This article originally appeared on the blog Socialist Economic Bulletin on the 4th of May.
By now many pollsters admit they misread the election campaign. As Freddie Sayers, You Gov’s Editor in Chief, put it:
‘Back in February, it was still considered a near-certainty by the media pundits that the Conservatives would end up significantly ahead. Ed Miliband was unconvincing, the economic numbers coming in were all positive, and now the SNP were wiping out Labour in Scotland: the Conservatives themselves felt a certain inevitability about their return to power after May 7th.’
The election campaign has not turned out like that – the Tories have not gained support. But an attempt has been to explain this by short term factors such as Lynton Crosby’s distasteful election tactics or backlash against the Tory media’s attempted character assassination of Ed Miliband. As Peter Kellner summarised this analysis: ‘Tories pay the price of an inept campaign’.
This view is wrong. History, including election campaigns, is ‘natural selection of accidents’. Far more powerful forces than Lynton Crosby, or David Cameron’s inability to accurately name his supposed favourite football term, explain the failure of Tory support to rise.
To show the deep social processes explaining absence of the anticipated Tory surge the graph below shows the Tories percentage of the vote at every general election since the party’s highest ever score – 55.0% in 1931. The graph is breath-taking in the steadiness of its decline.
Already after World War II the peak Tory vote was 49.6% in 1955 – lower than inter-war levels. It fell to 41.9% by 1992 – the last time the Tories won a majority in the House of Commons. By 2010, when they had declined to being the largest party, but without an overall majority of seats, Tory support was 36.1%. Typically each Tory victory was won with a lower percentage of the vote than the one before, each Tory defeat saw the party’s support fall further than the one previously.
This process is produced by clear social trends. The modern Conservatives originated in the South East of England, outside London, in the mid-nineteenth century following the old Tory Party’s split over repeal of the corn laws. Over nearly a century the Conservatives rose to become Britain’s dominant party by adding, in chronological order, mass support in North West England, London, the West Midlands and Scotland – the current Tory rump in Scotland, with one seat, is in a nation where from 1945-55 Tories actually had more support than England! The Tory decline was the progressive loss of first Scotland, then North West England, then the West Midlands and London. Now the Tories are back in their original South East bastion.
This trend, based on real elections not polls, was analysed in 1983 in my book Thatcher and Friends and has continued to operate since. It is such powerful forces, operating over more than 80 years, which underlay the failure of Tory support to rise in the election campaign.
Relentless historical Tory decline, of course, does not mean there are no short term shifts. There is a swing factor of slightly under 5% between a Tory victory and a defeat – explained by events nearer the time of an election. But this is superimposed on an underlying erosion of the Tory vote of slightly over 0.2% a year.