Sunday, April 10, 2005

What factors account for the Conservative’s electoral defeat in 2001?

As with many events and occurrences in British political history the Conservative’s electoral defeat of 2001 was dependant on many factors. These factors were economical, political and social. Some of them such as a split party were down to the Conservatives themselves, others were down to the leader William Hague while some where out of their control such as the electorate wanting to give Labour another chance and economic stability and the belief that the Labour Party would win any way.

At the 2001 General Election the Conservatives gained 31.7% of the vote an increase of 1% from the 1997 election. This gave them 166 (~25.2%) seats in the House Commons an increase of 1 seat from the previous Parliament.

At the 2001 General Election the Conservative party seem to be campaigning on a single issue “Save the Pound”. In UK it is believed that very few people if anybody actually votes for a party at a General Election on a single issue. This was a strategic mistake by the Conservative party. This problem was exacerbated by the fact the party was split on the issue of Europe. The Europhiles included big names such as Kenneth Clarke, David Curry, Quentin Davies, Lord Brittan, Chris Patten, Lord Howe, Ian Taylor were opposed to the Conservative Party’s position and wanted Britain to be more involved with Europe. This also created the impression that the Leader William Hague could not manage his own. This left many people wondering could a man who can not manage his party run the country. The “split over Europe” had also been a factor in the demise of Margaret Thatcher and the Major government. This again made people wonder could a party who cannot solve its own problems solve the countries problems. While the Labour Party may have been split over certain issues their divisions were not as open and bitter as those of the Conservative’s. this is not to say that the Conservatives had no other policies or manifesto commitments. While their scepticism of Europe and position on crime stuck a chord with certain sections of the electorate, the conservatives did not seem interested enough in what one may call the “bread and butter issues” such as health and education. There was a large section of the electorate who were disappointed with Labour’s record since 1997 but the they did not see an alternative from the Conservatives.

The Conservative party of 2001 had not lived down the association with “sleaze” that had influenced its performance at the 1997 General Election. While there may not have been many cases of “sleaze” since the 1997 election there was an association which is only being lived down now that the Labour party is embroiled in its own scandals. William Hague’s endorsement of Lord Archer as the candidate for the election of London Mayor in 2004 did not help when Lord Archer withdrew in a cloud of controversy.

Unfortunately for the conservatives their leader at the General Election William Hague was seen as a flip flopper a bit like Senator Kerry during the 2004 US Presidential Elections. Examples of William Hague’s flipflopping can be seen in his definition of what Conservativism was. At the 1997 Conservative Party conference made a speech which called for a more “pluralistic” and “inclusive” Conservativism that would “reach out” to society’s minorities. In the same speech Hague also said that the Conservatives should destroy forever the notion that Conservativism was “stuffy” or “intolerant”. However by June 2000 (12 months prior to the General Election) Hague said Conservativism was now about “traditional, common sense values, as opposed to the “trendy ideals of a liberal elite”. In 2000 Hague values included tightening abortion laws, clamping down on illegal immigrants, banning pro-homosexual literature in schools, restoring pro-family and pro-marriage tax system and the introduction of “sin bins” for disorderly schoolchildren.

To many commentators and members of the public the Labour Party had stolen the Conservative Party’s agenda and appeal under the name of “New Labour” adopting market economics, privatisation, property ownership and by using all the Conservative rhetoric in relation to Law and order. This played a part in the 1997 General Election when in some areas Labour came from third to beat the Tories. In the four years since the 1997 election the Labour government was seen to be fixed on an agenda while the Conservative party was trying to redefine itself and was split on some major issues such as Britain’s role in the European Union, the single currency, social reform, position on multiculturalism, homosexuality etc.

During the period of 1997 to 2001 opinion polls ratings were continuously disappointing for the Conservatives. At times they even suggested that the Conservatives were more unpopular in opposition then they had been in government. While opinion polls do not win elections or correctly reflect the opinions of the nation as a whole what they can do is create the impression that party is a winner or looser, so the continuously disappointing polls for the Conservatives meant that people did not believe they would win the election this could have led to swing voters switching their vote to an opposition or fringe party in order to “make their vote count”. This could also be blamed for the fall in the turnout from 71.5% in 1997 to 59.4%. the fall in the fall in the turnout could be a factor in the Conservative Party’s defeat because as polls had suggested for sometime that the Labour Party would win the election with a landslide Conservative Party voters felt that their would not make a difference and did not vote.

In UK there is the assumption that if the economy is doing well and the future looks bright people tend to vote for the party in power because they assume that their management of the economy will continue. The performance of the Labour government from 1997 to 2001 showed that the economy was in a safe pair of hands on inflation, jobs and interest rates. Labour overcame the electorate’s fears that they were economically incompetent.

Political opinions change over generations and parties respond to these. During the 1997 and 2001 general election it was believed that the Labour Party moved to capture the middle ground and became the party of middle England, the Liberal Democrats moved to the left and the Conservative Party moved to the far-right under Hague’s leadership when it was thought to have been in the centre during the Major years.

In conclusion I think that the General Elections campaign being dominated by a “fringe single issue” such as the Euro and not concentrating on the reform and deliverance of public services such as education and health was the main factor which accounted for the Conservative’s electoral defeat in 2001 however the weaknesses of William Hague as leader, the splits in the party over Europe and the popularity of the incumbent Labour government are also factors which can be used to explain the Conservative’s electoral defeat in 2001.

Reference List:

KEELY, R. (2004) ‘Tough times for the Tories’ Political Review, 13(3), pp. 2-5

NORRIS, P. (2001) ‘Apathetic Landslide: The 2001 British General Election’ Parliamentary Affairs, 54 (4), pp. 565-589

COLLINGS, D & SELDON, A (2001) ‘Conservatives in Opposition’ Parliamentary Affairs, 54 (4), pp. 624-637

CREWE, I (2001) ‘The Opinion Polls: Still Biased to Labour’ Parliamentary Affairs, 54 (4), pp. 650-665


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