“What stands out is Corbyn’s unpopularity” – Book review: 'The British General Election of 2019'
Gillingham Methodist Church in North Dorset being used as a polling station for the General Election, 12 December 2019 | Alamy
3 min read
The latest in the ‘bible’ series on general elections may have swollen to more than 600 pages, but Robert Ford, Tim Bale, Will Jennings and Paula Surridge’s doorstopper will satisfy the most demanding of psephological geeks
The first of the “British General Election” series – The British General Election of 1945 by RB McCallum and Alison Readman – ran to 271 pages. The great David Butler, then 21 now 97 years-old, contributed a couple of appendices before taking over in 1951 to produce a continent 248 pages. Now we have the new edition for 2019 with four named editors: Robert Ford, Tim Bale, Will Jennings and Paula Surridge. It has swollen to 659 pages including more than 100 pages of (fascinating) footnotes, a foreword, a preface, a list of endorsements and statistical appendices sufficient to satisfy the most demanding psephological geek.
Yet once it started, 2019 was a dull election. As a horse race it had only one runner, the Conservatives, out on their own with a double-digit poll lead from the beginning. There were few outstanding gaffes – certainly nothing to compare with Theresa May’s “dementia tax” of 2017 though you could argue that Jeremy Corbyn was a running gaffe from beginning to end. A majority of voters wanted one outcome and one outcome only: to “get Brexit done”. They got it. So is this doorstopper of a volume worth the bother?
It is. First it is a reminder of the far-from-dull political run-up to the election, with a paralysed Parliament unable to settle what to do about Brexit. The usual chapters on, for example, the media and the organisation of the campaigns are engaging. As one of Jim Callaghan’s team in the 1979 general election, I laughed out loud at the revelations of the divided Labour teams – one in party headquarters, one in the leader’s office – which made our effort by comparison seem a paragon of unity and purpose.
The less Corbyn was believed the more he promised; the more he promised the less he was believed
But above all there is the psephology. It requires concentration but it reaps rewards. Here for example is a titivating nugget. It is not true that Labour Leave supporters in “Red Wall” seats were more likely to defect from the party than Labour Leave supporters elsewhere. There were just more of them, so the effect was bigger. On electoral geography, the study shows that the Midlands was at least as bad an area for Labour as the northern Red Wall seats. On leaders it shows that, contrary to popular belief, Boris Johnson was not a popular figure – indeed, on some measures less popular than Theresa May, his hapless predecessor. May achieved a bigger increase in Tory vote share in 2017 than Johnson did in 2019.
What stands out is Corbyn’s unpopularity. By comparison with Corbyn, even Michael Foot in 1983 seems a paragon. The less Corbyn was believed the more he promised; the more he promised the less he was believed.
“Winning campaigns are thought wise while losing campaigns are dissected for blunders,” say the authors. Well you don’t need to do much dissection to conclude that Corbyn was one long blunder. Another Corbyn would be the end of the Labour Party. Some think Keir Starmer dull. After reading this volume, any loyal Labour supporter will think this is a fault on the right side.
Lord Lipsey is a Labour Peer
The British General Election of 2019
By Robert Ford, Tim Bale, Will Jennings & Paula Surridge
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
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