Politics & Policy

Cameron Gains, Pollsters Confounded

Cameron meets the press outside 10 Downing on Friday. (Christopher Furlong/Getty)

Three times in the past 50 years, British pollsters have gotten an election wrong — each time they have underestimated the Conservative vote and been chastened. Conservatives may win enough seats to form a minority government on their own or form an alliance with smaller parties to secure a majority.

For the 2015 election, what was supposed to a photo-finish race has turned into a rout, as the opposition Labour Party is not only failing to gain seats from the Tories but is being wiped out in Scotland by the pro-independence Scottish National Party. Indeed, Douglas Alexander, the Labour Party’s campaign manager, was defeated by an SNP candidate — a 20-year-old university co-ed named Mhairi Black, who hasn’t yet finished her final exams at Glasgow University.

MORE COVERAGE: 2015 U.K. Elections

This British election was supposed to revolve around post-Thatcher worries about income inequality and resentment against the rich. A recent study by the London School of Economics found that 62 percent of Britons felt inequality had reached unsustainable levels and that 74 percent believed the rich should pay more taxes. Bart Cammaerts, the author of the study, wrote that it showed the country moving toward “a renewed politics of redistribution.”

Goodbye to all that, for this election at least. If anything, British voters were motivated to turn out in support of Prime Minister David Cameron’s last-minute support of a version of America’s famous anti-tax pledge. Just last week, Cameron pledged that if the voters gave him a second term, he would push legislation blocking any increases in Britain’s national-insurance, income, or value-added taxes (the lattermost, a form of sales tax). “We know it’s your money, not government money. You’ve worked for it, you’ve earned it, you should be able to keep it,” he told voters.

This British election was supposed to revolve around post-Thatcher worries about income inequality and resentment against the rich.

Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform, says the anti-tax pledge his group has promoted for years has always been underestimated by elites. “Voters respond to firm commitments on holding the line on taxes” because they know only then will government “ever consider real reforms such as genuine privatization, getting rid of redundant programs, and selling surplus property,” he told me in a recent interview.

Even as the Conservatives surpassed the predictions of pollsters, their partners in the current coalition government, the Liberal Democrats, were crushed. The Lib Dems saw dozens of their seats fall to other parties, as their base voters apparently punished them for getting into bed with the Tories, who became increasingly skeptical of the European Union and increased immigration after the 2010 election.

#related#Fears about just how chaotic a Labour Party government would be that could only govern with the cooperation of the SNP appears to have limited the growth of the United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP. Many voters were certainly dissatisfied with David Cameron but apparently feared the abyss of Ed Miliband’s increasingly left-wing Labour Party even more. They also may have been encouraged by Cameron’s promise to hold a referendum on British membership in the European Union by 2017.

Political analysts will be mulling over the British election results for some time. Many will say it shows voters are willing to support a party that pursued an agenda of spending restraint and tight money and was beginning to deliver economic gains. Others will say Labour simply didn’t persuade voters in the end that Ed Miliband had the gravitas they were looking for in a prime minister. The collapse of Labour’s strength in Scotland doomed it and augurs a return of the issue of Scottish independence sooner than anyone predicted.

But to my mind, the election showed that, as often happens at the end of a campaign when voters finally focus on essential issues, it is conservative parties that more often benefit from last-minute shifts in support. Voters may be slow to make up their minds, but when confronted with clear choices they often pull the lever for common-sense policies and reject experimentation. Those tendencies aren’t easily unearthed by pollsters, but they seem to assert themselves when voters are confronted with the kind of real choices they faced in Britain.

MORE COVERAGE: 2015 U.K. Elections

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