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From Felix Bungay: The 2010 General Election was a great result for the Conservative Party: A response to @AndrewLilico

Bungay FelixFelix Bungay is student at University of Cambridge where he is reading an MPhil in Intellectual History and Political Thought. 

I’m usually a fan of what Andrew Lilico has to say on Conservative Home, so it is with regret that I have to say his latest piece, ‘A true Conservative should believe Conservatism can win’ offers nothing but a vapid and skin- deep analysis of the Conservatives’ 2010 election performance.

In his piece, Dr Lilico argued that certain Conservatives should stop apologising for David Cameron’s performance at the 2010 general election, and that in order to be a ‘true’ Conservative (or indeed a Conservative at all) you must consider the performance of the 2010 Conservative party to be a failure. Dr Lilico says arguments to the contrary are “wrong and enraging.” They may well be enraging because they say something a lot of Conservatives are unwilling to hear, but they are certainly not wrong.

Firstly, Dr Lilico’s doctrinal shrillness is immensely unbecoming. Quite frankly, it is embarrassing for anyone to make claims about what constitutes ‘true’ Conservatism in the way Dr Lilico does in his article. Such arguments are best left to Marxists rather than serious political organisations. The last thing the Conservative Party needs is the sort of infighting over ‘true’ Conservatism that Dr Lilico’s article seeks to engender.

However, the crux of Dr Lilico’s argument is that the 2010 election was a failure. The Conservative Party failed to get a majority when it should have got a very large one. The circumstances were such that the party’s failure to win an overall majority constitutes a disaster. This is a superficially appealing argument, but one which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny and a fair comparison to other recent elections.

At the 2001 General Election, the Labour Party won 418 seats. The Conservatives won 166. A dismal performance by the Conservatives a triumph for Labour, we all know the story. How many votes did Tony Blair and the Labour Party win in 2001? 10.72 million. The Conservatives won 8.36 million. Labour had a majority of 167 seats.

How about the 2005 General Election? Labour won 355 seats and 9.55 million votes. The Conservatives won 198 seats and 8.78 million votes; another Labour victory, but this time with a majority of 66 seats.

It is generally accepted that both these elections constituted successes for the Labour Party; they were unquestionably victorious and amounted to good electoral showings. How then does the Conservative performance in 2010 stack up? At the 2010 General Election, the Conservatives won 306 seats and 10.70 million votes.  Labour won 258 seats and 8.61 million votes.

So at the 2010 election the Conservatives won roughly 1.2 million more votes than Tony Blair’s Labour Party did in 2005, when it won a majority of 66 seats. In fact, David Cameron won roughly the same amount of votes as Labour did in 2001 when it won a landslide result and majority of 167. On any objective assessment the Conservative party did exceedingly well, better than Blair in 2005 and equal to his landslide victory in 2001. Labour on the other hand got fewer votes than the Conservatives did in 2005 but won 60 more seats. Labour did do better than the Conservatives did in 2001, but just barely, they got 0.25 million more votes. If the Conservative and Labour party votes at the 2010 election were swapped, Labour would have had a large majority.

Only one conclusion can really be reached on the basis of this evidence. That in comparison to the two other most recent (and therefore relevant) UK General Elections, the Conservatives performed better than Labour did in 2005, (which was a good election for Labour) and comparable if not equal to Labour in 2001, which was a fantastic result for Labour.

Why then, if the Conservative’s did so well, did they fail to win a majority? There are a number of factors, but they basically boil down to the three main points. First, the way in which the Conservative vote is distributed geographically, secondly the bias of the electoral boundaries and thirdly the rise of parties who are not Labour or the Conservative Party.

When it comes to winning seats, the way in which the Conservative Party’s vote is distributed is just unlucky. The Party’s votes tend to accumulate in places aren’t needed, letting a good number of Conservative MPs rack up massive majorities, whilst a comparatively larger number of Labour MPs cling on to their seats with many fewer votes and smaller majorities. Turnout also tends to be higher in Conservative seats, with some Labour MPs winning seats with a number of votes which wouldn’t even earn them second place in Conservative seats with much higher turnout. Not much can be done about this.

Secondly, the boundaries. I’m sure most Conservatives will already be aware of this one, which is why the loss of the boundary reform is so damaging, but it is the case that the current boundaries give Labour a 20-30 seats advantage.

Finally then, the rise of third parties. Funnily enough, despite losing 5 seats at the 2010 General Election, the Liberal Democrats actually gained votes, winning 6.84 million of them, up on their 5.99 million in 2005. Furthermore, the 2010 General Election saw the election of the first Green MP, the SNP taking seats off of Labour in Scotland and UKIP winning just under a million votes. The electoral picture is now much more complex than just ‘Conservatives or Labour’ and consequently it will be increasingly difficult for either of the two main parties to win an outright majority at future elections.

Dr Lilico may not be interested in my electoral advice, but he can at least start by acknowledging all of this. We can all argue about what the Party could have done to win more votes, but it’s important to note that under our current electoral system this might very well not matter. What matters is changing the minds of a very specific group of roughly one or two hundred thousand people in marginal seats in the midlands and the north. Extra votes accumulated elsewhere are useless and if the Conservative party wants to win it should relentlessly focus on these people. Regardless of the next election, in comparison to the Labour Party’s performance at recent General Elections in which they have won large majorities, the Conservative Party did well at the last General Election.


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