Short term factors which explain election results

Short Term Factors

■ Policies. Voters consider the policies presented in the party manifestos and make a decision based on which set of policies suits them best. This is rational choice theory in action. Voting Behaviour 

■ Key issues. Party campaigns increasingly focus on a clear message about one issue they think will win them the election because voters increasingly cast their vote based on the issue that is most important to them.

■ Performance in office. Using the economic and valence issues theory, voters tend to simplify the election into a referendum on the current government. If the economy does well, the government is rewarded with another term; if the economy does badly, the government is removed and the opposition is given a chance to govern. Valence politics, also known as competence voting, is a model of voting behaviour that emphasises that individuals vote based upon "people's judgements of the overall competence of the rival political parties". 

■ Leadership. The role of the leader has become increasingly important since Harold Wilson’s time in office, and voters often take the view that they are selecting a prime minister rather than voting for a party or an MP. As a result, leaders must convince voters that they can be trusted to deliver and are capable of running the country, and they must deliver all this through a likable and engaging media presence.

■ Image. Beyond the leadership issues, voters will make their choice based on their perception of the party’s image, which is connected to issue voting.  see Governing competency 

■ Tactical voting. Due to the nature of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, many voters use tactical voting to determine their choice. If their preferred candidate is unlikely to win the seat, the voter will vote for their next favoured candidate if they think they have more chance of success. This is often done to try to prevent the candidate of the least favoured party from winning the seat.

Manifestos, Campaigns, the Political Context,leaders,

Governing competency, Performance of the government  and voter choice

A number of factors explain the outcome of different electoral contests. These include the impact of party policies and the manifestothe document that enables a winning party to claim a mandate — and the techniques that parties use in their election campaigns. It is also important to examine the wider context of particular elections. The state of the economy, the public image of party leaders, and the assessment that voters make of a government's record may all play an important part in determining the result.

Party policies and manifestos

Both the Labour and Conservative manifestos were notable for their moderation. Both gave high priority to bringing inflation down. Callaghan came from Labour's traditional centre-right and he resisted pressure for more extreme proposals from his party's left wing. Thatcher's policy statement contained very little indication that she intended to move her party to the right. There was a mention of returning recently nationalised industries to private hands and removing some trade union powers, but no suggestion of a radical crusade to scale down the state sector. This meant that when Callaghan warned the electorate of a lurch to the right if the Conservatives won, it had little credibility.

The invention of the photo opportunity

The election campaign

The Conservatives adopted many of the techniques of modern advertising under the guidance of two professional publicity specialists, Gordon Reece and Tim Bell. ( Voting behaviour and the Media)  The Labour campaign lacked awareness of the finer points of presentation, whereas Thatcher proved amenable to her advisers' invention of photo opportunities, and was pictured doing everything from tasting tea to holding a newborn calf. 

The real impact of the campaign is hard to measure. Although the Conservatives outpaced Labour in the opinion polls, when voters were asked who would make the better prime minister, 'Sunny Jim' Callaghan was 20 points ahead of Thatcher on average. In spite of his mistakes, voters still respected his air of experience. Thatcher was wise to turn down the offer of a televised debate, which would have highlighted this difference between them. It was perfectly acceptable to do so as a debate had not been held at any previous election.

The wider political context

The real reason for Thatcher's victory was the weakness of the Labour government, which precipitated the dissolution of Parliament. In spite of Callaghan's personal popularity, and tentative signs of economic improvement, there was never much doubt that the Conservatives would win. Callaghan's government was a minority administration that survived by constructing deals with smaller parties. This left it vulnerable to defeat in the Commons. Moreover Callaghan mistimed the election. There was widespread expectation that he would call an election in the autumn of 1978 but he backed away from doing so. During the 'The winter of discontent', which followed in the early months of 1979, the government's attempt to impose a 5 per cent limit on pay increases collapsed as a series of strikes — by lorry drivers, health workers, refuse collectors and even, in one local authority, gravediggers — created a sense of national paralysis.

Callaghan's failure to control militant trade unions handed the Conservatives a winning card. The media showed images of a miserable, strike-bound Britain. When Callaghan returned from a Caribbean island summit meeting of world leaders, and dismissed questions by a journalist about the situation at home, The Sun accused him of being out of touch. A politically lethal headline summarised his off-the-cuff remarks in three words: 'Crisis? What Crisis?' This provided the Conservatives with an irresistible theme: that the country needed a new direction and a government that could grapple with economic and social breakdown.

