elected?"

which is closely related to

Do the Conservatives think they could win on their own? (And how and when could they do it?)

How to get re-elected is a question Prime Ministers think about a lot, perhaps even a rather more than is healthy. But there has been very little engaged scrutiny of how David Cameron intends to do this.

1. Other things equal, a re-election strategy usually starts with seeking to maintain the electoral coalition that brought you to power. The conventional wisdom is "take the pain of unpopularity, but see your support return if there is a strong economic recovery at the end".

That doesn't apply if you didn't have a sufficient electoral coalition to start with.

It probably won't be enough to retain your popularity after doing all of the unpopular things. David Cameron probably needs to increase it.

Nobody should say this is impossible - nothing is pre-determined in politics - but it would be close to unprecedented. That this has been so little discussed can be diagnosed as another mild case of the persistent 'Cameron Over-Estimatus' pandemic.

Spectator editor Fraser Nelson, having noted that Cameron entered No 10 as the least electorally successful Tory PM in history is now trying to boost his confidence to ward off the pact talk:

Yes, the LibDems may be screwed - just look at the projected share of seats. But does that mean the Conservatives have to incorporate them? A vote pact would have at its heart the assumption that the Tories could not win on their own. Is Ed Miliband really so scary?

Well, Downing Street may fear that he is. And given that David Cameron was among the few to realise that he hadn't done enough to win the last election, is it so surprising if he has his doubts about whether his party could win the next one?

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