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Expert Comment: General Election Analysis

Downing Street Thursday 4 June 2015

The May 2015 election had been long and eagerly awaited. Since 2011 it was the first of the 'fixed term' elections consequent to the Act passed in September of that year. Ever since May 2010 opponents of the Coalition government had waited for their revenge. Critics within the Conservative Party dreamt of the day they could govern alone, without the need to win the acceptance of those irritating Liberal Democrats. For their part, Labour could not wait to see their longstanding poll leads converted into at best an overall majority, at worst a Labour minority government. The Coalition had initially been perceived as a weak arrangement and few had anticipated its longevity. But against the odds, it had proved surprisingly robust, its healthy majority enabling it to run the full five year term with scarcely a wobble. For Labour however, it was those poll leads which proved fragile.

Indeed, closer inspection of the polls - even when in double figures - revealed Labour as less secure than their supporters hoped. There were two main problems: firstly on 'economic competence' the Conservative's poll lead over Labour was massive and sustained.  As soon as the Coalition was formed, its ministers and MPs had all relentlessly delivered the same message on the economy: Labour had ruined it, was responsible for the recession, the resultant loss of GDP and growing unemployment. The Blair and Brown governments, ran their narrative, had overspent wildly thus creating the chaos the new government was now forced to clear up. Liam Byrne's jokey note left to his Treasury successor that 'there is no money left' was carried around by Cameron on the campaign and displayed theatrically as an object of horror [1]. For the period following its defeat, Labour had been locked into a leadership election, making refutation of this account difficult; those who made the attempt singularly failed to do so. This was also partly because of the second problem: the leadership of Ed Miliband.

Most informed opinion in 2011 expected former Foreign Secretary David Miliband to emerge as leader. The decision of his brother to stand against him was surprising as was the support he quickly gained, partly through rejecting the Blairite 'New Labour' approach, from the trade unions. Indeed it was union support which won him the prize, given that the majority of Labour's parliamentary and individual membership favoured the better known sibling. This alleged 'union control' connection enabled Cameron to berate 'Red Ed' in PMQs where the Labour leader was generally bested and bullied for five years. Indeed Cameron did his best to establish a caricature of Ed as weak, far to the left and, if ever elected, likely to inflict economic disaster upon the country. The Conservative's Australian election strategist, Lynton Crosby, confidently predicted 'crossover' in the polls would arrive by Christmas, allowing Cameron to coast to victory.

However, around February 2015 poll ratings for both main parties seemed to tie in the low thirties. Crosby predicted crossover would occur at Easter but even when the campaign officially began there was no real movement. Most pollsters thought a late swing to the Tories was likely but the almost universal prediction was for Tories to win around 280 seats, Labour around 265 and the Liberal Democrats around 25-30. But what seemed certain and a huge blow to Labour, was that the SNP would sweep the board in Scotland. The September 2014 referendum campaign had ultimately failed but the excitement generated by the 'Yes' campaign continued to fizz with thousands flooding to join and the polls showing close to 50% support for the SNP.

The campaign opened with the single televised leaders' debate, 2nd April. These debates had aroused intense controversy as it was clear Cameron, despite praising them as essential to democracy in 2010, had changed his mind. His Tory critics thought allowing Nick Clegg to participate on such an elevated platform was the reason why he had won so many Tory votes thus denying Cameron an overall majority back then. Crosby too subscribed to this view and, having at first seemed to have denied the possibility of any debates at all, Cameron claimed to have 'broken the logjam' by agreeing to one containing seven leaders including those of the Greens, UKIP, SNP and Plaid Cymru. He had decided to take the 'hit' for appearing cowardly for the political advantage of denying his main opponent a nationwide head to head debate.  The debates were watched by 7 million people and definitely made an impact. Cameron, confident, the well-informed incumbent PM, scored highly, as did Farage for UKIP and Leanne Wood for  Plaid Cymru but there were two surprises: Ed Miliband, whose performance helped remove the image of him Cameron had assiduously sought to nourish; and the star of the debates, the SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon. She came over as very sharp, impassioned and much fresher than her predecessor Alec Salmond; her star remained in the ascendant throughout the campaign.                     

