The gap for the ‘instant narrative’ books about general elections such as Iain Watson’s Five Millions Conversations has got progressively squeezed over the years as the day-by-day coverage during elections includes increasingly lengthy and detailed analysis whilst the more analytical books pulling on research evidence (such as the still excellent Nuffield series) are coming out sooner after polling day too.
Yet despite this squeeze, Iain Watson shows there is still some life in the formula of a book written in the style of a daily campaign diary, thanks in particular to the sharp ways in which he depicts the frequent indecision behind the scenes in Labour over how to handle the SNP, what to say about immigration and the fallout from Ed Miliband’s reluctance to stick with any big theme for very long. Miliband almost always moved on to something new long before enough had been done to get the previous theme over to more than a small slice of the population.
Watson also uses his ringside seat during the election to depict well not only the realities of behind-the-scenes campaign management but also the huge contrast between Labour’s self-estimation of the quality and volume of its grassroots campaigning (the five million conversations of the title) and the results actually secured when the votes were counted.
Although Ed Miliband and others in Labour come out badly from the book, Watson is never gratuitously or unreasonably putting the boot in. Rather, he treats his subjects fairly. In Miliband’s case he even makes the sharp and fair point that the enthusiasm from members of the public to have selfies taken with Miliband made for an excusable backdrop against which the Labour leader could believe that he really was cutting through to voters.
The main downside of the book is that its close up day-by-day account of the election naturally exaggerates the importance of individual events, as if the election turned on what happened one day in Leeds (“it was the beginning of the end” the book quotes someone as saying). But in fact the election had long been determined by issues of leadership, trust and economics over previous years – a better perspective well painted in the more analytical and more academic books about the 2015 general election.
Watson is still an interesting read, but don’t read it on its own if you want an accurate picture of why the election was won and why it was lost.
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