A Tale of Two Elections
[probably not very coherent, I've been awake for 35 hours and this is scribbled down before going to sleep]
Something apparently inexplicable happened last night. Why did the Lib Dems win in Redcar, Burnley and Brent Central, but lose Oxford West and Abingdon, Chesterfield and Harrogate? Why did Labour hold Birmingham Edgbaston? Why were there swings to Labour against the national trend in Ealing North and Oxford East?
None of the complicated statistical models designed to predict the election explain any of this. The highly paid TV analysts were left scratching their heads. The Lib Dems lost seats despite the opinion polls and the hype about Nick Clegg. The huge financial advantage and mass media backing of the Tories failed to deliver them a majority. All of the analysis by the media about the importance of the media turned out to be worthless. The TV debates didn't make the difference that experts predicted.
The reason is that all these members of the political elite were looking in the wrong place. They assumed that the national campaigns would decide the results of the election - the "air war" and struggle for dominance on the TV and in the newspapers and even on the internet.
Meanwhile, the real story was happening at the grassroots and on the ground, in local constituencies where activists were going round knocking on doors, speaking to people directly, bypassing the media and deciding who won the election. The relative quality of each party's local campaign explains the results of each constituency far better than any statistical prediction or opinion poll.
Andrew Smith in Oxford East and Stephen Pound in Ealing North saw their support rise because people wanted to keep them as their MPs. Evan Harris lost because he had become complacent and didn't reply when his constituents wrote to him - despite his high media profile he was a poor quality local MP. Labour in Redcar took people for granted, and lost, while in Edgbaston they campaigned hard for every vote, and won.
The lesson of this election is that people were voting for a local representative, not just a party ticket. They were more, not less, likely to support an incumbent who worked hard and got things done. I lost count of the number of people who said of Andrew Smith, "he was there for me when I needed help, so I'll be there for him now he needs my help".
It is also worth looking closely at what the parties said in their local campaigns. In Oxford and in Islington, Labour took on the Liberal Democrats from the left - over savage cuts to public services, the living wage and the NHS - and beat them convincingly. Where Labour criticised the Lib Dems from the right, over immigration or votes for prisoners, they lost support to the Lib Dems.
And as for the idea of the natural progressive alliance between Labour and the Lib Dems, it is worth remembering all the local Lib Dem candidates across the country who put out leaflet after leaflet which begged for the support of Tory voters to vote tactically to beat Labour. The Lib Dems have a standard leaflet which they use across the country which is deliberately designed to look like it comes from the Conservative Party, appealing to right-wing voters to back the Lib Dems to beat Labour. There really shouldn't be any shock horror when Lib Dem MPs who spent the election campaign encouraging Tory voters to back them to beat Labour then decide that they will talk to the Tories first about doing a deal to run the country.
Labour's national campaign was terrible, but their investment in getting their activists to talk directly to people paid off massively. Where we worked, we won, and the more people we talked to, the more likely we were to win. More on this another time soon.
Lastly, many of the people who missed the importance of the local campaigns on the ground and who were obsessed by the media and the air war are now saying that this result shows the need to change the voting system. Any changes to the voting system should take heed of the clearly expressed will of the people, and should therefore enhance the link between MP and their constituents, and strengthen the importance of local activists talking and listening directly to people, rather than reducing the importance of grassroots campaigning and returning to the bad old days when what the media said and did was all that mattered.