Review by James Smith
Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh, The British General Election of 2015 (Palgrave, 2016) 483pp.
At the start of May 2015, Ed Miliband – the gawkish soft-Left leader of Britain’s Labour Party – was almost universally reported as being about to form a minority government, propped up by some understanding with smaller parties, growing support for which was supposed to gobble up many of the seats held by the traditional main two. The more personally popular Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, was understood to have too few congenial other parties to turn to in the event of coalition negotiations following an election that delivered no party a parliamentary majority. Instead, Cameron managed what most commentators thought a statistical impossibility, a Conservative majority government, achieved mainly by cannibalising support for the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives’ coalition partner of the past five years. Today, Cameron is struggling through a rag bag of right-wing manifesto commitments he presumably never thought he would be in a position to implement. Labour’s increasingly left-wing grassroots membership meanwhile, deciding that Milibandism was as much of an electoral compromise as it was prepared to make, has responded to the sting of its rejection by making Jeremy Corbyn, a traditional Leftist in his sixties with no experience of high office, its leader.
Corbyn merits one ominous mention in Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh’s authoritative account of The British General Election of 2015, the indispensable scholarly collection of statistics, narrative record, and sober interpretation, which in many ways already reads as a text from a different political age. Its most gripping chapters are – rather unexpectedly – those concerned with data, either in opinion polling, or in the political campaigns. ‘Everyone claimed that 2010 was the first digital election’, one Conservative campaigner remarks in the book, ‘but 2015 was different’, in respect of a new adeptness in the deployment of data by political parties in their attempts to garner support, but more visibly in the unprecedented extent to which this election was shadowed by opinion polling.
Evgeny Morozov has discussed how one of the most persistent mythologies about digital culture is that it has facilitated an inevitable drive towards ‘openness’, and that this is in itself good for democracy. Open publication of data, whether of crime statistics by local area, customer ratings of restaurants, the monthly performances of public sector departments, or, indeed, political opinion polling, is presumed to always work to improve the institution having its data made public. But this often has unanticipated consequences. Over one thousand opinion polls were conducted in the three years prior to the 2015 election, ninety-two of which were published during the six-week campaign, and twenty-eight in the final week. It was the most polled election in British history, and by that token, the one in which the will and opinions of ‘the people’ was most constantly and openly articulated. The problem is that these polls were consistently inaccurate. While they claimed that Labour and the Conservatives were more or less tied in the run up to the election, it now appears that voting intentions had been much more favourable to the Conservatives for a considerable time, perhaps even for the entire parliament. This is not merely an embarrassment for the polling companies, but as many of those with most at stake in the election were quick to point out, was also enormously democratically problematic.
Polling does not merely ‘reflect’ the developing views of voters, but as the election showed, actively intervenes in the formation of those views. The election was, in other words, an instance of ‘openness’ frustrating the very democratic ideal Morozov’s data enthusiasts would have us believe it always advances. The Conservative campaign found its foothold in the fact that, for complex historical reasons that had come to a head in the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, the nominally Left wing Scottish National Party were likely to dominate the election in Scotland. Since the polling indicated that neither Labour nor Conservative would be able to form a majority on their own, the media became increasingly fascinated by the possibility of Labour forming some kind of alliance with the SNP. This was a gift to the Conservatives, who were able terrify middle England with a targeted campaign extolling the dangers of such an alliance. So too, it benefited the SNP, who could to promise Scotland that a vote for them was a vote for genuine influence on government UK-wide. In this way, the polling’s inaccurate claim of a parity between Labour and Conservative support actually produced exaggerated support for Labour’s rivals both north and south of the border. At the same time, as one Labour strategist puts it, the polling ‘de-risked a Conservative government’ for the more nervous prospective Conservative voters, ‘because you couldn’t get a Conservative government. Except you could’. Cowley and Kavanagh are wary of counterfactual speculations over how more accurate polling would have affected the overall result. But they also make clear how the polling affected campaign decisions in smaller ways. Resources were flooded into one North London constituency because Labour activists were confident they could win, only for them to lose by six thousand votes.
That constituency was also the venue of my own small contribution to the election, as a volunteer canvasser for Labour between January and May. After spending election day ‘getting the vote out’ – calling on people who were likely to vote Labour and encouraging them to do so – I arrived at the pub near the constituency office to find my fellow volunteers and party members in shock. The exit poll had been published, all but demolishing any hope of victory for Miliband. The night was disturbing for anyone on the Left, but not simply because Labour had lost: whatever false hope was fostered by the polls, the presentational limitations of Miliband and his programme had long been anecdotally clear, and as one spivvish New Labour-type at the bar repeatedly slurred, ‘you’ve got to have a decent leader’. Rather, the disturbing thing was the extent to which the Conservative courting of Liberal Democrat voters had been successful.
At the 2010 election, the appeal of the Liberal Democrats had – by reputation at least –been to those who had found Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown too domestically authoritarian, who had objected to the Iraq War, and had supported the party’s opposition to university tuition fees. Their abandonment of several of these gentle enough soft-Left positions in office was known to have cost the party support. And yet it was to the Right that twenty-seven – almost half – of the Liberal Democrat constituencies shifted, voting Conservative apparently out of fear that a Miliband-SNP alliance would prove too radical. As one Liberal Democrat campaigner reports, the refrain on the doorstep was, ‘I can’t vote for you this time, I can’t do it’. Cowley and Kavanagh remark that when the prominent Liberal Democrat Business Secretary, Vince Cable, lost his seat, ‘the Labour activists in the hall gave their biggest cheer of the night to a Conservative victory’. But I felt no such schadenfreude. For if you lived in Twickenham and had been voting for Cable since 1997, I could not, in my naivety, understand why you would change to the Conservatives in 2015. The party’s Right could congratulate themselves on having for an MP an influential member of cabinet, while the more sceptical could at least applaud Cable’s mischievous undermining of his Conservative colleagues at various points in the parliament. With the far-right UKIP now the country’s third biggest party in terms of votes, and a brutal and often incompetent Conservative Party returned to office with an increase in seats hitherto unseen in modern politics, the incomprehensible loss of Cable’s seat seemed emblematic of how far to the Right the country had lurched. If this was to change, it was clear something radical would have to be done. And – it so happens – it was.
James Smith is Lecturer in English Literature at Royal Holloway University. He is the author of Samuel Richardson and the Theory of Tragedy which is out next month with Manchester University Press.