Feature: Solving the 2010 election riddle

The general election results baffled us all. Now, after the dust has settled, its winners are trying to work out exactly why the electorate proved so fickle.

By Alex Stevenson

It’s 22:00 BST on May 5th. The team is braced for 19 hours of political ecstasy – this is, after all, the climax of years of build-up. Yet there’s a strange opening. The exit polls put the Lib Dems falling back to just 61 seats, turning the story of the campaign – the Nick Clegg-driven surge in the polls – to dust. Surely, we asked ourselves, they’ve got it wrong this time?

In fact this apparently loopy poll was spot on. The Lib Dems got four less than expected, taking four seats; the Conservatives two more than forecast, on 307; while Labour held three more seats than predicted, taking 258. The pundits’ scorn, including that of
politics.co.uk, appeared to have been very much misplaced.

In the days after the final results were in and Britain’s first hung parliament since the Second World War was confirmed the head-scratching continued. The election night was extraordinary for the choppy, unpredictable nature of its results. Seats which Labour were expected by all and sundry to lose stayed red. In others the governing party’s support collapsed unexpectedly – as in Redcar, where the Lib Dems saw an astonishing 23% swing in their favour. What caused this turbulence?

Two south-west constituencies, both Lib Dem-Tory marginals, might hold some of the answers to this perplexing riddle.

In Cheltenham it’s the Liberal Democrats who found themselves on the defensive. Martin Horwood, an environment spokesperson in the last parliament, had a lead of over 2,000 in the 2005 election. But boundary changes meant his advantage over Tory challenger Mark Coote had dwindled to little more than 300 votes. Cheltenham was tenth on the Conservative target list as a result.

Could the sheer pressure of a slim majority be overcome by the infamous Lib Dem incumbency effect? In the end the answer was no. Horwood held Cheltenham with a 4.3% swing in his favour. “I’m very pleased with my result,” he says modestly, back in parliament, several weeks later.

“Perhaps my role as a local MP played some part in that. I think the really abject weakness of the Labour party in Cheltenham clearly played some kind of part.

“And perhaps the role of the Lib Dem campaign [did too], in that… the so-called Clegg-mania might have to some extent burst David Cameron’s bubble as the inevitable leader of a major Tory government.”

Horwood refuses to acknowledge that his result bucked the national trend, pointing out that Clegg’s party increased its share of the vote. Cameron’s failure to win over Britain clearly proved decisive in preventing an overall Tory majority. “In some places that did benefit Labour right at the end of the campaign,” Horwood muses, “but perhaps in Cheltenham it benefited us more than anybody else”.

The losses suffered by the Lib Dems in this election have dented the party’s reputation for having virtually unshiftable MPs. Still, the incumbency effect appears decisive in the Cheltenham case. Conservative Harriett Baldwin, replacing Sir Michael Spicer in nearby West Worcestershire, had no such defence. Her very big patch, one of the largest constituencies geographically speaking in England, had been Tory forever. But several decades of Lib Dem momentum-gathering made it a likely target for Solihull MP Lorely Burt’s husband Richard Burt. The Conservative majority slipped to 2,500 in 2005 and a “well-funded” Lib Dem campaign made local activists excited by the prospect of a breakthrough after such a long time.

Safely elected after a 3.3% swing back towards the Tories, Baldwin explains she owes her success to her long run-in period – a full four years before the eventual election date.

“My strategy in West Worcestershire was always to fight it as if it was a target seat for the Conservatives,” she says. “I moved to the area right away and started campaigning as if it were a target seat. And I think that that was extremely helpful to me in getting to know the area and the issues very, very well. It paid off.”

The story is the same all over Britain. Jason McCartney, who took the three-way marginal Colne Valley off Labour while simultaneously holding off a strong (if negative) challenge from the local Lib Dems, says his team got the campaigning habit as early as October 2007. Then they came second in a council by-election, but it laid the groundwork for a series of campaigns.

“That’s when we got in the habit of campaigning and competing hard and knocking on doors and meeting people and making a real difference,” McCartney says. The 2008 local elections and the 2009 European elections followed in due course; by 2010 the machine was well-oiled enough that in the final week before polling day it was a case of getting rid of surplus leaflets rather than rushing to target specific areas.

The conclusions of the victorious should always be treated with a pinch of salt, of course. Winston Churchill’s burblings dominated histories of the Second World War for years. While not quite on the same level of historical significance, the thoughts of our victorious MPs should nevertheless be viewed with the same raised eyebrows.

And yet – the need to spend several years working hard on a seat seems a key ingredient for success. “These seats aren’t won in five weeks – they’re won in five years,” Horwood told politics.co.uk during the campaign. There’s a case to be made which suggests this was even more the case in the 2010 election than usual.

Gavin Shuker, the new MP for Luton South, is a case in point. He faced the unenviable task of trying to hold the Labour seat formerly held by Margaret Moran, whose £22,500 expenses claim for dry rot on a second home in far-off Southampton scandalised the party. He persuaded the people of Luton to back him over an impressive campaign by Tory Nigel Huddleston – by refusing to defend Moran.

Shuker is a local candidate, too, a man who returned to live in Luton after graduating from Cambridge University while many of his contemporaries rushed to the City to find work. His experience with expenses, and the wider issues of disengagement which were especially pertinent in his race, gives him a key insight into the dynamics behind the strange results seen up and down the country.

“To be honest it’s an incredibly patchy set of results from this election,” he says.

“My reading is that with the uncertainty about the outcome of the election whether it be a hung parliament, whether it be a Tory majority or any of that stuff, people actually tuned in much more to local issues.

“They looked at local candidates and they researched the issues a little bit more. I don’t think it’s a renaissance in local democracy – but in that sense it does provide an explanation as to why the results are so patchy.”

In this view the expenses scandal’s impact was to dampen the importance of the national debate when it came to election time. People weren’t as prepared to listen to the argument being played out on television as usual. It’s why, though they might have been impressed by Clegg in the leaders’ debates, their decision about where to place their own vote wasn’t as dominated by the big picture.

In an atmosphere of deep uncertainty about the overall result, voters seem to have responded by becoming even more changeable and erratic than usual. This happened for a reason, it seems. Perhaps many of them switched back to the simpler question: who do I want to be my local MP?