The Tory campaign was criticised as narrow, over cautious and over personalised. Crosby's anti-Ed message was taken perhaps too far by Michael Fallon who suggested that someone who had 'stabbed their brother in the back' to gain power would do the same to his country. Miliband's campaign - mercifully gaffe-free for once - was actually quite effective and his rating as 'best PM', though still well adrift of Cameron's, improved by over ten points. His promise to end the tax free status of  'non-doms' was well received though the plethora of unfunded proposals by the two big parties - evidence of frustration at the stalled polls - towards the end of the campaign, had little impact. Labour sought to exploit the Tory promise to reduce welfare spending by £12bn but later in the campaign a much more effective scare story was deployed effectively by Cameron: that a minority Labour government would rely for its survival on left wing SNP MPs intent on breaking up the Union.      

The Results

On the eve of polling day most voters went to bed fully expecting a tied result of some 270-80 seats for the big parties and the inevitability of a probable minority government, given the SNP and other nationalist parties refused to have any truck with the Tories. The anti-Tory  voters sat in front of their televisions at 10.00 pm confidently expecting a change of government. The BBC exit poll, however, master-minded by Professor John  Curtice of Strathclyde University, delivered a hammer blow to these expectations. This poll predicted: Conservatives 310, Labour 239, Lib-Dems 10 and SNP 58. Paddy Ashdown, campaign leader of his party declared this a rerun of the faulty 1992 exit poll and that if it proved right he'd eat his hat on television. Alastair Campbell, for Labour and of Scottish parentage offered, for good measure, to eat his kilt. Evidence that the Tory high command also believed the mistaken polls is offered by the 'French kiss' which Osborne offered to give Lynton Crosby if his strategy proved successful, (one political pledge which still remains unfulfilled).[2]  The problem for them was that Curtice is the most respected psephologist in the UK and that his 2010 exit poll had proved uncannily correct. That his 2015 proved less accurate was no comfort for the aspiring hat eaters as his prediction actually under estimated Tory seats which, at 331, delivered an overall majority of 12.  The other bombshell, of course, was the total meltdown of Scottish Labour, their tally of seats north of the border, as Curtice predicted, slumping from 41 down to one, the same as Liberal Democrats and Conservatives.   

2015 Election Results Table 1

Election Results Table


As the graph above shows, the headlong rush of the SNP stopped at a still incredible 56; the Lib-Dems were massacred, only 8 surviving nationwide; Plaid Cymru retained its three seats; the Greens their one; UKIP, despite polling nearly 4 million votes, only managed the retained  by-election seat of Douglas Carswell. Farage, once thought a 'shoo-in' for Thanet South, eventually came third, as he did in his 2010 contest (see fig 1 below). As for the poor Lib-Dems, instead of their hoped for 25-30 'balance of power' MPs, they lost 47 and were reduced to a tiny rump of 8 from their 7.9% of the vote, their lowest tally since Jo Grimond's 1960s Liberal Party.  In the wake of this total reversal of expectations, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg resigned. Nigel Farage also proffered his resignation but when his party's executive refused to accept it, he remained in place; causing afterwards acrimonious rows to break out in the party. Criticism of the first past the post voting system, was reinforced by the combined vote of UKIP and the Greens, 16.4% of voters, returning only two MPs while the SNP's 4.7% delivered 56 MPs.

Clearly the widespread 'expert' assumption that the growth of 'third party voting' had bequeathed the UK a future of coalition government was premature. Cameron had followed his narrow campaign strategy, endlessly repeating his mantras of his government's economic turnaround, Ed's total unsuitability for Downing St and the tartan danger lurking north of the border. Despite the doubts, he and his advisor Lynton Crosby had done the trick, routed their critics and envious  Tory opponents after his job. For a few weeks or months he was master of all he surveyed, no longer shackled by the need to consult any Coalition partner and free to contemplate the 'completion of the job' he and Osborne had promised in their campaign.    