The election was triggered by a withdrawal of support for the government by nationalist parties, after the result of referendums on Scottish and Welsh devolution went against the government. This forced Callaghan to go to the country at the worst possible time for his party.

Blair victory Speech

Party policies and manifestos

As Labour leader, Tony Blair drove forward the policy of modernisation that had tentatively begun under his predecessors, Neil Kinnock (1983-92) and John Smith (1992-94). The 'New Labour' project abandoned old-fashioned party policies such as nationalisation, tax increases and the strengthening of trade union powers, which might put off non-committed middle-class voters. Blair also gave off reassuringly tough signals on law and order, an issue that mattered to voters following rising crime rates in the early 1990s, and emphasised his links to the business community. 

Crucially, Labour won the endorsement of the greater part of the press, including The Sun and The Times. The message was that New Labour was a moderate party with the interests of 'Middle England' at heart.

As a sign of the party's desire to show how responsible it was, its 1997 platform stressed specific policy details where it promised to make a difference, such as reducing the size of primary school classes and cutting hospital waiting lists. There was no stark difference between Labour and the Conservatives.

A 'pledge card' carried by Labour candidates in 1997

A mix of tax cuts and spending promises-but nothing too radical!

Another way in which Labour's policies helped it win was Blair's emphasis on constitutional reform, which gave the party common ground with the Liberal Democrats. This made it easier for Liberal Democrats to vote tactically for Labour in marginal seats, which their own candidates could not hope to win. This possibly added up to 30 seats to the Labour majority.

The election campaign

New Labour placed a huge emphasis on developing a professional vote-winning machine. It employed public-relations experts to handle the media, used focus groups to assess public opinion and systematically targeted marginal seats rather than safe seats. However, the importance of this strategy should not be exaggerated. 

What difference to campaigns make?

Labour's share of the vote increased on average by 12.5 per cent in its target seats, but by 13.4 per cent in constituencies that it neglected. In fact, despite the central control over the campaign exerted by Labour headquarters, the party's lead in the opinion polls actually declined in the course of the campaign.

The wider political context

Labour could not have won on such a large scale without the damage inflicted by the Conservatives on themselves after their narrow victory in the 1992 election. Turnout in 1997 was relatively low, at 71 per cent, which meant that under 31 per cent of the registered electorate actually voted Labour. This does not suggest a mass popular movement in support of Labour. The Conservatives had their worst election result since 1832, winning only 30.7 per cent of the vote. The 1997 result can only be fully explained by looking at the failures of John Major's government.

Economic policy played an important role. By 1997 the economy was recovering from the recession of the early part of the decade, but voters did not give the Conservatives credit for this. They remembered the catastrophe of 'Black Wednesday' in September 1992 rather than the modest economic improvement that followed. There was no tangible 'feel good factor' in 1997, as the fruits of recovery failed to feed through into either tax cuts or increased investment in public services. Monthly opinion polls show that Labour was consistently ahead of the Conservatives from the autumn of 1992 onwards. The Conservatives had lost their reputation as efficient managers of the economy and failed to retrieve it.

The image of Tory incompetence was confirmed by a series of financial and sexual scandals (which the media called 'sleaze') and continuing divisions over Britain's relationship with the European Union. The impression of weak leadership was fatal for the Conservatives.

Watch : Five Days that changed Britain

BBC News looks back 2010

Gordon Brown Where Did it all Go Wrong?

Gordon Brown calls a woman bigoted

Campaigning In the run up to the 2015 general election, the Conservatives amassed a war chest of £78 million, dwarfing the spending power of Labour, and exceeding all the other parties combined. A change to the law on candidates’ election spending which allowed spending levels to rise by 23 per cent, enabled the Conservatives to deploy this war chest during the campaign itself. However, the net impact of national campaigning (via party-political broadcasts, leafleting, newspaper advertising, media interviews, rallies and the like) may be less significant than, for example, getting the backing of major newspapers (especially the Murdoch group). Not uncommonly, party strength on polling day is often little different from what it was at the start of the election campaign. On the other hand, there is clear evidence that local campaigning can make a difference.This has led to a growing tendency for parties to ‘target’ key seats as a means of artificially concentrating their support where it will have the greatest impact.

