Myths and reality in the election

A British election campaign in full swing . . . but what is actually happening?

Myths and reality in the election

Dateline: 30 May 2001

There was a huge swing to Labour last time, which will be hard for the Conservatives to overcome.

There was a small swing to Labour in 1997 Ė their vote was up only a million on 1992. What happened is that a small number of Conservative voters (about half a million) voted either Referendum Party or UKIP and a much larger number (two and half million) stayed at home. In 1979 the Thatcher government was swept power on a huge wave of enthusiasm, and a reversal in the long-term decline in voter turnout. Blair was elected on a wave of apathy and negativism, and the largest ever fall in voter participation.

Blair is hoping for a big turnout this time.

The last thing Blair wants is for the Conservatives who were disillusioned in 1997 to turn out and vote this time. He wants a high turnout of Labour voters, but a high overall turnout could cost him his job.

There is likely to be more tactical voting this time.

Anti-Tory tactical voting first became a big issue in Scotland in 1987 and spread to England in a big way in 1997. The motivation was to remove a Conservative government. That motive has gone. Evidence from local government elections is that tactical voting has diminished. Lib Dem MPs elected for the first time in 1997 may be able to squeeze the Labour vote a little further, and there may be more tactical voting in 3-way marginals, like Hastings and Rye, but in general it will decline.

The Lib Dems did well last time, and are hoping to improve this time.

The Liberal Democrat vote has declined in each of the last three general elections, and, if opinion polls are to be believed, is likely to do so again. The Lib Dems gained seats last time partly on the back of tactical voting, but mostly because the Conservative vote fell in seats where the Lib Dems were in second place. They, too, are worried about the turnout rising back to 1992 levels. There is evidence, from European and local elections, that the Lib Dems have declined particularly in their heartlands in the South West. If their vote falls back more in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset than in Surrey and Hertfordshire, they could be in real trouble. In Scotland, tactical voting is the only thing that keeps the party alive. They came second in terms of seats while coming fourth in terms of votes. If tactical voting falls back in Scotland, the Lib Dems may not survive as a serious electoral force there. If Charles Kennedy holds three quarters of the seats his party won last time, he will be very pleased.

Hague needs to make huge gains to survive as leader.

In 1987, Neil Kinnock enhanced his reputation as Labour leader while gaining just 20 seats. He was seen to have had a good campaign. So far, at least, that has been true of William Hague, too. The debate has focussed on the issues the Conservatives have wanted to highlight.

Hague should be worried that the opinion polls havenít moved yet.

Opinion doesnít necessarily shift during the course of an election campaign, and may not this time, but when it does, as in 1970 and 1992, it usually does so in the last couple of days, or even on the day. Remember, it is not so much people changing their mind about whom they wish to support, but deciding whether or not to turn out. Frequently the opinion polls miss this altogether, and only register it in the exit poll. We should not expect to see any evidence yet of movement in voting intentions, and the fact that it hasnít registered is therefore not a bad sign for the Conservatives.

Campaigning on the Euro is a bad choice by Hague, it isnít what motivates people.

It is what motivates some people. He believes that it is the route to motivating the two and half million Conservative abstainers from 1997, and he may be right. Also, although the electorate as a whole does not regard it as the main issue, they do see it as an issue which divides the parties. Someone may regard the NHS as very important, but also regard the partiesí policies as very similar. Finally, it is a good issue for Hague to focus on, because on this issue he is winning. Both against Labour and against the Lib Dems this is a vote winner for the Conservatives.

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