Figure 1          Share of vote in May, 2015 Election

Share of Votes

What went wrong with the polls? Certainly the nation's pollsters - with the exception of John Curtice - emerged from the election faces covered with egg. As in some previous elections they had underestimated the Conservative vote - by some 4.5% and overestimated Labour's by 3%. Peter Kellner, President of Yougov, whose exit poll predicted a hung parliament, acknowledged that a full inquiry into their failure would take place; the British Polling Council accordingly announced such an inquiry was in hand on 8th May. However, The Times columnist Daniel Finkelstein possibly got close to the underlying truth in his 9th May article:  'Andrew Cooper, the pollster who has worked as Mr Cameron's strategy director, had identified a group of voters [about 3% of the whole] I dubbed 'Yes, Yes, Nos' in an [earlier] article for this newspaper. These were the people who said that, yes, they thought Mr Cameron was the best prime minister, and, yes, the Conservatives would be better for the economy - but then said, no, they weren't planning to vote Tory...A big campaign goal was to win the crucial support of the Yes, Yes, Nos. Mr Cooper repeatedly said this might not happen until polling day and no one would know whether it had worked until the votes were counted. He was correct.'[3] 

Kellner said something similar in attributing polling errors to:  "people who don't like the Tories, consider them out of touch and for the rich and don't like their values. But in the end they think Cameron is better than Miliband, the Tories are better on the economy, and are fearful what Labour might do. So they honestly express an anti-Tory attitude to us, but in the polling station make a different choice."[4]

Were these the famously elusive 'shy Tories', not willing to admit to pollsters that they might vote for, to use Theresa May's 2001 words, the 'nasty party'? Possibly. Something similar must have happened to the large numbers of voters who were undecided with just a day to go. Once in the polling booth and called upon to decide, a fair number decided to change that  'no' into a third 'yes'. The result confounded the whole political class in Britain, dashed the hopes of those to the left of centre-Labour and Liberal Democrats plus Ukippers to the far right of centre. The Greens were pleased to have polled so well and retain the seat of Caroline Lucas.

But delight was unconfined for Cameron, with aides Ed Llewellyn, Kate Fall and Craig Oliver  poised in front of his television in Chipping Norton. Anthony Seldon reports that when the exit poll is announced: 'there is a long pause. And then they start cheering...'Oh my God, I don't care about the Lib Dems'  says Cameron.[5] Later in Witney leisure centre he 'leapt into the arms of his closest aides and let out a primal roar: Yeeeaaaaaah'[6]

Certainly the inaccurate polls substantially helped the Tories, deflecting attention away from their future programme of austerity and towards the possible disadvantages of a minority Labour government propped up by the left of centre SNP.  The spectre of such an outcome might well have unleashed the late inrush of support for Cameron. On the other hand, as Andrew Rawnsley, pointed out[7], knowing they were in reality six points behind might have made matters even worse for Labour.        

Analysing the Vote

On 22nd May, polling company Ipsos - Mori published a breakdown of the vote based on some 10,000 respondents which offers good estimates of how various social groups voted (see Appendix table 2 at end)

1. It was obvious that the Conservatives benefited greatly from those groups- the ABs, and the over 55s - who turned out at above average levels. Average turnout was slightly up on 2010 at 66.1% but for the ABs it was 75% and over 55s it was as high as 78%, among the over 65s Conservatives won 47% of the vote to Labour's 23%; within AB voters the respective figures were 45% and 26%. [8]

2. Labour's support, by contrast, came from groups registering below average turnout. For example they had a lead of 9% among 18-24 year old males only 42% of whom voted and a lead of 20% among women in the same age group where  turnout was 44%. They chalked up a massive 42% lead among Black and Minority Ethnic groups of which, sadly for the party, only 56% voted. Predictably perhaps, Labour had a 14% lead among DE voters, only 56% of which voted.  Amongst 'social renters' Labour also had a massive lead of 32% but turnout for this group was also a way below average 56%.   

3. The Conservatives lead among the key C2 voters, who so often determine UK elections, the largest single voting group, was a hefty 12%, the same as in 2010. Broadly speaking, the party's vote from five years earlier held up very well.

4. Labour managed to hold onto 72% of its 2010 support but lost 8% to the Tories, 6% to UKIP and 5% to the Lib-Dems and Greens.

5. The Lib Dems lost two thirds of its 2010 voters losing: 24% to Labour, 20% to Conservatives, 11% to the greens and 7% to UKIP. Their only relative retention was among ABs and 35-44 year olds. The biggest loss was among the under 34s.