Party policies and manifestos

There was little difference between the three main parties on the main issue of the election, the need to reduce the budget deficit, which had increased to £175 billion since the financial crisis of 2007-08. All three parties pledged to make savings without sacrificing essential public services. The differences were on the timing and extent of public-spending cuts. The Conservatives were alone in calling for immediate cuts; their rivals argued that this would jeopardise the fragile recovery of the economy from recession, and the cuts should be phased in gradually. From 2008 Cameron and his team focused their attacks on Labour's alleged mismanagement of the economy, accusing the party of reckless overspending and a failure to regulate the banking system effectively. This gained considerable traction with the electorate; in one opinion poll 59 per cent of voters agreed that most of the extra money spent by the Labour government had been wasted.

The election campaign

The 2010 election provides further evidence of the limited importance of campaigns in determining the final result. The Conservatives had begun intense targeting of marginal seats early in the 2005-10 Parliament, striving to get their candidates established at local level, market-testing policies with voters and emphasising their support for public services on which people depended. Yet in spite of these efforts, the Conservatives were still 20 seats short of an overall majority.

On the Labour side much was made of Gordon Brown's unscripted meeting with a voter in Rochdale, Lancashire. After she embarrassed him with a hostile question about immigration, a radio microphone picked him up describing her as a 'bigoted woman' while he was being driven away. The incident was seized on by the media but its actual significance was limited. Brown was already behind in the polls and in fact Labour held Rochdale, where the incident took place.

The most remarkable innovation of the 2010 campaign was the decision to hold televised debates featuring the three main party leaders. Brown was generally felt to have behaved rather woodenly, and his tendency to reply 'I agree with Nick' was derided at the time. Nick Clegg experienced

a boost in the opinion polls after an unexpectedly good performance in the first of the three debates, but this fell back before polling day. Although the Liberal Democrats were able to enter government in coalition with the Conservatives, they lost a total of five seats.

The wider political context

A similarity with James Callaghan's 1979 defeat was Gordon Brown's choice of election date. When he succeeded Tony Blair as prime minister in June 2007, Brown briefly encouraged speculation that he would call an autumn election in order to secure a personal mandate. When he decided not to do so, he was widely ridiculed for alleged cowardice ('Bottler Brown') and his reputation never fully recovered. He then had to grapple with the financial crisis and ensuing recession, which gave the Conservatives ammunition to use against him. Although many independent commentators commended him for the emergency action he took, in bailing out the banks and partly nationalising those on the brink of failure, he received little political credit for this.

Brown was harshly treated in the media, being depicted as an insecure, cantankerous workaholic who could not articulate a convincing vision for the country. An Ipsos MORI poll shortly before the election showed that 33 per cent of people regarded Cameron as the most capable potential prime minister, compared to 29 per cent for Brown. But when asked about particular leadership characteristics, Brown was consistently ahead on such criteria as 'who best understands the problems facing Britain' or 'who would be best in a crisis'. Clearly the electorate was not fully

convinced that Cameron was ready to take over. Opinion polls showed the Conservatives ahead of Labour on some issues, but in spite of Cameron's efforts at modernisation of the party, these still  tended to come from traditional Conservative territory, such as immigration and law and order. On the main question facing the country, management of the economy, 29 per cent of voters felt that the Conservatives had the best policy, compared to 26 per cent for Labour. A further 36 per cent did not choose any of the parties. This helps to explain why the Conservatives were unable to  secure an overall majority.The Conservative campaign in 2010 focused on Gordon Brown's alleged incompetence in leading the economy from 'boom to bust'.


In an ‘age of dealignment’, parties place increasing faith in leaders and leadership to win elections. However, what makes for an effective leader in electoral terms? Successful leaders have to demonstrate a number of qualities:

 • Accessibility. Leaders must be telegenic and demonstrate a relaxed ‘likeability’.

 • Trust.Voters need to believe that what their leaders say is true. 

• Strength. Leaders have to demonstrate that they can ‘run the show’. 

Tony Blair was widely believed to have been a considerable electoral asset for Labour in 1997 and 2001. By 2005, however, his personal appeal had diminished significantly. Nevertheless, it is difficult to argue that Blair had become an electoral liability, as neither of his main rivals (Michael Howard for the Conservatives and Charles Kennedy for the Liberal Democrats) were able to establish a lead over him, particularly on the issue of competence. In fact, Blair enjoyed a healthy 15 per cent lead over other party leaders when respondents were asked to choose who would make the best prime minister.The importance of leaders was, potentially, greatly enhanced in 2010 by the introduction of US-style televised debates between the candidates of the three leading parties. Although the first debate appeared to transform the fortunes of Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, ultimately there was only modest evidence that the televised debates shifted anyone’s opinion, even though they may have had a marginal impact on turnout. Of almost certainly greater significance, in terms of explaining the outcome in 2010, was the poor personal standing of Gordon Brown, who consistently lagged badly behind Cameron in opinion polls. An advantage that the Conservatives enjoyed in the run up to the 2015 election was the clear and consistent opinion poll lead that Cameron maintained over Ed Miliband, who many voters struggled to see as a credible prime minister. In 2017 Theresa May's 'Maybot' image as unemotional, cold and hard to like, contrasted with Corbyn's appeal to the young who chanted 'Hey Jeremy Corbyn' and referred to him as 'Jezza'.         

