Did the 2015 election campaign really happen?

Maybe a bit off topic this one but does anybody else remember the 2015 general election campaign? The Ed-Stone? Cameron rolling his sleeves up and getting pumped up? Russel Brand? #Milifandom? Endless Borgen style TV debates? I’m hoping somebody does because I’m beginning to think I dreamt it all or have slipped into some parallel universe where it never happened.

At the time it seemed like it was never going to end. Endless polls predicting a hung parliament, interminable comment pieces in the newspapers, ancient history being drowned in a sea of politics in my Twitter feed. Yet since May 7th every analysis I’ve seen about why the Conservatives won and Labour lost has managed to completely avoid talking about the campaign, as though it was completely irrelevant.

We’re constantly hearing how the “electorate” (as if that’s some amorphous amalgamated alien life-form that we’ve all been subsumed into) rejected Labour and endorsed the Tories because we didn’t find Ed Miliband’s party credible when it came to the economy. That’s the standard line taken by journalists and BBC interviewers and, apparently, by all of the Labour leadership candidates apart from Jeremy Corbyn. Liz Kendall who’s supposed to be the one who’s willing to “ask the difficult questions” miraculously seemed to have the answer to that one to hand before the results even came in!

If it really is that simple then I can’t help wondering why the economy was so conspicuous by its absence in the weeks leading up to the election. Yes, the Tories did hammer on about “sticking with their long term plan” and Miliband spent a lot of time staring earnestly into cameras trying to hypnotise us into thinking that he didn’t want to borrow more. But these weren’t the issues everyone was talking about. The big issues that I remember hearing most about were whether Miliband could be taken seriously as PM, about letters of support by big business and celebrity endorsements and, most of all, about the danger of Labour teaming up with SNP to form an unholy alliance hell bent on turning Britain into a third-world state. Did none of this matter at all when it came time to the crunch? That certainly seems to be what we’ve managed to fool ourselves into believing.

Of course we’re not really swayed by trivial stuff like whether a man can eat a bacon sandwich properly. When it comes down to it it’s only the policies that matter and we all take a sane and balanced appraisal of what each party’s offering and make our decision purely on the content, don’t we? The trouble with that view, however, is that if it’s true you have to wonder why political parties bother to run election campaigns at all. Think of all the money that could have been saved on those posters of Miliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket if they had no effect whatsoever.

Sadly, in reality, election campaigns do matter and our political decisions aren’t decided purely on the basis of policy. That isn’t how our democracy works and it hasn’t done for a long time, if it ever did. Instead of politicians trying to win our vote by persuading us of their views – democracy as they would have recognised it in ancient Athens or even in the UK a few decades ago – what we’ve got is democracy by focus group, parties carrying out market research to find out which buttons they can press to appeal to scrape together enough votes to get into power.

New Labour were masters of using focus groups which is one of the reasons Tony Blair was so successful for so long (as brilliantly examined in the third part of Adam Curtis’ film ‘Century of the Self“). It’s also one of the reasons why Jeremy Corbyn seems such a breath of fresh air compared to the other Labour candidates because he is an old-style politician who is trying to persuade us that he’s right instead of being afraid to have an opinion before he’s found out what we all think so he can appeal to the lowest common denominator. And yes, the Conservatives certainly did use focus groups to see how their “SNP scare” strategy was playing out with the voters and must have spent a considerable amount of time and money doing so.

I’ve also still yet to see a convincing analysis of why the polls managed to get the election result so wrong. The “shy Tory” analysis just doesn’t make sense to me because it doesn’t account for why the exit polls did get it right. Surely people would be less embarrassed to admit they were going to vote for a party of dubious moral standing when speaking anonymously to someone over the phone than they would be standing outside a polling booth looking another human being in the eyes where a passing friend might overhear them.

I’d say that the polls were probably right that the result was a far closer call than we now assume it was with hindsight. It might well be that economic competence was an issue but it is naive to pretend it was the only, or even the most important, issue. What happened over the course of the campaign must have had some effect over the outcome. We’ll never know how people would have voted if the election had taken place five weeks earlier but I find it hard to believe that all those polls predicting a hung parliament can have been so far off the mark and think it probably really could have gone either way. And that’s something that’s worth reflecting on for those on both sides of the political spectrum who are peddling certainties about what’s going to happen in 2020.

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