6. One in 8 voters voted for the party but UKIP was third in every group apart from ABs (8%) and BAME voters (2%). Again, predictably, UKIP scored most highly among C2 and DE groups and the over 65s. The party was slightly more popular with men (14%) than women (12%).   

Why did Labour Lose so Badly?

A traumatised post mortem ensued. David Miliband, in New York, offered the criticism that his brother and Gordon Brown had:  "....allowed themselves to be portrayed as moving backwards from the principles of aspiration and inclusion that are the absolute heart of any successful progressive political project".[9]

Many commentators judged Ed's message had been too leftwing. After the world economic crisis Ed had assumed a leftward shift had taken place and fashioned an approach accordingly. In reality voter choice if anything moved rightwards at this time, as evidenced by elections all over Europe. To compound the problem Labour's selection of policies, while often popular in focus groups, did not cohere into any easily recognisable narrative: there was no overall vision. While Cameron claimed he would 'finish the job' with his 'long term strategy' few could divine what Labour was saying they would do. Ironically, Scottish voters had indeed shifted to the left, in support of the left SNP however, and not discredited Scottish Labour. Labour was hit by the double whammy: too left wing for England yet too right wing for Scotland.

A more in-depth analysis was given by Labour's respected former Policy Coordinator, John Cruddas MP. He thought that 2010 was the 'worst defeat for Labour since 1918; it was worse than the crisis of 1931 and worse than 1983. But a week ago (7th May) we suffered an even worse defeat than 2010 so this could be the greatest crisis the Labour party has faced since it was created. It is epic in its scale.' He identified several factors, starting with the double digit lead Osborne's 2012 'omni-shambles' budget won for the party, instilling a sense of complacent confidence that Lib Dem losses would mostly accrue to Labour and that UKIP gains would eat into Tory leads in key marginal seats.  " we bank what we have, we play it safe, in the common parlance, we 'shrink the offer', we play a 35% strategy, and we get over the line....We gamed out the electorate but we got it wrong, and then we didn't realise the scale of it until one minute past 10 on election night."[10]

Cruddas was annoyed that much painstaking policy research - including a "fantastic IPPR rethink of social democracy when there is no money around. Despite all the work, in the end we had nothing to say on that. With Osborne pushing ahead with the Northern Powerhouse ', the Tories have taken more out of this work than Labour."    Meanwhile David Skelton, Director of the modernising Tory think tank, Renewal suggests: 'The skilled working class deserted Labour in 2010 and didn't come back at all in 2015. Their heartlands, the ones they could once rely on, are dwindling and dwindling.'[11]

It is true that Miliband's minimalist campaign did not resonate even in stronghold areas as Labour's brand had been so heavily depleted that even when voters agreed with its sensible policies they did not trust Labour to deliver on them. Ed's longstanding low satisfaction rating compared with Cameron proved fatal for Labour's attempt to engage with voters. Add to this the Tory's huge lead over 'economic competence' plus the potent scare story that a leftwing SNP would suborn a weak Labour leader and the sledge-hammer defeat was set up to happen. Tory blogger Iain Dale points out that the 9.45% swing Labour now need to win in 2020 was never achieved even by Tony Blair; party insiders fear it will take at least a decade.[12]

The scale of the Conservative victory

The win was historic in that it was the first time for over a hundred years a governing party increased its share of the vote after serving a full term. That vote share increase was only 1% but was deployed to maximum effect in those key marginal seats. Indeed the increase in such seats, whether the main rival was Labour or Lib Dem, worked out at 4%. The party did not prosper in poorer areas of  England and Wales, London or the northwest generally. The victory did, however, reflect longstanding weaknesses, as Rob Ford comments:  'Political divides by ethnicity, age and geography remain deep and the Conservatives will struggle to connect with groups whose numbers and political influence will grow.'[13]  