Maybot and Jezza- contrasting images 2017

Governing competency, Performance of the government  and voter choice

Another way of explaining voting behaviour is known as rational choice theory: the idea that voters behave like consumers, deciding how to vote by evaluating what is the most beneficial option for them as individuals. Voters look at the policies on offer and choose the party most closely aligned to their preferences. This is linked to the growth of a more educated electorate, with more access to political information, particularly since the rise of the Internet. This approach is problematic because it assumes that voters make rational choices based upon a knowledge of party policies. It does not explain elections where voters feel differently about different issues, or where there is no single overriding issue.

Performance of government The conventional wisdom on elections has long been that ‘governments lose elections; oppositions do not win them’. This suggests that elections are largely decided by the performance of the government of the day, and particularly by its economic performance. As the reminder on the wall of Bill Clinton’s office during the 1992 presidential election put it: ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid’. If the 2010 general election could be regarded as a ‘referendum’ on Labour’s performance, the party was fatally damaged by the loss of its reputation for economic competence following the global financial crisis and the subsequent sharp recession. In the case of the Conservatives in 2015, it was notable that the claim that their ‘plan is working’ was sustained by an economic recovery that had started two years earlier.

A refinement of rational choice theory is that voters are influenced not by detailed party policies but by issues such as:

·      Who is the best potential prime minister among the available party leaders?

·      Who is expected to manage the economy most successfully?

·      Who will provide the best-quality public services?

Many skilled workers voted Conservative for the first time in 1979, in response to Margaret Thatcher's populist style, and because they had become disenchanted with the perceived incompetence of Labour governments in the 1970s. They stayed with the Conservatives for the next three general elections (1983, 1987 and 1992). However, they transferred their support to New Labour in 1997 as evidence of poor management by John Major's government began to accumulate. They also voted Labour in 2001 and 2005, but abandoned the party in 2010 after their faith in it was weakened by the financial crisis and the ensuing recession.

At each of these elections, voters were passing judgment on the governing competency of the main parties. For a party in office, this means assessing how successfully it has managed the business of government. Policy success — notably in the management of the economy, together with evidence of a clear agenda and united, strong leadership — are key indicators. In the case of an opposition party, voters are deciding on its potential governing competence if it were to achieve office.

A variant of the rational choice theory is the economic voting model. This holds that voters are more likely to support a governing party if it has managed the economy successfully. Alternatively, they may give their support to a party that is thought likely to deliver economic prosperity, either to voters themselves and their families, or to the population as a whole. Voters may be influenced by factors such as inflation, unemployment, interest rates and taxation, or more generally by a broader sense of well-being, sometimes known as the 'feel good factor'. Public anger over the 'winter of discontent' played a major part in the Conservatives' election victory in 1979. The absence of the 'feel good factor' also worked to the Conservatives' advantage in the 2010 election, as they were able to portray Labour as having responded inadequately to the financial crisis.

The public image of party leaders has become more important in recent decades as politics has become increasingly personalised. Commentators have talked about the 'presidentialisation' of British politics since the 1979 election. The suggestion is that UK election campaigns are increasingly shaped by voters' perceptions of the leading figures, as they are in United States presidential contests. Blair modelled himself to a great extent on Thatcher's strong leadership

qualities. Brown notoriously failed to come across as a dynamic, assured leader in 2010, although the election result suggests that voters were not fully persuaded by Cameron as a replacement for him.

Parties appreciate the importance of presenting their leaders in a good light. Attention is given to 'photo opportunities' that will show the leader's human touch. In the run-up to the 2010 elections, the parties agonised over arrangements for the first televised debates between the leaders. Leaders' appearances have become increasingly stage-managed, to avoid possibly awkward encounters with members of the public who may react in a negative manner. Most meetings featuring cheering, placard-waving crowds do not really involve the general public. Instead trusted supporters are drafted in to give the impression of spontaneous enthusiasm for the leader.