If There Had Been A General Election In March 2013, Labour Would Have Gained A Landslide Victory; In May 2015, They Could Not Have Won. Why?

by richardhutton

“Slabs of bacon, which we accept as trivial, reveal to me the latent horror behind all subsistence. And yet I must eat”.
– Werner Herzog


If there had been a general election in March 2013, Labour would have won it by a landslide. Ed Miliband would be Prime Minister. At this juncture, 27% of people indicated that they would vote Conservative. 40% would have voted Labour. In May 2015, however, Labour’s defeat was a foregone conclusion. They couldn’t win, no matter what their campaign performance might be. By contrast the Conservatives couldn’t lose, despite their own efforts. Their election-campaign was a disaster; David Cameron’s behaviour was a disgrace. There was no question posed, to which his policies were the answer. Labour’s electioneering was very good; Miliband’s personal popularity ratings increased. But they were still never going to win this election, and the Conservatives were never going to lose it.

Why? Why was there such a drastic change in Labour’s electoral prospects from March 2013 on? Everything seemed to stand in Labour’s favour; yet their popularity begin to wane inexorably from the following month, April 2013, and never returned. What happened – or rather, what began to happen – at this point? Did the Conservative electioneering-team hatch a fiendish plan for ultimate triumph? No – the Tories demonstrated a tactical mastery equivalent to losing a game of Scrabble while trying to play chess: as evinced by David Cameron’s inability to remember which football team he pretends to support; the party chairman, Grant Shapps, proving unable to remember his own name; or Karen Brady’s hapless letters to the Telegraph. So was it perhaps the relentless barrage of vindictiveness from the Tory Press? It’s unlikely – in fact, it barely seems to have had any impact on Labour. Up until the election itself, there was virtually no difference between the popularity of the two parties. Labour actually polled higher than the Conservatives between January-April 2015; albeit only by between 1-2%. It wasn’t until the very month of May 2015 that the Conservatives received the same proportion of the vote as they had in May 2010.

No – what happened in the Spring of 2013 is that austerity policies were temporarily abated; and the economy started to recover. Austerity measures damaged the country economically. In 2011/12, by the Office for Budgetary Responsibility’s estimate, they reduced growth by 1.4%. It’s largely forgotten now, but the UK had re-entered recession during the first three months of 2011. During this period, for three years, Labour polled consistently higher than the Conservatives. However, during the first three months of 2013, government expenditure saw a record increase. According to the ONS report on this, government consumption saw the “largest increase (0.9%) for 3 quarters, since 2012”. This is when economic recovery began again, following the three year depression after the Coalition had come to power. From that point on, Labour’s popularity deteriorated. Why? Because public antipathy towards the government waned. The pattern can be seen plainly enough in Ipsos Mori’s voter intention polls. By May 2015, the election was not Labour’s to win or lose – it was the Conservative’s; and they avoided defeat because the economy recovered. The popular support for a change of government simply wasn’t there.

The economy is currently, to all appearances, in a good state. No government in power, when the economy is strong, ever loses an election – no matter how iniquitous their policies may be. Opposition parties do not win or lose elections; governments do – and what determines their fate is the state of the economy. This is why Kinnock couldn’t defeat Major in 1992: the general election was in April of that year; Black Wednesday happened in September. Labour did make significant gains during that election – they gained 42 seats, while the Conservatives lost 40; but the economy wasn’t bad enough to unseat the Conservative government. Their term in office, between 1992-97, experienced enough protracted political and economic difficulties to ensure that it would lose the election. This is why Blair’s Labour Party swept to victory, while Kinnock did not: not because of Blair’s supposed charisma, or his embrace of Thatcherism; but because the economy was not bad enough in the run up to the election of ’92 for the Conservatives to be voted out of government; and not good enough since then for them to avoid defeat. It’s the same reason why the Conservatives couldn’t gain their expected majority in 2010 – because the economy was recovering: their support had been at 52% in September 2008 – this was the same month that the Lehman Brothers bank collapsed; by the time of the general election in May 2010, it had waned to 36.9%. Opposition to the government had diminished. If Gordon Brown had been given another two years in government, he would almost certainly not have lost the election.

The Conservatives did not win the May 2015 election due to widespread support – their share of the vote did not increase – but due to the absence of widespread opposition. The reality of this trend was evident in the voting-intention polls. Miliband was not ‘the wrong brother’ – he would have won a general election if one had been held during Spring 2013; or at virtually any point in 2012. Three years into his leadership, with all the personal abuse already in full flow, his party’s lead in the polls was consistently strong. It declined exponentially the moment the economy began to recover – and the continuation of this is what made a Conservative win a near certainty. Labour’s losses in Scotland contributed to the scale of their loss, and to the Conservatives gaining a majority; they also appear to have been at least in part political – with the fall-out from the 2014 referendum a core factor – but they were not decisive here: even if Labour had won every seat in Scotland, Labour still wouldn’t have defeated the Conservatives this month. The SNP currently have 56 seats in Parliament, Labour have 232, the Conservatives – 330. The Tory share of the vote was virtually identical in May 2015, as it was in May 2010 (in fact, by Ipsos Mori’s polling it was slightly lower). The Tories gained a majority this time – despite many people averring that the days of majority governments were over – because the SNP wiped Labour out in Scotland; and the Lib Dems were destroyed.

The inquest is out – with numerous mutually contradictory, and decidedly ahistorical (if not openly self-serving in some cases), pieces of conjecture being offered as to the factors behind this: ranging from suggestions that Miliband’s Labour were too left-wing, too right-wing, too centrist, not centrist enough – or in any other way intrinsically incapable. But these are demonstrably false. The central fact stands plain – for three years, Miliband’s Labour would have won a General Election. From April 2013 onwards, the moment economic recovery began, they would not have.

This year’s election has proven a distressing result for many people, nonetheless – regardless of who did and did not foresee the outcome; what the reasons behind the eventual result may be – or the dreadful conduct of the media throughout. All the cruelty, the increased poverty, and the vindictiveness of the Coalition government’s policies, and all the misery meted out to those who could least cope with it, have ultimately had no bearing – the Conservatives were elected back into power. The Coalition’s record in office was a disgrace in terms of poverty, suicide, and homelessness; but the economy recovered in 2013 until the present. The true context, and reasons for this, remain generally ignored. This is something which probably does have a bearing on matters – and both the media, and for that matter, Labour themselves, failed to challenge the false narrative on the cause of economic crisis in 2008, and the equally misleading one on the reasons for economic recovery in 2013. It was not borne of Conservative economic policies – it was due to them ending.

Nonetheless, Labour could not defeat the Conservatives in May 2015. This was not due to any innate failing for their part, but because there was not sufficient popular desire at this time for a change of government; and the primary reason for this is because the economy is not in a bad enough state to warrant it. Labour would have won a general election in March 2013, by a landslide; they could not win one in May 2015. It was not Labour’s election to win or lose, but the Conservatives’. The outcome was staring people in the face, for two years. The economy recovered, so the Conservatives avoided defeat. Ultimately, it is as fundamental as that.