New Times,
New Thinking.

The Debate: what happened in the 2015 election?

The NS politics team look back to the shock result of 2015. 

Stephen Bush (special correspondent): Hi all, and welcome to this week’s chat. The theme: why did the 2015 election happen?

Jonn Elledge (CityMetric editor): Well Stephen we live in a democracy, and we have elections every few years. As the New Statesman‘s special correspondent I’m surprised you didn’t know that.

Stephen: Thanks for that Jonn. I’ll rephrase: what happened in the 2015 election?

On 7 May 2015, against the predictions of the pollsters, the bookmakers and the academics, the Conservatives won a parliamentary majority for the first time in 23 years.


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Jonn: Ooh, I know this one: they won a lot more votes than any other party.

Stephen: Thanks for that Jonn, do we have any advance on “they won a lot more votes”?

Jonn: Okay, more seriously.

My reading is the leadership thing. Most people don’t engage with politics until a few weeks before an election, so polling before that point is inherently difficult to do: people just aren’t paying attention. 

Once people started paying attention, they had a choice of prime ministers: David Cameron or Ed Miliband. And Miliband just couldn’t make himself look prime ministerial.

People will ultimately choose someone seen as strong but nasty over someone seen as weak but nice.

Julia Rampen (Staggers Editor):  I would agree that Ed Miliband was a factor. In that, the first thing my Labour-supporting boyfriend said after the 2015 election: “I couldn’t see him as PM”

You make up your mind about someone within a few seconds of meeting them, and with Ed, that was that.

Jonn: Yes. Miliband was heir to Kinnock, bless his cotton socks.

George Eaton (political editor): Ed’s unpopularity and Labour’s lack of economic trust were the fundamentals.

Stephen: I’m inclined to agree that, essentially, people never got past the fact they couldn’t see Ed Miliband as a Prime Minister – it was a sort of electoral halitosis Labour could never overcome.

I think the supplementary polling questions are more useful than the headline figures, which always looked bad for Labour. People were asked if they wanted Cameron or Miliband, they said Cameron, Osborne or Balls, said Osborne, asked who they were voting, said Labour. That never made sense – and in the end the ambiguity resolved itself.

Julia: But I would be wary of going too far down the ‘Great Man Theory route’.

George: I’d add the fact many voters didn’t know what Labour stood for (or if they did, didn’t like it)  They never settled on a message and Ed too often fell between two stools. Neither radical enough nor credible enough.

Julia: I think Ed had some good instincts on policy which we’re now seeing translated into May’s policies. But he was definitely a metropolitan liberal elite type, and he didn’t have the charisma of a Boris to overcome it.

And the papers were brutal. I remember when I moved to the Mirror I really changed my view on him, just from reading more supportive coverage of his speeches.

George: Ed too often prized unity over definition. But as we can see now, there were understandable reasons for doing so.

Stephen: I don’t think Ed’s tactical options were between insipid unity and the civil war Labour is having now.

Jonn: I think there was a sense after 2010 that it really was a one-more-heave situation.

The Tories didn’t have a majority. It was quite hard to see how they’d get one (in retrospect, LOL, idiots, all of us).

So I think the party could hold together because it really looked like it might be back in government soon enough.

Julia: Alex Nunns in The Candidate makes the point that Labour didn’t really change its share of the vote, what changed was the collapse of the Lib Dems and the SNP revolution in Scotland.

But I think it’s worth remembering that the SNP’s share of the vote was less than Ukip’s, but they benefit from geography.

George: Labour’s big psephological error was banking on former Lib Dems. A lot of their supporters were (and are) small-c conservatives to a degree still underappreciated.

It wasn’t just, or even mainly, the SNP that pushed Lib Dems to the Tories.

Stephen: My instinct on the SNP, though Julia I’d be interested in your take on this, is that that line only worked because of Ed’s weaknesses. The sentence “Tony Blair  bossed around by the SNP”, “Gordon Brown bossed around by the SNP”, or, to look ahead for a moment, “Jeremy Corbyn bossed around by the SNP” just doesn’t work, because they are all in different ways people you can’t see being pushed around.