Disaster for the Lib Dems

Their poll ratings had plummeted since 2010 and government had in no way enhanced their standing with voters, not being the party of protest clearly destroyed the party's unique selling point. Liberal Democrat activists had comforted themselves with the idea that their carefully established local loyalties and the strength of incumbency would limit their losses. Many, including the party leadership, hoped for at least 25-30 seats, enough anyway, to play a key role in the expected minority based administration likely to emerge from polling day. Negotiating machinery was already well in place for the Lib Dems. Harsh reality was possibly even harder to accept than it was for Labour: a 15 point exit of support compared with 2010; its top command destroyed: Simon Hughes and Vince Cable; in Scotland, Danny Alexander and Charles Kennedy.    Their so-called 'banker' support of students and professionals switched support in waves for other parties. The party which they had supported in government proved ruthless in swallowing up a huge and fatal chunk of its MPs. A Tory minister is quoted as saying: 'Angela Merkel said that coalition always destroys the little party and that was what we set out to do.'[14] Tens of thousands of activists had visited Lib Dem powerbases like Twickenham and Yeovil where David Laws' 13000 majority failed to save him. Nick Clegg was lucky to hold on in Sheffield Hallam where Tory voters had been urged to vote tactically for him to keep Labour out.

Mixed fortunes for UKIP and Greens

When UKIP's poll rating was coasting along at around 20%, Farage allowed himself to dream of a possible UKIP Commons contingent of a dozen or more. His campaign, however, was marred by signs of conflict behind the scenes and all too frequently ill-advised remarks by his candidates. His own defeat in Thanet South must have been a big blow, as also the resultant election of merely a single UKIP MP, the incumbent member for Clacton, Douglas Carswell. However UKIP did have achievements to savour. Firstly their attractiveness to poor white voters with no educational qualifications, garnered a not discreditable 13% of the electorate. UKIP polled strongest in Eastern coastal areas and in declining cities in the north. 

'UKIP's performance also confounded those who argued that the party  would primarily hurt the Conservatives - UKIP's advance was slightly larger in Labour held seats and Labour did four points worse in the areas where UKIP advanced most, compared to a 2 point Tory drop.'  [15]

Certainly UKIP's presence was instrumental in Labour losing some marginal seats, for instance the crucial 'bellwether' one of Nuneaton. Secondly UKIP managed to achieve second place in no less than 120 contests, meaning the party will be well placed to compete in 2020.

The Greens also emerged with a single seat, and in the local elections held on the same day, lost control of Brighton council but, like UKIP, hugely increased their number of votes: 3.8% of all voters. Natalie Bennett, despite a few wobbles during the campaign succeeded in enhancing her party's standing in the country,  together with the salience of its message.


Whilst the smaller English parties suffered from the thin national spread of their support, the nationalist parties benefited from the advantage first past the post delivers to small parties with concentrated geographical support. Plaid Cymru polled only 6m votes yet returned three MPs.  The SNP however took the prize with their 4.7% delivering a stunning 56 out of the 59 available Scottish seats. Whilst Nicola Sturgeon was careful to separate a further independence referendum from her campaign, her landslide is bound to strengthen calls for another vote and in the wake of victory Alex Salmond, now an MP at Westminster, announced that: 'The timing of a future referendum is a matter for the Scottish people first and foremost.'[16]  Future election historians are bound to focus on the similarities between 2015 with that of 1992, especially the eventual margin of Tory victory. The breathtaking difference however was that, while the 1992 exit poll proved sensationally wrong, the 2015 version proved sensationally right. The much anticipated dead heat in votes and seats together with the expected post-election government building negotiations, proved a chimera, with disastrous consequences for those who had invested hope in those possible outcomes.

APPENDIX TABLE 2:  2015 ELECTION: Breakdown of the Vote

Breakdown of Votes



[1] Observer, 10th May, 2015

[2] Sunday Times, 24th May, 2015

[3] Daniel Finkelstein, Times 9th May, 2015, p.5

[4] Guardian 15th May, 2015

[5]Anthony Seldon, Sunday Times, 10th May, 2015 p20

[6] Tim Shipman et al. Sunday Times 10th May 2015

[7] Andrew Rawnsley, Observer, 17th May, 2015

[8] Alberto Nardelli, The Guardian, 23rd May, 2015

[9] BBC, 11th May, 2015

[10] Quoted in Toby Helm's article, 17th May, 2015

[11] Quoted in,, Daniel Boffey, Observer, 24th May, 2015

[12] Observer 24th May, 2015

[13] Rob Ford, Observer, 10th May, 2015

[14] Tim Shipman, Sunday Times 10th May, 2015

[15] Rob Ford, Observer, 10th May 2015

[16]Sunday Telegraph, 10th May, 2015


















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