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.