Julia: Yes I agree. That poster with Ed Miliband in – was it Salmond or Sturgeon’s pocket? – really hit home

Stephen: They did both, IIRC.

Jonn: Oh, the tiny Ed in Salmond’s pocket. You just wanted someone to hug the guy.

Stephen: Ed or Salmond?

George: It’s often said that the Tories won because of a “late swing” and the SNP factor. But the pollsters’ conclusion was that they were always ahead from 2013 onwards, but duff polling din’t show that.

Stephen: There seems to be a consensus that it was Ed himself, not his policy platform, that scuppered Labour. Is that broadly everyone’s view?

Jonn: I think also Miliband made a serious strategic error with his belief that he had to trash the last Labour government’s record to win back credibility. “Labour are terrible, vote Labour” was never much of a pitch.

I think there’s an interesting counter-factual in which Balls wins the leadership in 2010, and spends the next five years attacking austerity and aggressively defending Labour’s recordCould Labour have won then?

(I don’t think so, because too many people hated Balls. But I suspect the party would be less screwed up now.)

Julia: I think the problem was Balls also pushed the austerity line, at least that’s the impression you get from his book.

Stephen: Not a chance of winning, IMO. One of Miliband’s few correct choices was not to be locked into a cycle of defending the last Labour government.

I think it’s fair to say I am the biggest fan of that administration on the team but voters gave a conclusive verdict on it in 2010, and, as Nunns points out in The Candidate, when basically asked to do the same thing, gave a more emphatic version of the same result.

George: The legacy of the crash was obviously deadly for Labour.  How to respond to that  is more complicated:

1. Challenge the “overspending” narrative (as the Eds never fully did) and make the case for investment.

2. Concede and move on.

3 Try and change the subject (as the Eds did most of the time).

Jonn: Sorry, I just really like Ed Balls. This may just be me.

Stephen: But Julia, George – what do you reckon? Should Ed have defended the record, or moved on?

Jonn: I wonder if the Ed Balls sex dream thread on Mumsnet is still there…

Julia: I think even if you make all the economic arguments in the world, people see with their own eyes that things went terribly terribly wrong under a Labour government. It’s hard to get over that. It’s the same with a CEO of a company.

I think the difficulty for Balls was he was trying to make a subtle argument about investment when most people were still at the “are my savings going to vanish” stage.

I’m not sure there’s an answer to how you get over that issue, except time and showing your competency and rigour. They’ve certainly had time…

But if it comes down to it, I think defending the record would have been a bad idea.

Stephen: So it’s 2-1 for abandon the record, defend the record. Is George gonna make it 2-2?

Jonn: No, hang on. I don’t actually think defending the record would have won the election in 2015, I just think it would mean the party was in less of a mess now.

The problem is that it’s incredibly difficult to make the argument that Blair & Brown also did a lot of good and progressive things because so few people have been willing to talk about them for six years.

George: My view now is that he should have conceded and moved on. It’s worked for parties more often than not.

Jonn: I would just like someone to, at some point, have reminded everyone that Blair’s legacy is about more than Iraq.

George: People also overestimate the extent to which the Tories created the “overspending” narrative. I think a decent number of voters came to that conclusion automatically.

And the Tories didn’t always claim that “overspending” caused the crash. They said Labour should have borrowed less in retrospect. Ed needed to accept that. Economically speaking, it’s fairly trivial. But politically, it’s huge.

Stephen: Really struck by when I visited the Vale of Glamorgan for the magazine how many people brought up Gordon Brown selling the gold in 1998 or whenever.

Julia: I think Labour’s internal divisions didn’t help. The problem with New Labour was their continuation of Thatcherite policies regarding the financial sector.

That was the thing they should be held to account for. But as Stephen says, it’s things like the gold and the pensions that stick in people’s minds.

Stephen: But without the financial services, wouldn’t have had Sure Start, Decent Homes Standard, etc.

The problem is now no-one is sure how you win electoral argument for public spending without that revenue.

