The chimes of Big Ben at 10pm on Thursday 7th May were followed by an exit poll heralding a Conservative victory that surprised politicians, commentators, forecasters and, of course, us pollsters (Ben Page discusses this more on p130). History and opinion polls alike had pointed to a ‘war of the weak’ where neither Labour nor Conservatives could be confident of outright victory. Both had historical precedents to overcome: for the Conservatives, only two governments since 1900 had increased their vote share after more than two years in office, and none in the last sixty years. For Labour, no opposition party for over 80 years had won a majority after a single term out of office. So what in the end won it for the Conservatives (and lost it for Labour), and has anything changed in the six months after the election?
First, there were the factors that gave Labour a fighting chance – their own strengths, and Conservative weaknesses – that, in the end, just weren’t enough. Despite being consistently more liked than the Conservatives, especially among groups such as younger women and those outside the south; despite the Conservatives still being seen as the party of the rich and the public agreeing with Ed Miliband on the cost of living crisis; despite the Conservatives being attacked on the right by UKIP; and despite Labour being most trusted on public services, particularly on the totemic issue of the NHS, Labour still lost ground to the Conservatives among vital voter segments such as older people and the middle classes. Labour failed to paint itself as a One Nation party, seen as particularly distant from the south, middle-classes, homeowners and businesses.
So why were these advantages not enough? To start with, Labour had their own challenger in the wings. The polling in Scotland turned out to be right – the SNP snatched victory from the jaws of independence referendum defeat, winning many of Labour’s safest seats, while at the same time worrying some English voters about the prospect of their influence over Labour in Westminster.
The Conservatives’ relentless messaging on their long-term economic plan also eventually paid off, recovering from the 2012 ’omnishambles’ budget to retake the lead on this crucial issue. Our post-election polling showed that when it came to the crunch it was the economy, not the NHS, that was the most important factor for voters.
Their lack of credibility on the economy revealed Labour’s biggest problem: brand image. The Conservatives may not have been the party of the heart, but they won back their reputation as the party of the head, once lost to New Labour.
The difference was even starker when the voters compared the two leaders. Leader image counts to voters – they are making an emotional decision as well as a rational one – and our historical data shows two things. One, that no Prime Minister had ever been successful with ratings as low as Ed Miliband’s so close to an election. Secondly, the most important traits are not perceptions of personality or even being out of touch, but classic competency issues such as being a capable leader and good in a crisis – the very issues that David Cameron had captured in the public’s mind.
Follow-up interviews with our online election community, tracking voters during the campaign, suggested Labour was caught both coming and going. They were still tainted by the weaknesses of the previous Labour government, but also lost one of their key strengths – the sense that they stood for “aspiration but with fairness”. Meanwhile, the Conservatives offered reassurance and credibility, especially while the economy was still recovering.
What about the road ahead to 2020? There is clearly a long way to go, but already there are signs that the Conservatives will continue to focus on their message of economic credibility. Despite problems with tax credit cuts George Osborne is still the best rated Conservative Chancellor since Nigel Lawson (although admittedly much less popular among non-Conservatives). Ipsos MORI’s latest polling on public services also suggests that people may be becoming used to a period of ongoing austerity. Labour’s task is made even harder by the way the electoral arithmetic will now favour the Conservatives after boundary changes and the Scottish swing needed which means Labour has to focus on winning seats in England. Given Labour need a swing of 1945 or 1997 proportions, this is expected to help the Conservatives further.
And what of Labour’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn? He is certainly seen as representative of a new type of politics – some of Labour’s lost voters described him as “one of us”, “he’s believable, he’s passionate”, and our analysis of social media gave him a resounding thumbs-up. Unfortunately, it’s not just supporters on Twitter he has to win over. Jeremy Corbyn is polarising opinion to a rare extent so early in his reign, with age as a crucial factor – younger people are much more positive, while older voters are sceptical.
Of course, that does not mean 2020 is in the bag for the Conservatives. The interconnected issues of Europe and immigration, concern about housing simmering away, tax credits, a prospective leadership battle and more all have the potential to pull the carpet out from under them. But despite all their faults in predicting the final outcome, the foundations for the Conservatives’ victory were identified by the polls many years before the election itself. Overall, Labour still has to answer the question it failed to answer in 2015, as one swing voter told us: