Is the outcome of elections largely driven by the state of the economy?

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.

How significant a role does the Supreme Court play in the UK political system?

Compared with the Supreme Court in the United States – which has the power to strike down law passed by Congress and which has exercised its power to make striking legal changes – it seems obvious that the UK Supreme Court plays a less significant role in the UK political system. Having said this, the growing independence of the judiciary, their increased powers under the Human Rights Act and their expanded role in applying EU law mean that the UK Supreme Court has displayed an ability to stand up to the government when they’ve acted beyond their power (ultra vires) and when law has been passed that is incompatible with the Human Rights Act. Even given this, however, many have argued that the court has too little power because its decisions are easily overturned by parliament, an argument that will be strengthened when the UK leaves the EU as there will then cease to be any higher law in the UK judicial system.

The most obvious feature of the justices that make up the UK Supreme Court, especially when contrasted with their American peers, is their independence and neutrality, which allows them to exercise their power in a manner that is seen to be legitimate, thereby increasing their authority and power. Unlike in the US, where the appointment of judges is fundamentally a political process, UK Supreme Court Justices are appointed by an independent ad hoc committee of five senior judges, who make a recommendation to the Lord Chancellor. They are selected on the basis of their qualifications and experience and must have either already practised law at the highest level for 15 years or sat as a senior judge for 2 years in order to qualify for selection. This means that Supreme Court Justices have the intellectual capacity and the disposition to make judgements on the basis of the law rather than being swayed by prejudice or emotion. Furthermore, once selected, their pay is guaranteed to be paid out of the consolidated fund and they have security of tenure, which prevents politicians from interfering in the judicial branch by removing senior judges from their roles or by threatening to lower their pay in response to judgements that go against the government.

However, it must be pointed out that the Supreme Court and the judiciary in general is still drawn from an incredibly narrow social background, with only 1 in 20 judges coming from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds and less than a quarter being women. This suggests that their decisions may be biased, which may undermine the legitimacy of their judgements and so hinder the role of the judiciary in the UK political system. A possible case in point was the 2010 Supreme Court ruling, which gave prenuptial agreements greater weight in divorce proceedings. In this case, the court split 8-1 in favour of the judgement, with the only dissenting justice being Lady Hale, who was the only female justice on the court at the time. She argued that prenuptial agreements tended to harm the interests of women, who were usually in a less powerful position when entering into a marriage. This case seems to suggest that the court doesn’t behave in an entirely neutral and independent manner, as the split in the court was a on gender lines, suggesting that the male justices may have lacked Lady Hale’s perspective as a woman, thus biasing their judgement.

However, even if one takes the above case as a counter-example, it is still the case that the neutrality and independence of the UK judiciary is a relative strength. This means that the Supreme Court’s decisions are seen to be legitimate, which gives the court more power to reach judgements that are seen as authoritative. The relative independence and neutrality of UK judges therefore enhances the power of the Supreme Court in the UK political system.

A second important development in the power of the court was the passage of the Human Rights Act in 1998, which gave statutory force to the long established European Convention on Human Rights 1953. This empowered the court to issue declarations of incompatibility where legislation passed by parliament contravenes a provision set out in the Human Rights Act. A recent example of this was a 2018 case, where the court found that the Civil Partnerships Act 2004 discriminated against opposite-sex couples as the Act only allowed same-sex couples to have Civil Partnerships. In response, the Prime Minister announced that the government would legislate to allow heterosexual couples to have Civil Partnerships in the near future, thereby demonstrating the power of the court to force the government to bring legislation in line with the Human Rights Act.

It must be pointed out, however, that the government is under no legal obligation to comply with a declaration of incompatibility, a fact that undermines the court’s power in this area. Having said this, whilst it is, in theory, possible for the government to ignore a judgement of this nature, they would come under enormous political pressure to do so and ignoring the judgement of the court would be seen as illegitimate in the eyes of the public. It is therefore highly unlikely that the government would ignore a judgement of this type in practise, which gives the court a lot of power to uphold and defend human rights. Therefore, the Human Rights Act, by allowing for a more activist judiciary, enhances the power of the Supreme Court in the UK political system.

Thridly, the UK Supreme Court has substantial power whilst we remain in the European Union because the Factortame Case 1990 established that EU law takes priority over UK law, which means that UK courts will not apply law that is in conflict with EU law, which has the effect of suspending UK law. Given the increased scope of EU law following the ratification of the Maasticht Treaty in 1992, this gives the Supreme Court a significant amount of power in areas of law where there is European Union jurisdiction.

However, it is still the case that the UK Parliament retains sovereignty over most areas of law and our exit from the European Union will restore sovereignty to parliament over all areas not devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This will empower the UK Supreme Court in some senses, as cases will no longer be referred to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for a decision. But, it will weaken the UK Supreme Court in a more significant sense because the UK will no longer be subject to higher law. This will mean that UK Supreme Court judgements will be more easily overturned by parliament. An example of this was the government’s response to the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that the government had acted beyond their power when they froze the assets of terrorist suspects. In response to the judgement, the government passed a temporary Act of Parliament, which retrospectively made their actions lawful. This demonstrates the extent to which parliamentary sovereignty trumps judicial activism in the UK political system, thereby demonstrating that our exit from the EU will further weaken the power of the court in the UK political system.

In conclusion, whilst the court does not have an expansive role in the UK political system it is still a vital check on the power of the government. However, the Supreme Court remains at the apex of the weakest of the three branches of government due to the fact that an executive with a majority in parliament can achieve much of what it wants to achieve, even in the event of judicial interference.

UK Politics: Weekly News Round-up

From The Times (16/04/19)

As Parliament goes on a break, there is worrying news for the Conservative Party as recent polling shows that an early general election might hand the keys to Number 10 to Jeremy Corbyn, with support for the Tories in one poll falling to the lowest level in 16 years.

With local and European elections on the horizon, YouGov polling is already showing Nigel Farage’s recently launched Brexit Party on 27% of the vote, with the two major parties likely to have their vote squeezed under the proportional Party List voting system used in European Parliamentary elections.

Last Friday, there were climate change protests across the country, led by young people trying to draw attention to the seriousness of the issue. This was followed this week by Extinction Rebellion making the news for taking non-violent direct action by blockading roads in central London, leading to over 75o arrests. Columnist, George Mobiot argues the case for mass civil disobedience in The Guardian this week.

As YouGov polling shows leavers being slightly more likely to question their vote in 2016 than remainers, Peter Oborne, who voted leave in the referendum, argues that leave voters need to think again. There’s a very good Spectator podcast of him discussing his change of view with Frasor Nelson, which contains an interesting discussion of how a Burkean conservative ought to view Brexit. 

Finally, there is controversy over Shamima Begum being given legal aid to challenge the government’s right to strip of her citizenship due to her actions in Syria. Melanie Phillips defends her right to a day in court in the Times this week. Here’s a quote from the piece, which is behind a pay wall: 

Revulsion and fury — however justified — at someone’s depraved behaviour should never be used, though, to refuse that person a legal defence of something as fundamental as their citizenship. For that touches upon matters that don’t just affect them but all of us: the need to uphold fairness, justice and due process… Appalling as such people may be, they are entitled to challenge the home secretary’s decisions about them because the UK is a country under the rule of law that is applicable to everyone.