Yes, but proper regulation (like we have now) is important. The New Labour government ignored a lot of stuff, just like the Bush administration, the Icelandic govt etc etc. And the Coalition was actually pretty good at bringing in this stuff to secure financial stability. But all this takes place in the dusty recesses of the Bank of England and people just aren’t that interested.

I think it’s easier for a centre-right govt or a left-wing party like Corbyn wants to build to criticise New Labour for this, but it’s very hard for those who made the case for economic liberalisation to admit where they went wrong.

So I guess that goes back to what George said about holding the party together.

George: I think Labour could have won the argument on housing investment, for instance. And it’s easier to do so if you appear to have learned from perceived mistakes.

Appearing serious about fiscal discipline gives you licence to spend.

Stephen: This is the 1992 argument, again – whether you need to “appear” or actually believe.

I’m – no-one laugh – with Blair on this one: not enough merely to say “Ok, the public is here, so we’ll go here” ala 1992 and to a lesser extent the fiscal lock on the front page of 2015 manifesto.

Have to actually believe it or go for the Corbyn route.

George: The problem with the fiscal lock is that it was on the front page precisely because it was too late.

Stephen: But the broad consensus is that Labour’s problem was that Ed wasn’t a good leader, made the wrong call on re fighting the 06-07 spending round, but that broadly the policy mix was ok? That might explain why Labour got 232 seats. Does it also explain why the Tories got 330 seats?

Julia: Shall we talk coalition?

I know people who hated the Lib Dems joining the Coalition, I understand why they didn’t vote for them again. But what about the people who went from yellow to blue?

Stephen: In many ways it was the classic European election: the little party eaten by its bigger coalition partner, the social democratic party losing votes both to its left and right.

George:  And the experience of the Tories in office persuaded some Lib Dems that they weren’t as bad as they thought.

Jonn: The idea people voted Tory because they wanted stability seems quite funny now. For a certain value of funny.

Julia: We’ve covered the Scotland fear factor already, but can we talk about the SNP surge?

I expected a lot of SNP seats, but even I was still surprised by the complete takeover.

As, I expect, was Douglas Alexander.

Stephen: I still feel sad about Douglas. One of the few Labour politicians who really got Europe, fought to stop a referendum commitment, and got that we weren’t in a position to fight and win a referendum.

Julia: Aw, I like Mhairi Black. He lost to a good un  (even though I completely disagree with her Waspi campaign).

Stephen: Wow, Julia has gone pretty right-wing this week.

Julia: It’s not right-wing, it’s taking up the case of the younger generations, who are subsidising all these baby boomer demands.

Jonn: Typical Scot. They pretend to be left-wing, but if you dig a little deeper…

Julia: I will bring this up with her if I meet her at conference.

Stephen: Julia versus Mhairi: fight!

Julia: Handbags at dawn, to quote a certain Ukip MEP…

George: The SNP won votes from socialists who thought Labour wasn’t radical enough and from conservatives who thought it wasn’t credible enough. It won votes from Labour voters who wanted independence and from Labour voters who wanted devo max.

Stephen: I think that’s a neat columnist’s line but nah – the most important reason.  for voting SNP was wanting Scotland to be an independent nation.

George: Yeh, I agree. The Yes vote transferred to them and that gets you a ton of seats under FPTP, whereas the unionist vote was split three ways.

Jonn: Okay, here’s one: in London, Labour out-performed its national figures. It’s continued doing so since, and is winning other cities, too.

So is Labour doomed to be a purely urban party?

Julia: It’s interesting to see how far the May government is focusing on the towns, which suggests they think that it will.

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Stephen: For the foreseeable. The problem is that, under Ed and Corbyn, it does very well among the “educated, cultured and young” to quote Suzanne Evans. It is winning the future but dying in the present.

And of course the May government is gonna do its best to halt the trends that favour Labour in the future.

Julia: Err, by exterminating all the young people?

Jonn: And foreign people. Don’t forget foreign people

Stephen: Amber Rudd won’t.

