What is the point of books about British general elections?

I’ve recently read two books about the 2017 general election, Britain Votes 2017 and None Past the Post. Not only is the title of the latter far better than any I’ve ever come up with, both contain chapters far better than any I’ve ever done. They’re not bad books. And yet… I’m not quite sure what I’ve really learnt from either.

Or rather, there are some good details, such as points about the performance of the SNP that have helped develop my own thoughts on Liberal Democrat strategy. But overall, the books already feel dated and also feel far too narrow in their scope.

The problem – and it’s a good problem – is the bountiful nature of up-to-the-moment academic analysis and polling data available online. What both books have to say about the possible surge in youth turnout in 2017 is already left dated by the additional work and data since. What both books have to say on many other issues is only a narrow slice of what a web search engine can quickly take you to.

The books were neither quick enough to come out to really capture the first sense of what had happened and why, nor slow enough to come out to be able to have the range and depth required to give longer-lasting insights.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that one of the most successful of the general election book series – the Nuffield series – has become increasingly content not to rush out. The slower publication and the longer word counts of the more recent Phil Cowley / Denis Kavanagh combinations for this series point to one solution – be slower, be bigger, be better.

It’s not the only solution – be faster, be smaller, be first is another – whilst there’s also a route surely for bringing in more diverse sources of expertise than the fairly standard a chapter on the winner, a chapter on the official opposition, a chapter on the media, a chapter on Scotland, a chapter on women… formula that is so widely and persistently followed. The individual chapters are still frequently great, but must the overall formula always look so similar?

I fear one or more of the other venerable election books series will eventually fall foul of simply continuing as is rather than going for this or a different solution.

But hey, if we’re really lucky, 2019 will give such series not one but two opportunities to get that right.


Note: the publisher of None Past The Post gave me a free pre-publication copy.

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