Using the source, evaluate the claim that general elections are decided more often by short-term factors than long-term factors. (30)

I put together this model answer using the following source:

Traditionally, voting behaviour has been relatively predictable, with voters identifying “strongly with a party” resulting in them “almost always” voting for it at a generally election. The strongest predictor of voting behaviour, historically, was social class. For example, in 1974, 56% of middle & upper class voters (ABC1) voted Conservative and 57% of DE voters (DE) voted Labour. Whilst this has broken down somewhat due to class and partisan dealingnment, it is still possible to predict voting behaviour by looking at social factors. For example, in the 2017 election age was a very strong predictor of voting behaviour, with 66% of 18-24 year olds voting Labour and 69% of those over 70 voting Conservative. This suggests that there are still strong long-term factors affecting voting behaviour, but, they are no longer based on class but on a generational divide between the old and the young. It is this long-term trend that best explains voting behaviour.

However, it is evident that general elections aren’t won or lost on the basis of those who have a strong partisan attachment to a particular party, but rather, by those who you would describe as floating voters. The source suggests that these voters are likely to be swayed by “valence issues” such as “the state of the economy”, which is strongly linked to the general competence of the government of the day. It seems clear that in 1979 a big reason why Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative Party were able to win, despite the relative unpopularity of Mrs Thatcher herself, was because James Callaghan’s Labour government had been discredited by their perceived incompetence in dealing with The Winter of Discontent in 1978, with many arguing that Callaghan would have won if he had called a snap election in the Autumn of 1978. Similarly, John Major’s government was discredited by Black Wednesday in 1992, when the UK crashed out of the ERM, damaging Major’s reputation and allowing Labour to maintain a double digit poll lead until their landslide election victory in 1997, under Tony Blair. Finally, it can be argued that Gordon Brown lost office largely due to the perception that he lost control of the public finances following the financial crisis in 2008. In all three cases, what mattered was the effect of short-term factors, which damaged the perception of the government, therefore these short-term factors are more important.

The perception of political parties can also matter, as voters adopt “long term views as to what they think a political party is like.” For example, after 18 years in office the Conservative Party were regarded as “the nasty party,” with voters remembering them as the party of the Poll Tax, the Miner’s Strike and “as the party of business and of the rich.” This perception can be very difficult to shake off as was seen in the 2001 general election, where the Labour Party produced a campaign poster with Mrs Thatcher’s hair on William Hague’s head, reminding voters that a vote for Hague’s Conservatives was a vote for a return to Thatcherism. Similarly, in 2005, the public perception of the then Conservative leader, Michael Howard, was shaped by a comment by Ann Widecombe that there was “something of the night about him.” Similarly, the Labour Party struggled to escape the perception that a vote for Labour would be a vote for a return to the policies advocated in Michael Foot’s 1983 manifesto, dubbed “the longest suicide note in history” by The Sun newspaper, until Blair was able to successfully re-brand the party as ‘New Labour’ following the rewording of ‘Clause 4’ of the Labour Party constitution in 1994. Again, this demonstrates that longer term factors are bubbling under the surface when voters go to the polls and shape the outcome of elections to a much greater degree than what is happening in the short term.

However, “the media is important and can frequently change its view from one election to another”. Although “newspapers are mostly partisan” in their coverage, papers will shift allegiance from one election to another and it is argued that this can significantly impact the outcome of elections. For example, The Sun newspaper continued to back John Major’s Conservative Party in 1992 despite the fact that Labour were ahead in the polls and were therefore expected to win. On the day of the election their headline read “If Kinnock Wins Today Will the Last Person in Britain Please Turn out the Lights?” with a picture of Neil Kinnock’s head in a light bulb. After a shock election victory for John Major, The Sun claimed “It’s The Sun Wot Won It.” Similarly, in 1997, The Sun switched its support to Tony Blair and in 2010 to David Cameron. There is significant debate about whether the paper influenced public opinion or whether they followed public opinion, but it would be surprising if their endorsement had no impact whatsoever on the outcome of the elections in question, suggesting short-term factors can have a significant impact. This is supported by the idea that “stories that occur during the final campaign that put party leaders in a bad light will have an effect.” An example of this is the ‘bigotgate’ disaster for Gordon Brown during the 2010 election, where he was recorded by a microphone, that he didn’t realise was switched on, calling the pension Gillian Duffy a ‘’bigoted women” after she has expressed concerns about immigration; an event that would have left a sour taste in the mouths of Labour’s traditional working class supporters.  Although seemingly trivial, in the age of social media and 24 hour news events like this dominate the news agenda and can have a significant effect on the campaign, reinforcing the view that short-term factors can have a significant impact.

Although long-term factors do matter, most of the critical election in the post-war period (1979, 1997, 2010) were heavily influenced by the competence of the government, caused by events that might be described as short-term factors. But these events shape a narrative that has a long-term impact on the perception of the party, which is what is really underlying the success or failure of parties at general elections.

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.