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'What Happened in the 2015 UK General Election' by Dr Ed Gouge

The election produced a Conservative Parliamentary majority for the first time in 1992 despite the difficult economic circumstances of the last five years.  

All the Opinion Polls were wrong

All the opinion polls were wrong about the national shares of the two main parties, except for a Survation poll which they decided not to publish because it was so out of line with the rest. 

The polls were more accurate in predicting the UKIP, Lib Dem and Green national shares and the Scottish result, though the SNP did even better against Labour than suggested. The Ashcroft constituency polls were equally inaccurate, except in the Scottish and a few other cases. 

The British Polling Council is to conduct an inquiry into what went wrong, as it did in 1992, but it won’t be easy to find an answer. It didn’t make any significant difference which methodology the polls used or whether they were internet or telephone.  They polled up to the last minute to look for a late swing to the Conservatives and did not find any.  Anecdotal reports from candidates were that undecided voters swung heavily to the Conservatives at the last minute. Labour’s own private polling which asked questions about key factors such as economic competence and leadership before asking about voting intention was more accurate. 

Possibly, as Lord Ashcroft has suggested, voting patterns have changed as a result of the changes in the political landscape and so it is more difficult to work out what is a representative sample or use past voting as a predictor of future voting. 

Turnout

Turnout was up only about 1% despite the predictions of a close election and expectation that UKIP, SNP and the Greens would bring extra voters out. There is evidence though that turnout among the youngest group of voters rose from 52% to 58%. Social media seems to have become more important but we won’t know how much until we get detailed analyses of Facebook and Twitter.

National Swing

The national swing between the two main parties was 1.1% to Labour in England and 0.2% to the Conservatives in Wales but was not an indicator of what would happen in individual seats.  Both Labour and the Conservatives won seats from each other and neighbouring constituencies moved in different directions, probably as a result of the micro-geography of vote switching to UKIP and from the Lib Dems.  However, almost all the Conservative held marginals in the South and Midlands swung away from Labour by anything between 1% and 6%.  Northern marginals were more mixed and Labour made a little progress in some of these. The small swing away from Labour in Wales allowed the Conservatives to gain Gower and the Vale of Clwyd as well hold all their marginals there.

Deciding Factors

In reaching conclusions on what decided the election, the factors affecting a group of undecided voters, many of them middle of the road ex Lib Dems in middle England constituencies, seem to have been:-

  • Economic Competence

Labour was never able to overcome the impression among many voters that they heavily overspent and this was related to the economic crisis.  Key Labour figures, as well as being involved in the leadership contest, probably wanted to put the Brown premiership, which was so dysfunctional by the end, behind them and failed to defend its major achievement which was to prevent the cash machines running out of money.

  • Leadership
Ed Miliband did well in the election campaign but still never managed to catch up with Cameron, who was always more popular than the Conservative party.
  • The Scottish National Party

The media spent the last week concentrating on what influence the SNP would have over a Labour Government, in itself a story created by the polls that were suggesting a hung Parliament.  Middle of the road voters were frightened by the radicalism of the SNP and, perhaps, an element of English nationalism was awakened as well. This interacted with the image the Conservative press had created of Miliband as a weak leader so that he would not stand up to the SNP.

Swing Factors

Many other factors have some effect but in different directions. Labour’s arguments on the ‘cost of living crisis’  and zero hours contracts resonated with many on lower incomes and its policies on the private rented sector won back votes from private tenants but this mostly increased Labour majorities in seats they already held. The Conservatives seemed to square Labour’s campaign on the NHS by promising extra spending. Immigration remained important and mostly helped UKIP.

Labour seem to have won the ages groups up to 55 but the Conservatives had a 2 to 1 lead among those over 65 and Labour will always have a probably winning while this continues. Labour won the DE social groups as normal, though a large proportion went to UKIP, the ABs were more Conservative and they also had a small lead among the critical C groups.

The nation divided into a number of different electoral areas and, looking through the results, what stands out is that most seats have a very large Conservative majority or a very large Labour majority or a very large SNP majority.

