THURSDAY provided the salutary lesson that people decide election results, not pollsters. Like 1992, the pundits got it badly wrong. Only the exit poll – and two or three earlier ones that had been largely dismissed as rogue outliers – came close to the mark.
One explanation is that, unlike normal polling which provides a snapshot of opinion, exit polls pick up ‘late deciders’. There were large numbers this time. In addition, those sampled – in this instance, 22,000 voters across 133 constituencies – had actually voted, removing one of the uncertainties of traditional approaches.
The pollsters’ failings, however, provided the backcloth to the unexpected drama that finally ignited this general election. Regionally, the main headlines were the resignations of Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg as party leaders, alongside Ed Balls’s defeat in Morley and Outwood.
Few other seats changed hands. Labour’s loss in Morley and Outwood (with 1.6 per cent swing to Conservative) was offset by re-capturing Dewsbury (2.8 per cent swing to Labour) as well as by winning Bradford East from Liberal Democrats and regaining Bradford West from George Galloway’s Respect Party. True to form, the latter contest proved controversial to the end.
Similarly, there were few changes amongst the 21 councils that held elections. Calderdale, Kirklees, North East Lincolnshire and York remain without overall control, although Conservatives secured a majority in Scarborough.
While the net changes were modest, the implications are much more substantial. First, voting patterns varied – another reason why polls are so difficult to interpret. In Yorkshire, the average swing from Conservative to Labour was 2.3 per cent but, in three cases, it exceeded 10 per cent. However, a handful, including Morley and Outwood plus Elmet and Rothwell, had reverse swings from Labour to Conservative.
Secondly, there were distinct regional differences. Nationally, the Conservative vote share was up by 0.8 per cent, while in Yorkshire it was hardly visible at 0.1 per cent. By contrast, Labour’s vote in Yorkshire increased by 4.6 per cent compared with 1.5 per cent nationally.
Labour lost the election much more through what happened in Scotland, and its failure to win in the South, than by what happened in the North.
Thirdly, Ukip influenced results by the way they took votes from other parties. They came second in 15 of the region’s 54 seats and, in the North, they primarily damaged Labour. A reasonable share of the 5,662 votes they achieved in Keighley, for example, would have been sufficient to change the outcome.
Fourthly, tactical voting is now commonplace. In Leeds North West, one in 10 of those voting Conservative in council elections switched support to Lib Dems when voting in the Parliamentary election. Mr Clegg had equal reason to be grateful to those Conservatives in Sheffield Hallam who saw voting Liberal Democrat as the means to stop Labour. The converse happened in Pudsey, where more than half of Liberal Democrats voted differently in the two elections.
Fifthly, Ukip’s performance highlights the inequities of the first-past-the-post electoral system. On average, every 34,000 Conservative votes secured one MP. Labour needed 40,000 votes for each MP, and Liberal Democrats 302,000 votes. Ukip was rewarded with a single MP for its 3.8 million votes.
Sixthly, Liberal Democrat MPs paid a very heavy price for participating in the coalition, and Conservatives were the primary beneficiaries.
For Labour, there are now some very tough choices. Trust and management of the economy, reinforced by a message of fear about SNP influence, were at the core of this election. Mr Miliband’s personal standing undoubtedly improved, but he was unable to persuade on these crucial issues. Conservatives had a clearer, simpler and more targeted message. It was an election fought almost entirely on their agenda.
Labour’s next leader will have the difficult task of constructing a programme that reconnects it with an anti-austerity Scotland whilst winning back the very different kinds of voters who were the basis of the party’s success in 1997.
Mr Cameron will have his own challenges, those of union – with Scotland and with Europe. The North will be looking for election promises to be delivered, too.
Colin Mellors is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of York.