Jim Carroll

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Soundings from the British general election

Some takeaways and thoughts from last week’s UK election and the weeks of campaigning beforehand

Back at base: David Cameron speaking outside his gaff after the general election results

Mon, May 11, 2015, 10:00


No-one really cares if you forget which football team you support

There was so much ink and type expanded about David Cameron’s mind-blip over Aston Villa and West Ham United that you began to wonder if the British general election would really be decided over two struggling Premier League football teams. In the end, those who weren’t going to vote for Cameron’s candidates had many other reasons to rely on when they went into the polling station other than his futile attempt to be down with the lads.

It’s all about stability

There’s no one reason above all else to explain why Cameron is back in 10 Downing Street this morning, but this one resonates a little more than the rest (we’ll come to some of the others like the British first-past-the-post electoral system in a bit), Voters across the bits of Britain that are not Scotland, Northern Ireland and the parts of Wales which will always stay red decided they were happy to keep the Conservatives at the helm, liked what they were doing with the economy and didn’t need the Liberal Democrats to provide a superfluous mudguard. Hence, why Cameron has a working majority and that should give him a decent run of things – until, that is, some of his MPs start dropping dead or getting into trouble with their trousers or tax affairs and causing by-elections.

It’s also all about aspiration

If your social media echo chamber is anything like my social media echo chamber, there are probably many who’ve spent the last 72 hours in shock at what just happened. How did the Tories, with all their austerity policies and determination to cut back social spending at every hand, get back in? Why didn’t the voters love Labour, Ed and Milifandom? What happened to the decency of the British people when it came to concern for those less fortunate than themselves?

A very simple reason: people may be decent, but their aspirations to be in a better place than they are trumps all. It might be a nicer house, more money in their pocket, better education for their kids or a new job. This constituency, the middle-ground, decided that they were more likely to see the triumph of this self-interest with the Conservatives in control of Westminister – or at least, not with Labour and any number of parties propping them up in power – and hence, what happened. Tony Blair may not be a popular lad with his former party or many who voted Labour in the elections from 1997 to 2005, but there’s a lot of sense in what he had to say yesterday (as, indeed, there is in Nick Cohen’s well argued column)

The problem with opinion polls is that people tell fibs

When opinion polls get things bang on, people are rarely surprised. They expect the polls in advance of an event to reflect what is actually going to happen and rarely remember that polls often miss the mark. As pollsters, political parties, media pundits and those who rely on the plethora of polls which accompany every political occasion reflect on how the pre-match polls got things largely wrong, it may be time to put these things out to pasture and use the acres of blank space and free airtime to examine something more important like policies.

In an age when data is all the rage, it’s worth remembering that data journalism and analysis is only as good as the data provided. When you’re relying on a small snapshot of the overall electorate who may well be just trying to get the person conducting the survey off the phone or away from their frontdoor, mistakes and errors do occur. All polls should have big caveat emptor warnings and not just to be brandished by those whom the poll findings don’t suit.

Many Sinn Fein supporters don’t dig sectarianism

In the North Belfast constituency in the 2010 general election, Nigel Dodds won the seat with a 2,300 vote majority over Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly. This time around, Dodds also prevailed, but more than doubled his majority over Kelly. It would seem that there were many Sinn Fein voters who decided that Kelly’s secterian election leaflet, pointing out that there were now more Catholics than Protestants in the constituency, was not cricket. Chances are that Kelly didn’t have a prayer anyway, but it’s telling that this ugly outbreak of sectarianism had such a negative backlash for the candidate and the party. They probably won’t be repeating that one again.

Russell Brand is a numptie

And so too are those who lean heavily on “celebrity” endorsements for their party or cause. Are political parties and campaigners really that dim to think that folks are going to copy what their favourite sportsman, musician or artist are doing when it comes to political allegiances? Especially when the celeb in question is completely out of their depth.

Case in point: Russell Brand, who went from an advocate of not voting to a Labour party fanboy and then spectacularly turned the flip-flop into a flip-flop-flip turn-around 360 degree somersault when the results came in. He should just stick to prank-calling old people. As for political experts who reckon that Brand has traction when it comes to calls-to-action, well, I wonder what Alastair Campbell has to say about that today.

You don’t have to do all those set-piece TV interviews and debates if you don’t want to

Enda Kenny rarely does interviews or take part in debates because it’s obvious that he’s not comfortable with the format so he stays well clear of Prime Time and Vincent Bowne. You can expect a clamour in the next 12 months for Kenny to sit down and do these set-piece TV events ahead of the forthcoming general election. But, as Cameron showed across the water, voters in the end of the day don’t necessarily care too much if the party leader skips most of the debates (there’s a fascinating Wikipedia page detailing the ins and outs of how the election debates were set up).

They’re not voting for someone’s debating skills or ability to tolerate the increasingly tiresome and one-dimensional Browne for an hour or oratorial power when it comes to carefully honed soundbites. Occasionally, as with the presidential election in 2011 with Pat Kenny, Sean Gallagher and tweetgate, you do get drama because that’s what TV craves, but the British election shows the real eating and drinking happened far from under those hot TV studio lights.

It was the papers wot did it

Or was it? This was without a shadow of a doubt the most partisan general election when it came to the message from the British print media. From the Daily Mail to The Sun to The Telegraph, you’d a whole range of right-leaning media organisations swinging in behind the Conservatives and belittling Ed Miliband and the Labour party at every turn.

Did this coverage help to sway the voters or did they make their own minds up? It’s hard to say, though there’s probably a psychological effect of all that one-sided coverage day in and day out. That said, the degree of desperation which came into the media campaign towards the end as “the polls” indicated the Tories and Labour were neck and neck, desperate measures including an email to readers from The Telegraph’s editor, would suggest that even the media hadn’t read their readers or the electorate right.

Political reform me hoop

If it wasn’t the media wot did it, it was the British first-past-the-post electoral system. Just look at the number of votes cast versus seats won, especially with regard to UKIP. This graph paints a much different picture for those results, especially for the smaller parties like UKIP, the Lib Dems and Greens, if the Brits were using the proportional representation system we have over here. So, what are the chances of Cameron and co, the big winners under the current system, working up a sweat to bring in PR? We’ll leave it there so.

The lessons for Ireland

Harry McGee covers much of this ground in his piece today and there’s already been a lot of muttering about the danger of relying on opinion polls when it comes to the upcoming marriage referendum. The main lessons for our political parties as they face into a general election campaign should really be steady as she goes and “it’s the economy, stupid”.

On the first count, remember that we all expected Fianna Fail to be wiped out in 2011 when they’re still around and will probably gain more seats in the next election. On the second count, remember that Irish voters are every jot as aspirational as their UK neighbours and there are as many who are seeing an uptick in fortunes right now as there are who are finding it hard to keep their heads above water.

So, expect Fine Gael to do better than proposed, Labour to not do as badly as the vested interests believe, Fianna Fail to gain seats and that left-wing/protest/anyone-but-the-government vote to splinter in a dozen different directions to deliver a lot of noise and not a lot of coherent next-government-forming signals. You may not like the sound of it (and I certainly don’t like the sound of it), but don’t be surprised if Enda Kenny is still the main man when the dust has settled.