There are two simple tests I have for books that recount events I was in some way involved in: do they accurately retell events that I have direct first-hand knowledge of and do they tell me something new about events I was one step removed from? If a book pasts both those tests, chances are the rest of the book is interesting and well-informed too – and The British General Election of 2010 by Dennis Kavanagh and Philip Cowley passes both tests with near flying colours (the description of Guildford as a “top” Liberal Democrat target betraying an over-attention to swings to win list over actual party priorities whilst the quote from Disraeli about coalitions is actually rather misleading).
In large part that is because their account is based on hundreds of off the record interviews carried out during the last Parliament and in the immediate aftermath of the general election. Because the interviews have been carried out across political parties (and across factions within them), the authors present a much more robust picture of events than is the fate of some journalists who source their off the record information much more narrowly.
The conduct of these interviews is nothing new for the Nuffield series, which has covered each general election since the Second World War, but this book makes much more extensive use of them than previous volumes. It stands in particular contrast to the 2005 volume, being much longer and more detailed.
Part of the audience for what has become the standard reference series on British elections are scholars decades in the future, for whom accurate summaries of what was publicly said at the time is useful. Thanks to the use of the interviews, however, this book retains an interest even for those who have widely consumed political news since 2005 – as with the example of the authors’ revelations of the role the Conservative Party played in media attacks on Nick Clegg.
The authors also reveal that the Labour Party somehow got advanced sight of the Tory billboard posters planned for January 2010 – a significant leak of sensitive campaign information – and present this delicious detail of Labour’s problems:
The [Labour election] war book listed so many negatives that when it came to analysis of the party’s strengths and weaknesses the authors had to use a smaller font size to detail the weaknesses.
Much more so than previous volumes, the authors show a willingness to draw pungent conclusions from their evidence, as when they conclude of Gordon Brown,
The impression gained was of a Richard Nixon-style leader, who kept unseemly company, and was willing to go to almost any lengths to stuff his political opponents. Gordon Brown’s Number 10 was made in the image of the Prime Minister: an indecisive, often chaotic, combination of erudition and aggression.
In addition to the detailed narrative of electoral politics for the election that never was in 2007 and then the actual election of 2010, the book brings in co-authors for chapters on how the broadcast media covered the election, the actions of the press and an analysis of candidates before presenting a meaty appendix analysing the election results using extensive statistics yet plain English explanations.
The book gives much greater attention to the detail of grassroots campaigning than many chroniclers of politics from Westminster do, reflecting the authors’ own belief in the importance of this side of politics, even if they also point out that, “not one of the seats visited by party leaders on the first day of the campaign went on to be won by their party”.
If you like this, you might also be interested in The British General Election of 2015.
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