Something like that happened in 2010. Labour lost 6.2 percent of its national vote in comparison with the 2005 election; the Tories gained 3.8 percent; and the total of those numbers divided by two was a swing of 5.0 percent. So Gordon Brown’s retreat contributed almost two-thirds of the Labour-to-Tory swing; the Tories’ advance accounted for a feeble 1.9 percent. Hardly impressive. If you want a truer indicator of electoral support, look instead at the percentage of the national vote won by a party. Cameron’s Conservatives won 36.1 percent this year; Margaret Thatcher’s winning percentage in 1979 was 43.9. Case closed.
What, then, of the rise in the raw numbers of votes for the Tories this year? This was indeed impressive — an increase of more than 2 million votes on 2005 to reach a total of 10,683,787. Indeed, that raw number is higher than the Tory vote totals in both the 2001 and 1997 elections. On the other hand, it’s between 2.5 and 3.5 million votes lower than John Major’s total in the 1992 election and than the Tory total in all three of Thatcher’s elections. Am I “nostalgic,” as David Frum has suggested, for those victories? You betcha! But I am also curious about these dramatic variations between then and now. Is there some third factor, some hidden clue, which might help us to account for them? As it happens, there is such a clue: turnout.
At 65.1 percent of the electorate, amounting to 29,638,653 voters, turnout in 2010 was sharply higher than in the two previous elections. It rose by 3.7 percent and roughly 2.5 million votes above the figures in 2005 and by 6 percent and more than 3 million votes above 2001. Since Cameron attained a 3.8 percent increased share of this rising total, he saw his raw vote figures rise by the 2 million cited above. At the same time, however, Gordon Brown saw his percentage of the vote fall by a massive 6.2 percent, but because of the higher turnout, his voting numbers fell by less than 1 million.
Why did turnout rise? Well, the election campaign was exciting, the outcome in doubt, and the two previous elections had seen exceptionally low turnout. If we go back to the elections fought by Major and Thatcher, moreover, the turnouts varied between 73 and 78 percent. Hence their high percentages produced even higher raw vote numbers. So neither the medium turnout in 2010 nor the factors that produced it suggest a strong Tory revival — though they can be misused to mask a weak one.
A more reasonable defense of the Cameron strategy is that it was broadly correct but blown off course by the foolish decision to include Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg in the party leaders’ debates. There is something in this argument, but not as much as most pundits think. It is true that Clegg grabbed the limelight, seized the “change” mandate, and made himself the equal of Brown and Cameron. This undoubtedly disrupted both the Tory and Labour campaigns, but the Clegg effect faded and in the end had little impact on the Tory vote. Cameron was scoring roughly 35–38 percent in opinion polls prior to the leaders’ first debate; he fell to 30–33 percent in the weeks following it, but he recovered to hit almost the exact mid-point of his earlier 35–38 percent range on election day.
So what has to be explained is why Cameron was struggling to stay afloat in the mid-30s when the campaign began. Tim Montgomerie of the influential website www.conservativehome.com has published a wonderfully synoptic account of the Cameron caper that points out serious structural weaknesses in Cameronism. It never integrated his policy innovations — deep-green politics, etc. — into a coherent conservative narrative and thus sounded inauthentic. It shrank from “hot button” issues, such as immigration, even when polling research showed them to be matters of overwhelming concern to the voters. (Ironically, when the Tories did embrace more mainstream conservative policies, such as the inheritance-tax cut launched at the 2007 party conference, they enjoyed an upsurge in support. But they were viscerally uneasy about successes achieved outside the logic of Cameronism and never learned from them.)
Above all, Cameronism endorsed Labour’s economic and budgetary qualities for too long, was accordingly unable to profit from their dramatic collapse in late 2008, and thereafter failed to advance an agreed and consistent set of solutions. There are points of difference, but in general Montgomerie confirms my own earlier argument in NR that the Cameroons progressed heedlessly from realizing that the base was insufficient for victory to believing that it was an actual obstacle to victory. In their pursuit of centrists, they were carelessly content to alienate voters to their right. And they paid a penalty in missing votes.