The 2015 General Election: A Retrospective
Dominic Wring is Professor of Political Communication at Loughborough University, UK. He was the founder/former convenor of the UK Political Studies Association’s Media & Politics Group and was Chair of the International Political Studies Association’s Research Committee for Political Communication. He is the co-editor of Political Communication in Britain.
The arithmetic of the UK electoral system was crucial in determining the result of the 2015 General Election. In previous contests the party coming first had done so by a margin comfortable enough to govern on its own. This changed in 2010 with the formation of the Coalition after the Conservatives had failed to win an overall majority. Approaching this election, and with successive polls showing a very close race with no single party in a clear lead, there was widespread anticipation of another hung parliament being returned. Yet the Conservatives’ 2015 victory was achieved by the margin of votes necessary to enable them to take office on their own, albeit with a historically small majority. This unexpected result provided a dramatic conclusion to what had been a protracted campaign, the fixed term Parliament Act having determined the date of the poll some five years previous. The surprise outcome in 2015 led to an intense post-mortem into what had happened among the many commentators who had spent the previous weeks speculating over the potential make-up of another coalition government. Political Communication in Britain offers a vital contribution to explaining what happened from the perspective of those who fought, reported and polled the campaign. Central to the book are a series of reflections on how the Conservatives managed to triumph in an election whose outcome confounded the pundits.
For a campaign that preceded the dramatic vote for Brexit result a year later, debate over the thorny topic of UK-EU relations was very effectively marginalized by David Cameron’s promise of a referendum on a topic that had badly divided his party and destroyed the premiership of his Conservative predecessor John Major. Cameron’s manifesto pledge to hold the vote on Britain’s membership of the European Union proved sufficient to stem the considerable momentum that had developed behind the UK Independence Party, the party that came first in and could thereby claim to have ‘won’ the 2014 elections for the Brussels/Strasbourg Parliament. A year on the Conservatives had regained the initiative and fought a campaign that was remorseless in its focus on the economy and the alleged shortcomings of the opposition. Thus the 2015 General Election was framed as being a debate on the unsuitability of Labour and its leader Ed Miliband for office rather than a retrospective look at the successes of failings of the Coalition government.
Central to a Conservative narrative that gained traction during the 2015 campaign was a remorseless emphasis on the economy and an assertion that any deviation from the now established course of austerity threatened ruinous financial consequences. David Cameron and his strategist Lynton Crosby repeatedly framed the election as a vote on Labour’s record rather than defending theirs by recurrent references to a memo intended as a private joke for his successor written by the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne on leaving office in 2010. It read: ‘I’m afraid there is no money. Kind regards - and good luck!’. Although Byrne had been criticized when details of his note were made public not long after its original composition, he could not have anticipated it would be resurrected and used as the key campaigning metaphor for Labour’s alleged financial profligacy.
The Conservative case against Labour on the economy was reinforced by the other two key messages of the party’s campaign: the weakness of Miliband as a leader and ‘threat’ posed by the Scottish National Party propping him up in a coalition scenario. A poster produced by the Tories’ longstanding advertisers Saatchi featured Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon smiling while tweaking the strings of a diminutive puppet representing the Labour leader. The accompanying copy simply read “More taxes, more borrowing, more debt.” The words and imagery conveyed the essential rationale for voting Conservative and this single-minded, oft repeated messaging appeared successful in helping frame news media coverage of the campaign. The economy, taxation and constitutional issues (including Scotland’s future) were among the top five topics for both print and television reporting of the election. By contrast the two themes promoted by Labour and UKIP, health and immigration respectively, were notably less prominent in media coverage.
The 2015 General Election was notable for the rise of several hitherto smaller parties that each came to play a more significant role before and during the campaign. What were once called ‘minor politicians’ emerged as prominent leaders in this race. Given the febrile atmosphere surrounding the uncertain outcome of the election, several commentators discussed the potential make-up of another coalition government. This was due to the widely expected hung parliament being predicted by the various polls taken throughout the campaign. Consequently there was intense speculation over the potential bargaining positions of Nicola Sturgeon and Nigel Farage. Sturgeon, in particular, threatened to overshadow Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg in coverage terms towards the close of the campaign. Her SNP was about to go on and eclipse Clegg’s party (as well as the once hegemonic Labour north of the border) in a very real political sense.
Aside from the SNP’s significant electoral advance there was also a marked increase in public support for the UKIP, an electoral force now capable of winning an eighth of the national vote. But due to the majoritarian voting system this failed to translate in seats. The party returned only one MP for a constituency that it had already represented courtesy of having won it in a by-election. Similarly stark were the changing fortunes of the Liberal Democrats who went from being the junior partners to the Conservatives in the Coalition government that had presided for the last five years to a parliamentary grouping of just eight MPs. Elsewhere the Greens made progress with its best ever General Election result. Here again the workings of the system gave the party just one MP in the single seat it already held.
Political Communication in Britain is divided into three parts (Polling; Campaigns; and Media) each devoted to a major aspect of the election. If there is a common theme across them all it is that the growing fragmentation of the public as voters and media consumers has made the democratic process a more complex and multifaceted phenomenon. In the last General Election of 2010 only three parties received more than a million votes; in 2015 six did. The major social media platforms that have existed for around a decade now engage users, and potential voters, in far more significant ways than they did in the previous election. Furthermore this campaign also saw an incredible breadth and depth in the polling undertaken which was in part by a motivation to understand the impact of the aforementioned changes in party and media systems on the electorate.