  • Big city areas and areas that formally had traditional manufacturing voted Labour. Labour held the ethnic minority vote.
  • Liberal cosmopolitan England voted Labour. Labour had several gains in London, won Hove and nearly won Brighton Kemptown and won all the constituencies where there was a significant university population, except Leeds NW, a rare hold for the Lib Dems. Labour saw  a swing to them across London, except in Hendon and Finchley probably because the Jewish vote was opposed to Ed Miliband’s position on recognising a Palestinian state.
  • More prosperous rural and suburban areas voted Conservative but often with a significant UKIP vote.
  • Less well to do rural and coastal areas voted Conservative, as the Lib Dem vote collapsed and Labour failed to make headway in places such as Hastings, Lowestoft and Thanet but with a significant UKIP vote here as well.
  • Southern and Midland England, mixed constituencies voted Conservative and tipped the election in their favour. There was a swing to the Conservative in the new towns, except, surprisingly, Peterborough.
  • Scotland was overwhelmingly SNP. Labour won only Edinburgh South, the Lib Dems Orkney and Shetland in the far north and the Conservatives the Dumfriesshire seat on the English Border, though only by 800 votes. Scotland and England will divide further in policy terms as well with health, housing, education and even economic policies becoming more sharply different in the two countries.

Northern Ireland


In Northern Ireland the religious divide still determined voting and the non-sectarian Alliance Party lost their only seat. The Ulster Unionist Party reappeared and Sinn Fein lost one seat.

Liberal Democrats

The Lib Dems were swept away in all but a disparate set of 8 seats.  This is the lowest number of seats for a Liberal Party since 1959 and the first time that they have not a seat in South-West England since 1955. In seat after seat they are back to where they were before their successes in the February 1974 general election.  

Opinion polls over the last Parliament had about a third of Lib Dems shifting to Labour but clearly a lot of Lib Dems were in the undecided group and shifted to the Conservatives to stop Labour. What is surprising is that both these shifts seem to have occurred even in Lib Dem seats where Labour had no chance of winning so that even popular MPs who had seemed safe, such as Vince Cable in Twickenham and Norman Baker in Lewes, lost.

UKIP

For UKIP it was a disappointing night even though they achieved 3.8m votes, the highest ever for a party that was not one of the three established parties. In Lord Ashcroft’s postelection poll 40% of their voters said they were normally Conservative and 25% normally Labour. They held Clacton but only by 3000 votes, well down on their huge by-election victory majority, and lost their other by-election gain in Rochester and Strood. 

In most constituencies, outside London and Scotland they achieved 6000 to 10000 votes. This gave them a lot of second places but a long way behind Labour or the Conservatives and, as the Lib Dems have found over the years, it is not easy to turn these into first places. 

After Clacton, their best results were in Thurrock where they came third but only a few hundred votes behind Labour and the Conservatives, in Thanet South where Farage lost by 2000 but they took control of the local council, and in Hartlepool where Labour won by 3000 votes.  

They beat the 12000 barrier in a group of Labour and Conservative seats either side of the Thames Estuary, in Rother Valley in Yorkshire, in Folkestone and Hythe, in the Isle of Wight and in the Fenland seat of Boston and Skegness, where the Conservative majority was 4000, UKIP’s. Their support in places such as Great Grimsby, East Coast towns and the Black Country was significant but never reached the level that earlier Ashcroft polls suggested. 

The Greens

The Greens also had a disappointing night despite getting over 1m votes. Caroline Lucas held Brighton Pavilion easily but Labour won both Norwich South and Bristol West, which had been Green targets, from the Lib Dems, although in the latter the Greens gained 17,000 votes, only 5000 behind Labour.  

Overall there is no clear evidence that the student vote went Green though they gained 6000 votes in Sheffield Central, 5000 in Oxford East and 4000 in Cambridge and York Central.  

The highest Green votes were in central London constituencies and a few rural and small town constituencies such as Bury St Edmunds, Somerton and Frome, which includes Glastonbury, a centre of alternative culture, and the Isle of Wight. 

The Greens certainly hurt Labour, as in Lord Ashcroft’s post-election poll 29% of the Green vote came from people who normally voted Labour, more than from the Lib Dems.

New Boundaries

The 2020 election will take place on new boundaries.  The Conservatives will now bring back legislation, vetoed by the Lib Dems after Conservative MPs failed to support them on Lords reform, which will cut the number of constituencies to 600 and electorates will have to be within 5% of the national average.  

As electorate numbers have changed, the Boundary Commission will start again and maybe avoid some of the curious shaped constituencies that were criticised last time. They will complete their review in 2016 and there will be a consultation before the final recommendations are put to Parliament.  If the seats of 6 or more Conservative MPs disappear, the Government might be in some trouble and will have to do a deal with the DUP to get it through.

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