With the huge volume of coverage of general elections now available online – including not only the brief and superficial but the long, the detailed and the statistical – the role for a book such as Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh’s The British General Election of 2015 is rather different from what it was when such books provided nearly the only in-depth explanation and analysis available to anyone who does not frequent academic journals.
As a result, although the book is packed fully of juicy details and acerbic footnotes, there is little in The British General Election of 2015 which is substantially new as the overall story has already been repeatedly told and analysed. Rather, the strength of the book comes in two forms.
First, for the long-run. It is an impressively comprehensive book which from a few years hence will provide an extremely good and convenient summary of what happened and why, outlasting the more ephemeral web sources whose links rot away as sites move, change and close.
But there’s also a reason for buying and reading the book now rather than bookmarking it for a second-hand purchase in a few years.
That is that the authors really understand what matters in election campaigns, such as how the campaign tactics which get the most media attention are usually not the campaign tactics which have the most impact, or how party spending restrictions in marginal seats really work (in short: they don’t any more, as I explained in a piece the book cites).
Based on this knowledge Cowley and Kavanagh conclude:
For all the praise which the Conservative ground team acquired, it is not obvious that they were doing very much differently from Labour … It is difficult to identify many structural differences between the Labour and Conservative ground operations. They all micro-targeted in a sophisticated way, combining polling data, canvass returns and commercially available data; they all used segmented direct mail and paid adverts on social media. The difference is that the Conservatives invested more resources into this than Labour were able to do, and for longer.
Moreover, buried in footnote 57 on page 430 is the important finding that the Tory result can be explained by a combination of uniform swing across England and Wales plus a first-timers incumbency bonus for Conservative MPs first elected in 2010. In other words, smart targeting of swing voters by the Tories worked, but only in the relatively modest sense of generating the sort of incumbency bonus for new MPs, which all parties have secured in the past, and in cancelling out the edge in marginal seats which Labour and the Lib Dems had secured in the past. What mattered much more when it came to who got to be Prime Minister was the national backdrop – and the big Tory leads on competency and leadership in the eyes of voters.
Add to all that the comprehensive statistical appendix and you have a must-read book.
If you like this, you might also be interested in Why the Tories won – the inside story of the 2015 election by Tim Ross, which – I should warn you – like the Cowley and Kavanagh book gives me the one mention.
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Note: a review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher.