I suppose I shouldn’t care about this. Every newspaper now appears to employ writers whose job is to write articles so distorted, idiotic and drivelacious that they reduce informed readers to howls of despair, while the newspaper’s target audience nods knowingly, their initial opinions confirmed by the magical reality of text on screen or on paper. This is a business, and the business is to sell, not to inform.
So it goes with the Telegraph on the environment, or A A Gill on anything not featuring three courses and a digestif, or a whole host of other paid for epaters. I should probably be irritated by these, but I guess I’ve become too inured to such idiocy. It washes over me, and I don’t notice I’m drowning in it.
But then an article popped up on a paper I read, occasionally write for, and like, on a topic I know enough about to think critically about, and this article is so bad, so egregious in its idiocy, so unremittingly, unrelentingly terrible in every imaginable way that if I were the writer I’d be embarrassed to have published it, if I were the editor I’d be ashamed to have not spiked it, and as a reader (which I was), I felt stupider for having read it.
I refer to John Ross’s article in the Guardian yesterday, in which he claims to have unlocked an iron law of politics – that the Tories decline at 0.2% a year, and so will score 30.3% at the next General Election. Or possibly 34.6%. Or between 29.3% and 31.3%. Mr Ross gives us all three options.
It is quite possible that the Tories will secure one of these various scores. Life is amusing like that, and I applaud Mr Ross for introducing such a subtle variety to an apparently firm prediction. (Though I do wonder what on earth this sentence means: “If the Tories won the next election, they would get 34.6% of the vote, and if they lost they would get 30.3% of the vote. As there is no doubt at present that the Tories will lose, they will get 30.3% of the vote” So they might get 34.6, but they definitely won’t?)
Unlike Mr Ross, the glass wherein I see the future remains dark. I like looking at the data of the moment. Given that the polls currently show the Tories floating somewhere between 29% and 35% dependent on pollster, then the mere assumption that the polls are right gives Mr Ross a shot at claiming seer-like prophecy. Just over a year ago, these same polls had the Tories at 40%, which was apparently a historical impossibility.
So, score one for Mr Ross. Unfortunately, that’s where the plaudits end and the brickbats must begin. Because while it is possible that the next election returns the result he describes, it will not do so because of the arithmetic formula Mr Ross believes he has discovered.
This formula, briefly, suggests that if you take the 1931 General election as a starting point, and project through from Baldwin’s triumph to Cameron’s struggles, one can divine a steady rate of decline for the Conservative party, and that while individual general Elections might buck this trend, the decline is unforgiving, relentless and inevitable. The Tories, in other words, are doomed.
I understand Mr Ross is (or was) a Marxist, and I suppose Marxism makes people a little susceptible to iron laws of history and what-not, but this is, not to put too fine a point on it, bollocks.
First, let us take the chosen starting point of 1931. This was the greatest landslide in British electoral history1 If one projects from this peak, in either direction, one will see decline.It is like standing on Everest, and remarking how low everywhere else looks.
In three of the four previous elections to 1931, the Conservatives scored under 40% of the vote, significantly less than they secured in most post war elections, barring the two defeats of 1974 and their recent travails. Only by selecting the Conservative Party’s absolute historical peak as our starting point can we deduce such a consistent historical decline.
But look, you might say, that’s all very well, but there clearly is a decline in the Tory vote. It might not start from 1931, but it exists.
Indeed there is, Since 1945, what we’ve seen is a gradual and consistent rise in the share of votes of third parties and others. If we were to project this forward, then Liberal Democrat electoral advance would appear inevitable and unrelenting. Does Mr Ross expect this at the next election?
This should probably remind us that events can and do intervene in historical trends.2
The next problem with this Tory decline is that it requires a reasonable observer to ask the same question of Labour. If we follow Mr Ross’s approach – take the peak of electoral support and project forward from it to generate a rate of electoral decline, we get the following:
Depressing, eh? Using Mr Ross’s “arithmetic formula” it works out as an annual decline of 0.66%. That decline is roughly three times that Mr Ross sees for the Conservative party. By this rate, Mr Ross would be projecting Labour to score around 10% at the next General Election.
