What Went Wrong?
By Kevin Andrews - Australian Polity - Volume 1 (Number 4)
David Cameron’s achievement in becoming Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is significant. The youngest Prime Minister since Lord Liverpool in 1812, he achieved the biggest gain in seats since 1931with a swing possibly greater than that to Margaret Thatcher in 1979, and only outranked in recent times by Tony Blair’s victory in 1997.
Despite this, the Conservatives failed to gain the majority they sought, and are now in coalition with the Liberal-Democrats. While there have been suggestions that this will allow Mr Cameron to steer his Government away from the right of his Party, it was hardly the outcome expected some months ago.
Earlier this year, the Conservatives led in the polls by a margin that would have swept them to a large majority. As the weeks passed, supporters began to worry whether they would win. The media, sensing that Gordon Brown was headed for defeat, jumped on the Nick Clegg, Lib-Dem bandwagon.
In the end, the Liberal-Democrats lost seats, hardly the result one would have expected from reading the breathless coverage of their campaign in the media.
When political parties fail to ask ‘What went wrong’, they are likely to repeat their mistakes. Three responses come to mind. First, the Tories banked on the unpopularity of Labor – and Mr Brown in particular – believing that would win them the election. A survey of Australia’s political past demonstrates that government’s can cling to office, even though they have lost popularity. ‘Oppositions don’t win, Government’s lose’ is a well-known phrase, but it is not entirely true.
Secondly, Mr Cameron, and his Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, failed to set out an alternative economic vision, even when Britons sensed their nation had fallen into a deep malaise. Mr Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ remained, at best, a vague concept, and, at worst, confusing to voters concerned about immigration, welfare dependency and their economic future. Perhaps he knew that if he won, he would be forced to repudiate any major programs in order to restore the economy of the UK.
Finally, and most significantly, Mr Cameron did not set up a contest based on clear differences. If the poll trends were correct, although the constituency wanted to see the end of Mr Brown, they became less convinced about Mr Cameron as the campaign progressed. There are lessons in the outcome for political parties elsewhere.