As the party leaders prepare for the run-up to the election, each will be conscious of his party’s electoral history. They may be looking for clues, or comfort, in the history of postwar elections.
David Cameron will be hoping to use his record in office to convince the electorate to grant him the chance to govern with a full majority. Nick Clegg may be wishing for the electorate to reject the Tory leader, knowing a swing away from the Conservatives has traditionally been his party’s best chance of picking up seats. And Ed Miliband will be looking to capitalise on his current poll lead to sweep to power. However, each of them should pause and think again.
Conservatives: The difficult second election
British electoral history does not provide much comfort for David Cameron’s mission in 2015. In the 17 elections since 1945, only five times has a Prime Minister gone to the polls and increased the Government’s majority.
The first Conservative success of this sort saw Anthony Eden turn a slim majority into a workable one, before his ignominious exit and replacement by Harold Macmillan, who waited another two years before adding another 40 seats.
However, these men took the reins of power with their party already in government. In 2015, Mr Cameron will be hoping to emulate the feats of Harold Wilson. Wilson twice entered Number 10 without a decisive majority but twice, in 1966 and October 1974, successfully sought a stronger mandate from the country.
A less promising sign is that in these cases Wilson returned to the polls after periods of eighteen and six months respectively. Of all the post-war Prime Ministers who have increased their majority, only Margaret Thatcher in 1983 did so having come to power in the previous election and served a term of at least four years.
That election result is perhaps instructive. The fractured Left, extreme Labour manifesto and unpopularity of Labour leader Michael Foot no doubt helped the Tories rally support to their cause, but the election was also fought under a revised set of constituency boundaries, a reform which the Government pushed through despite protests from other parties.
Given Mr Cameron has failed to pull off his own redrawing of the Parliamentary map, his task will be all the harder.
Liberal Democrats: Wil the ‘swing left’ still deliver?
The Liberal Party, in its various incarnations since the War, has largely done best in years when a Labour government is returned.
Throughout the Conservative 50s and 60s the Liberal Party remained stuck on six seats, with a share of the vote as low as 2.6%. The two Labour governments of 1964-70 and 1974-79 saw them get towards touching distance of Labour and the Conservatives, but during Edward Heath’s administration in between, six lonely Liberals were again to be found in the Commons.
This changed fairly dramatically with the fracturing of the Labour Party and the coming of the SDP/Liberal alliance. In 1983 the third party’s share of the vote reached an all-time high of 25.4%, only 2.2 percentage points behind Labour, although the electoral system delivered a miserable 3.5% of seats.
Upon Tony Blair’s victory in 1997, a consolidated Liberal Democrat party once again benefitted from the anti-Tory mood and returned a postwar record 46 MPs, a figure which rose twice in 2001 and 2005. This high point was fleeting. Despite the brief ‘Cleggmania’ episode in the 2010 election, the Lib Dems entered government with fewer seats than in the previous Parliament, as the swing to the Tories knocked some of their sitting MPs out.
So if Nick Clegg is seeking inspiration from past performance, he might hope that a 2015 swing against the Conservatives will once again see voters flee to the comforting arms of the Lib Dems, perhaps helped by perceptions of a Labour leadership too far away from the centre ground.
Never before, however, has the third party been so closely aligned to the Conservatives. There is no reason this time around to assume a swing away from the Tories would deliver votes to the Lib Dems, who are now intimately associated with the entirety of the Government’s record. Unlike the 1997 high point of semi-authorised anti-Tory cooperation, Labour will be out to target Lib Dem seats, as will the Conservatives from the other flank. All of which might bring little comfort to Nick Clegg, left wondering what the least worst electoral trend might now be.
Labour: How far ahead should they be halfway through the race?
Ed Miliband’s Labour have enjoyed poll leads of at least five percent and often double figures. But this far out from an election, such a lead is not to be banked upon. For an opposition, the mid-term period is usually the time to enjoy a surge of popularity as the mistakes of the incumbents are held up to scrutiny and the ideas of the second-placed party can seem fresh but still largely consequence-free. It is only as the election deadline looms that the opposition start to come under the microscope and the Government is able to play on the electorate’s fear of the unknown. Every credible opposition has seen its poll rating two years ahead of an election whittled away by election day.
These are lessons the Labour party had to learn the hard way during the long years in opposition. In 1987 Neil Kinnock’s loss of five percentage points in two years must have been distressing, but it was nothing compared to the catastrophic loss of a full 18 points (from 52% to 34%) that occurred between the end days of Mrs Thatcher’s time in office in 1990 and the election in 1992.
Even Tony Blair’s landslide victory in the next election saw a falling-off of the vote from 48% to 43%. The next two elections saw a very weak opposition actually manage to claw back some votes from Labour in comparison to the midway mark in each Parliament, but crucially William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard barely ever threatened to establish a lead in the polls. The eventual narrowing of the gap by the electorate felt more like imposition of restraint on a dominant government than a sign that they were ever really under threat.
David Cameron in 2008-2010 suffered the same fate as several previous Opposition leaders. Having what looked like a commanding lead with 41% of the polls in 2008 he eventually had to settle for 36% in 2010. His opposite number now will be hoping that the inevitable erosion of the Labour lead ends up moderate rather than devastating.