This excellent essay was written by one of my students in the Upper Sixth. It demonstrates how to write a good voting behaviour essay, using elections as case-studies. I awarded it full marks.
To assess the extent to which the outcome of elections is
driven by the state of the economy, three different elections will be analysed:
the 1979 election, the 1997 election, and the 2010 election. These three
elections are good samples to use because in all three of these elections, the
state of the economy was high on the agenda, and as such, its impact on the
outcome of the elections can be easily analysed. This essay will conclude that
the state of the economy affects the perception of the governing competency of
the incumbent government, which is indeed the main factor determining the
outcome of elections, and as such the outcome of elections is largely driven by
the state of the economy.
The 1979 election was dominated by the ‘Winter of Discontent’, during which Britain was paralysed by trade union strikes, and the economy was a decisive determining factor in the outcome of that election. Of course, other factors perhaps played into a role in partly determining the outcome of that election as well. Firstly, most of the media backed Thatcher; most importantly The Sun, whose owner Rupert Murdoch agreed with Thatcher’s stance on trade unionism. Combined with the slick campaigning, run by the advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi, the Thatcher campaign was indeed very much media-savvy, presenting a two-pronged campaign both to popularise and humanise Thatcher, as encapsulated in her photo shoots doing everything from holding new-born calves and drinking tea, as well as to capitalise on the perception that James Callaghan was out of touch with the problems facing the British people, evident in the false headline alleging that he said ‘Crisis, What Crisis?’ after coming back from a diplomatic trip. Furthermore, Thatcher’s public relations was very much effective at downplaying the contrast in the experience of both leaders – for instance, in advising Thatcher not to participate in a debate with Callaghan. As such, it must be acknowledged that the Conservative campaign was reasonably effective at using the media.
However, even if it was reasonably effective, it was not effective enough to stop the narrowing of the gap between Thatcher and Callaghan over the campaign. More importantly, that Callaghan was the only politician in history to have held offices in the four Great Offices of the State, yet his reputation for economic management was lost because of the effective of the Winter of Discontent only shows how important the state of the economy really was, with the 1970s Britain being presented as a nation in heavy decline, paralysed by industrial unrest. Furthermore, the result of the election also backs this interpretation. Unprecedentedly, the Conservatives evenly split the vote of the skilled working class with Labour, with both gaining 41% of the C1 group, compared to the 1974 election, in which this group was twice as likely to vote Labour – it is this skilled working class that was most heavily affected by the industrial unrest. As such, whilst there may be an argument in favour of the Conservatives’ media campaign, it is difficult to argue that it won the election, considering that the lead narrowed over time, and instead the impact of the economy was decisive in this election in swinging the skilled working class vote in favour of Thatcher and negating the superior experience and reputation of Callaghan in relation to Thatcher as Labour had lost its reputation for economic management, resulting in the Conservatives winning 339 seats compared to Labour’s 269.
Likewise, although Blair ran a very effective campaign and Major’s government suffered from negative non-economic events, such as a series of ‘sleaze’, the Black Wednesday was the turning point. Firstly, it may be argued that Blair ran an effective campaign. Like Thatcher and even more so, he was heavily media-focused, running a strict, disciplined campaign from the Millbank Media Centre, staffed by media tsars such as Alistair Campbell, Peter Mandelson and Philip Gould, organising a ‘grid’ of upcoming events to present the government in the best possible light. His very specific policies, with the use of pledge cards, including highly specific, measurable targets such as getting 250,000 of under 25 into work or cutting class sizes and NHS waiting lists, also was highly unique and gave New Labour a new, stronger way to distance itself from Old Labour, not to mention Blair’s getting rid of Clause IV, which renounced Labour’s commitment to nationalisation of industries. On top of Labour’s effective campaigning, the Conservatives also suffered from non-economic misfortunes, not least a series of ‘sleaze’ which were allegations of financial corruption and sex scandals that made Major’s ‘Back to Basics’ campaign a laughing stock. Finally, the media also backed Blair, most importantly The Sun’s switching of allegiance, putting in its headline ‘Give Change a Chance’. As such, a confluence of effective campaigning by Labour, Tory blunders, and the backing the media, put Labour in a very strong position.
Nevertheless, looking back at the polls, the impact of the economy was crystal-clear. After the surprise 1992 victory, the Conservative government lost its lead after the Black Wednesday, which saw Britain kicked out the ERM, triggering a recession, and never recovered. It seems that the Conservative government had lost its reputation for economic management, despite the fact that the economy has been recovering strongly since. This therefore highlights the point that it is not the economy per se, but the perception of the government’s economic competence (valence) that determines the result. As such, it can be very plausibly argued that any Labour leader would have won that election, and thus Labour winning 418 seats in 1997 can largely be put to the Conservatives’ tarnished reputation for economic management following the Black Wednesday.
The 2010 campaign was dominated by the legacy of the 2008 financial crisis. There are indeed counterpoints. Gordon Brown was seen as a dull and boring leader, alleged for cowardice after refusing to call an election in 2007 hence he was dubbed ‘Bottler Brown’. Cameron perhaps successfully detoxified the Conservative Party, with the change in logo and new slogans such as ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’, so the label ‘the nasty party’ no longer stuck to the same extent. Furthermore, the Cameron campaign outspent Labour’s 4 to 1, and left-wing media, such as the Guardian refused to back Brown, leaving only The Daily Mirror and The Mirror backing Labour. The Sun portrayed Cameron as an Obama-esque figure, putting in its frontline ‘Our Only Hope’.
However, it is clear that Labour was going to lose due to the 2008 financial crisis. Brown’s media bungling may not have affected him that much – for instance, despite him calling Gillian Duffy ‘a bigoted woman’, Labour still held that constituency Rochdale. There was not much policy differentiation, as all of them agreed on the principle of austerity, only disagreeing on the extent. As such, it is also clear that Labour lost mainly due to the 2008 financial crisis happening, and had Labour called election in 2007, it likely would have won.
To conclude, the outcome of elections is largely driven by the state of the economy. The 1979 campaign was dominated by the Winter of Discontent and the economic decline of Britain in the 1970s. The 1997 election result was almost predetermined after Black Wednesday in 1992. Likewise, the 2008 financial crisis lost New Labour its economic reputation and lost it the election.