Friday, May 15, 2015

The ‘sweetest victory’ in history?

When he walked back through the front door of 10 Downing Street a week ago, David Cameron walked straight into the political history books.  A cliché?  Perhaps - but in this case, a deserved one. Whatever else he does in his remaining term as Prime Minister, the fact he has secured such a term at all is an achievement no-one can take away from him.  As the dust settles and the political drama moves on, it is worth considering for a moment just how historic a feat this was.

Yes, he is the first Conservative leader to win a majority in 23 years, and on Tuesday chaired the first all-Conservative cabinet since 1997.  Yes, the 11.3 million votes he secured was more than any leader has won since Tony Blair’s landslide in 1997 (more than Mr Blair got in 2001 or 2005, and of course, more than Mr Cameron himself won in 2010).  But that is just scratching the surface.  Many comparisons have been made with 1992 - but of course John Major’s victory then, though impressive, was on a reduced vote share and number of seats.  Some have mentioned the year 1983 as the last time a sitting Prime Minister won an election whilst increasing their parliamentary seat tally.  But Mrs Thatcher did that whilst seeing the Conservative share of the vote decline slightly – and it was the Labour Party’s weakness and loss of votes to the SDP/Liberal Alliance which gave her a landslide in terms of seats.

So we go back further – to Harold Wilson in October 1974, when he increased the Labour Party’s share of the vote and number of seats, to win a narrow majority.  But this was not after a full term in office - he had only been back in Number 10 since February that year, when an indecisive election had led him to form a minority government.  Back we go to 1966, when, again, Wilson had increased Labour’s vote share and number of seats.  But as with 1974, this was an opportunistic ‘cut and run’ election with Wilson consolidating his position after less than eighteen months in power.

Another year mentioned by commentators over the last week has been 1955 – when Anthony Eden won a Conservative majority with an increase in share of the vote and seats.  But he was a new Prime Minister, having taken over from Churchill only weeks earlier.   To find a Prime Minister who improved their position after serving a full term in office we have to go back to Lord Salisbury, who won a higher vote share in 1900 than he had in 1895.  But this resulted in a reduced number of seats.

I have tracked back through every previous General Election, trying to find a parallel for what David Cameron achieved last Thursday. I thought maybe Lord Liverpool’s result in 1826 might be the nearest approximation - but as that was before the Great Reform Act, the vast majority of the population had no vote and only 29 per cent of seats were even contested. So that and previous elections cannot reasonably be said to be at all comparable in terms of a democratic mandate and vote share.  

So I was left with post-1832 history, when the electoral franchise began to be extended and the concept of the popular vote started to mean anything.  We should really only compare elections since 1918, when the vote was extended to women and the property requirement was dropped, but stick with me – I was trying to find any sort of parallel.   And here’s the thing:  There isn't one.  Not one.  Either the incumbent’s vote share decreased, or they fell short of a majority, or they hadn't served a full term - even if we are generous and count a ‘full term’ as four years, rather than the statutory five (or seven, prior to 1911).  What we saw last week simply hasn't been done before.

During the 2015 General Election campaign we heard interventions from a couple of successful former Prime Ministers:  Tony Blair – the only Labour leader to win three successive majorities, and whose 1997 landslide was the most seats ever won by his party; and John Major, who in 1992 won for the Conservatives the most votes – over 14 million – that any Prime Minister has secured, before or since.  

To those records we can now add that of David Cameron:  The first and only Prime Minister to have managed, after a full term in office, to win the popular vote and a parliamentary majority with an increased vote share and increased number of seats.  The 'sweetest victory' indeed.  History is written by the winners, they say- but sometimes the winning writes its own history. 

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