Don’t worry though. I chose to cut off the date at 1983, when Mr Ross first identified this theory of declinism. If you add in the next few elections, Labour’s performance looks like this:
Even when we include Labour’s terrible result in 2010, Labour’s arithmetical rate of decline halved to 0.33%. We are saved, at least temporarily!
However, it’s not all good news. Labour’s rate of decline from our peak is still greater than the Conservative decline from their peak Mr Ross has identified
Oddly though, Mr Ross does not seem concerned with spreading statistical gloom and doom about Labour. The rules he applies to the Conservatives do not apply to our happy band. Perhaps Mr Ross believes all politics began in 1931, between the great depression and Frank Sinatra’s first LP, and that only from this date can projections of future electoral performance be drawn? Well, Labour achieved 30.7% of the national vote in 1931. Almost eighty years later, we achieved 29%. Perhaps we are stuck in a rut.
Nor does the stupidity end at the general. Mr Ross manages to pack in a number of inaccuracies into his short article.
So for example we read:
“Typically, the Conservative vote, each time the party won a general election, was lower than the one it won previously, and each time it lost an election its vote fell to a lower level than the previous defeat”
I assume the “typically” is there to exclude the 1955 and 1959 Elections, where the Conservative share of vote exceeded the share of vote of 1951? How about the 1950, 1964, 2001 and 2005 elections, where the Tory share of the vote was either the same or an increase over their previous defeat?
Mr Ross says he first identified his theory in 1983, in book called “Thatcher and friends”. The election results of 1987 and 1992 must have been somewhat disturbing for him. The Conservatives achieved a remarkable stability in vote share from 1983 to 1992, scoring 42.4% in 1983, 42.2% in 1987, and 41.9% in 1992 (setting a record all time popular vote score).
Despite the rise of the SDP/Liberal Alliance, the Tories average score from 1983 to 1992 was, 42.2%, almost exactly the same as their average score between 1959 and 1979, which was 42.4%. In comparison, Labour did not once come close to its vote share in any post war election. Even in 1992, Labour scored significantly worse in than in any of the elections of the 50s, 60s or 70s.
If you were looking for inevitable historical decline in 1983, or even in 1992, the Tories would not have been the first place you looked.
Of course, Labour went on to win the next three elections handsomely, and the Tories fell into an existential crisis. The lesson here is that there are no inevitabilities.
If Labour had chosen to remain in its 1983 posture, it is unlikely to have shown such blase indifference to the arithmetic laws of electoral decline. Equally, if the Tories continue to pursue an electorally idiotic strategy they will suffer from their choices, and I hope fervently they do.
Mr Ross might recall though that his Mayoral candidate was twice beaten by a Tory, despite all the assurances from the Livingstone campaign that such a defeat was down to mistaken analysis of the polls, and Mr Ross’s own belief in the inevitability of Tory decline. If that is the case, I wonder why Mr Johnson is Mayor, and is so a higher share of the first preference vote than he secured in his first election.
More seriously, one reason for all this silliness is that Mr Ross ignores the role of the third parties.
Both Labour and Conservative vote shares appear in long-term decline because of the rise of both the Liberals (in various guises) and “others”. This can have a huge impact on both vote share and the required conditions for victory for both “main” parties,3 and the observation that the post-war two-party model today represents much less of the electorate than it once did is neither new nor at all original.
However, whether that trend will continue, and which of the parties will benefit if it does not, is a question of political strategy , policy and choice, not the inevitable application of a formula.
The litany of successes and failures of the parties over the last eighty years tell us one thing: It is the decisions and challenges of politicians and parties today that will decide the next election, not the mysteriously long shadow of Mr Baldwin’s triumph.
- for consistency, I will use the electoral data in this parliamentary note. These include Northern Ireland, so generate slightly different figures than those that only include mainland UK. The difference is marginal however [↩]
- Personally, I’m of the opinion that it’s the post war period of only two giant national parties that is the electoral and historical aberration, but this is a minority view [↩]
- think of Italy, where the left have won a plurality n the lower house on a very small share of the vote [↩]