Julia: Although foreign people can’t vote, so they’re electorally quite benign  (I know, I know, you can if you’re Commonwealth)

Jonn: Ah, but knowing foreign people can make you sympathetic to foreign people, you see

Stephen: I think May will opt for reducing immigration and, if the new HE policy doesn’t get changed, potentially bankrupting a few universities.

Julia: And reducing reproduction because all the house prices are so expensive. She doesn’t have to work very hard on that one.

George: I don’t think Labour is doomed to be a regionalist party. There are plausible ways to unite cosmopolitans and communitarians.

Stephen: Go on…

Jonn: Let the record show there was a long pause at this point in the conversation.

Julia: Sooo… what have we learnt from this macabre chat about the chances of Labour in 2020?

Stephen: Well, this is cheerful – but back to the Tories: is the consensus that they won cos of what happened with the coalition, and fears over Ed, rather than anything they specifically did?

Julia: OK, with the financial journalism hat on, let’s give the Tories some credit.

Despite everyone’s criticisms of unnecessary austerity (which came back to bite them in June), they did manage to turn round the economy at a macroeconomic level, and that was starting to be clear by the time of 2015.

George: That was certainly the perception. But it would have been remarkable if the economy hadn’t started to recover by then. Indeed, it was remarkable it took that long.

Julia: They did look fairly competent on the economy – the Bank of England had planned to raise interest rates when unemployment fell to seven per cent, and then it fell much faster than anyone expected.

George: Yeh, the jobs recovery is the exception. That was remarkable in the right direction

Julia: I take your point George. But most people probably didn’t have that counterfactual framework, and compared to the worst time in 08 it was looking up

Stephen: And they had successful bribes to their coalition – for dual-earner couples on average incomes, people in newbuild homes, they had the threshold raise, help to buy, promise of improved childcare, for pensioners, Osborne practically offered to send round a gold-plated stripper to every home.

Julia: Yes, the pensioners thing was pretty blatant

Stephen: Annuties in particular were a big bung. Ironically the biggest bribes were Lib Dem policies (threshold raise and annuities).

Julia: It’s true – and yet I said the Tories. Which I guess sheds some light into why people voted for them!

George: Osborne also pulled off the trick of being fiscally loose(r) but rhetorically austere. He stuck to his plan just enough to claim vindication.

Julia: Very true.

George: And some credit to him, the IMF said he was “playing with fire” and he could have turned full Keynesian at that point.

Julia: He was seen to be quite reckless with the housing market, among financial types.

George: Vince Cable was on his back and looked like he could walk. But Osborne gambled and won. The IMF conceded, not him.

Jonn: I read that bit about Vince Cable in a very odd way.

Stephen: Did he “win” exactly?

George: He won by not embracing the Balls/Osborne plan. And more obviously, he won the election.

Stephen: Osborne could have U-Turned and won as, for instance, the 1983 election shows. Or 1992.

Governments are never punished for *not* doing bad things – but they are punished for what they do, which I think was partially the story of the referendum, which broke the whole Cameron-Osborne show.

Jonn: Also should we really be congratulating that government on its economic success given the state of its legacy? 

I mean, I hate to quibble, but y’know. 

Julia: I think he played politics very cleverly for a first past the post system. But unfortunately for him, the EU referendum was not that.

Jonn: Yeah, as far as the general election was concerned, Osborne played the politics very cleverly, I think. Pitched it in such a way that any downturns only served to prove him right about how terrible the whole mess he was cleaning up was.

Stephen: Agree. The success of the austerity politician is they promise pain – and hey presto, they deliver it!

Jonn: But nonetheless, I don’t think we should overstate either the performance of the economy under his management.

Still, though…

…I miss him.

Come back, George, all is forgiven.

Stephen: And on that troublingly right-wing bombshell, we’ll be back for next’s week’s chat:  Just how bad is everything?

Just kidding, it’ll be: Can Brexit work?

Which may or not be the same question.

Julia: Or: How easy is it to get an Irish passport?

Jonn: Or: How much can I get for this kidney?