Book review: The British General Election of 2015

Written by The British General Election of 2015 is Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh (Palgrave Macmillan £26.99). on 12 January 2016 in Diary
Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh are experienced observers and writers on British politics and elections. Their latest analysis should not be ignored by politicians or campaigners

This is an expensive paperback even for 483 pages of political information.

It is the nineteenth in a series of books which originated in 1945 in Nuffield College, Oxford. But this is the second volume of the series where neither of the authors is based at Nuffield. The first volume by McCullun and Readman was on the 1945 election and an attempt to place on record what had happened before party political spin prevailed.

The authors are experienced observers and writers on British politics and elections, with Dennis Kavanagh having co-authored every election volume since 1974.

As the authors explain in their introduction, for a long time it was relatively straight forward to compile a study on elections as they took place within a two-party and then a three-party system, from which, usually, a single party winner emerged.  By 2015 there had been a fragmentation of the old party system with regional differences which in 2010 appeared to have inaugurated a new era of hung parliaments and coalitions. 

Before the 2015 election it was expected that neither the Conservatives nor Labour would be able to form a majority government, and if the polls were to be believed (a big “if” in retrospect) there would be an advantage Labour.

For most of the period from 1945 the Nuffield volumes on each General Election almost stood alone, with little in the way of serious competition.  This is no longer true, and the authors acknowledge several excellent studies which complement or challenge the current volume.  Tim Ross’s Why the Tories Won, was published too late for the authors to use, but was reviewed previously on Total Politics.

The format of The British General Election of 2015 is based upon a chronology, with the majority of chapters written by the co-authors, and others by guest writers such as Richard Rose and Mark Shephard on the SNP and David Deacon and Dominic Wring on the Press.  Sources for the book included over 300 interviews with key players from all the main parties, election literature, media, including print and social, and some academic studies.

So what have the authors concluded?  No group of academics, pollsters or campaign teams in the political parties before the election saw any outcome other than a hung parliament. 

Although the pollsters were deemed to have failed significantly, Cowley and Kavanagh are keen to show that the political parties in particular got it wrong.  Labour’s private polling had long been more pessimistic than the public polls and Conservative strategists had been more optimistic – for Cowley and Kavanagh these were differences of scale, not outcome.

Yet the pollsters cannot escape severe criticism over their methodology, and misinterpretation. The arguments continue over what went wrong but they were as flawed as they had been in 1991, the “Waterloo of the polls” as the authors describe it.

Reading this book one cannot get away from the fact that the Conservatives had learnt more from 2010 than had either Labour or the Liberal Democrats; Cameron was more credible as a Prime Minister than Ed Miliband as a Prime Minister in waiting; that economic security trumped everything else; the Conservatives had a more targeted strategy towards individual voters in marginal constituencies; and the fear of a Labour government dependent on the SNP was a crucial swing factor in England and Wales, at getting UKIP and Liberal Democrat voters to switch to the Conservatives.

The shock of the BBC exit poll at 22.00 hours on election night was profound.  Nobody, beyond Lynton Crosby, had been expecting it.  Cameron had prepared a resignation speech whilst Miliband had prepared a PM in waiting speech.

Like most of its predecessors this volume ends with the announcement of the result and some facts such as the Conservative victory was achieved on only a very slight increase in the Conservative vote – up by 0.8 percentage points.  But this was only one of three occasions in the UK when the party in government has increased both its vote and seat shares in consecutive elections.

A final appendix, written by John Curtice, Stephen D Fisher and Robert Ford “The Results Analysed” gets to grip with the “why?” of the election results.  The authors conclude that after the expected reduction in the size of the Commons and the Boundary changes it will be extremely difficult for Labour to become the largest party let alone a majority – unless the Conservative vote collapses and there is a massive revival of Labour in Scotland.

The British General Election of 2015 should be perused by all politicians and campaigners, but especially Labour, not least as a distraction from their current introspection.


Keith Simpson is Conservative MP for Broadland.

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