The General Election of May 2010 produces one of the most expected and feared results, no overall majority. What leadership lessons can be drawn from the campaign and the outcome?
If you are interested in something like the General Election, it’s worth trying to figure out what might happen. The process gives you a chance to check your assumptions. Scientists talk about hypothesizing. That may be a bit grand, but the principle is of putting your ideas into a testable form.
Let’s start with the most unexpected episode of the campaign. For me it was the claimed shift in voting intentions produced by the very first televised leadership debate. Several zillion tons of volcanic ash prevented me watching the programme, although I’ve caught snatches of it since. The event appears to have triggered a substantial electoral shift towards the Liberal democrats through the performance of Nick Clegg. The Government seemed to be facing near wipe-out in the election.
Then, as election day approached, polls reported that up to 40% of those questioned reorted that although they intended to votethey were ‘uncertain’ which way. By then, support for Clegg’s party drifted out to a position that was still higher than expected at the start of the campaign. Labour was still in for one hell of a whacking. Part of me ‘bought’ the idea of nearly half the electorate turning up on polling day still unsure where to put their cross on the ballot paper. Another part of me wondered if the uncertainty was a weakening of confidence in previous tribal certainties. (Incidentally, the 40% figure must have been good news for party activists urging weary troops into one more battle).
What would happen?
Coffee-shop punditry persuaded me towards the view (not really a hypothesis) that the Clegg swing was swinging back a bit in the last week of polling. Conservatives and Cameron to take power by a smidgeon, or maybe there would be a hung parliament. Clegg to be a very powerful player. The electorate would not defy all previous behaviours at the polls. Lesson: you can get carried way with the most recent data and forget history may still offer useful notions of what might happen.
The day after the election
If there had been a Clegg swing, it had come and gone. The Lib Dems had even been marginal losers in seats at Westminster when Parliament reconvenes. Those inexorable laws of large numbers were still in place. They showed that the bizarre one-eyed campaigns of newspaper magnates had not succeeded in talking up Cameron or talking down Brown to any obvious extent. The rise of the right-wing parties did not take place, and even with disenchanted Labour and Conservative votes arguably did worse than the Green party, whose sparkling candidate and party leader, Caroline Lucas won at Brighton. There were regional and local hotspots. Scotland remained a near Tory-free zone. Wales began to feel that a vote for labour was not something inherited along with father’s Union card.
What happens next?
Time for a bit more (not-quite) hypothesising. A few days in which there are opportunities for leaders to make a difference. Although the overall votes for the Liberal Democrats were down, Nick Clegg and his team find themselves much in demand as coalition partners. If they say no to David, then Gordon has publically offered them something that would keep the Government in power.
Clegg has to decide what might be worked out with the Conservatives, to balance off a still-twitchy electorate without missing a change for advancing a cherished cause such as electoral reform. Plaid Cymru had a less-nuanced idea and quickly offered support to the Conservatives for an additional chunk of financial support coming the Wales. David Cameron has to find an arrangement which the king-making Liberal democrats will at least go along with temporarily. My chess-playing instincts suggest this is a time to play some waiting moves, holding the position, and not pushing too hard. That’s one of the skills which become honed in the heat of battle. Less experienced players over-commit. But that’s what I would suggest as a good strategy. What will happen next? All three parties are presenting their most responsible, non-partisan side in their public utterances. The next actions will be wrapped up as being all in the national interest and will produce a new administration which has to confront economic realities with highly unpopular actions.