Explaining Cameron's Coalition: How it Came About - An Analysis of the 2010 British General Election

Labour was doomed to lose the popular vote long before Nick 'n' Dave cosied up, writes Paul Whiteley

September 1, 2011

The series of books on British general elections written by the veteran pollster Robert Worcester and his colleagues are now becoming a regular feature of the post-election literature. Explaining Cameron's Coalition, the most recent, focuses closely on the dynamics of public opinion and probes the factors that produced the first peacetime coalition government in British politics since the 1930s.

It offers a wealth of detailed evidence about all aspects of the campaign, starting with a careful analysis of the final years of Tony Blair's prime ministership. It makes the plausible claim that Labour was doomed to lose the election well before its five-year term ran out in 2010. By 2008, the polls were showing the lowest share of voting intentions for the party in the 70-year history of polling. The surprising thing, then, was that the Conservatives did not win outright.

Blair was forced from office in 2007, in part by the machinations of Gordon Brown but chiefly by the fact that his credibility had run out. His departure from Downing Street was accompanied by chants of "Bliar", a label that still sticks to him today.

When Brown took over, he had to deal with a much more formidable opponent in David Cameron than the baseball cap-wearing William Hague and the "quiet man", Iain Duncan Smith, whom nobody had ever heard of. Similarly, Blair did not have to face the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, so he had clear advantages over Brown. That said, Brown did reveal a tendency to dither over key decisions - notably whether to hold an early election - and he lacked the presentational skills of his predecessor, a point made effectively in the book. We are reminded of the occasion when Brown tried to distance his government from the Parliamentary expenses scandal in April 2009 with the aid of a YouTube video. This combined a randomly invoked rictus grin with nervously contorted body language that reminded viewers of David Brent from The Office.

There is what might be described as a "standard model" of voting behaviour and its key components are discussed here. The model explains why people vote in terms of their issue perceptions, their partisanship or the "brand loyalty" that some have towards political parties, their evaluations of leaders and the effects of campaigning. Each of these is examined in detail, but the book's weakness is that it fails to bring them all together.

Untangling the separate effects of these measures requires multivariate analysis, but instead the book invites the reader to draw inferences by eyeballing charts and examining responses to questions that ask people to explain what they are thinking. This approach can be misleading at times, for example when it appears to show that there is no relationship between people's optimism about the state of the economy and their voting behaviour. Multivariate modelling shows that economic perceptions are formidable predictors of voting intentions, to the point that this may very well finish off the coalition at the next election if current trends continue.

None of this detracts from the fact that this is an excellent text for undergraduates, and it carries the reader along with some amusing anecdotes. My favourite story is about Sir Peter Viggers, the luckless MP who gained international notoriety for claiming expenses for his duck house. Apparently it was sold after the election because even the ducks couldn't stand it.

Explaining Cameron's Coalition: How it Came About - An Analysis of the 2010 British General Election

By Robert Worcester, Roger Mortimore, Paul Baines and Mark Gill

Biteback Publishing, 358pp, £25.00

ISBN 9781849541336

Published 3 May 2011

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