All the right votes in all the right places – how the Tory electoral strategy triumphed

The General Election of 2015 has been the worst for opinion pollsters since their calamitous evening in 1992. Whilst almost all pollsters and commentators had expected a hung parliament, with weeks of constitutional crisis, deadlock, and possible three party coalitions, in the event the Conservative Party won an absolute majority. As was widely predicted, Labour were all but wiped from the electoral map in Scotland. But this eventuality had already been baked in to the forecasts; the real shock was Labour’s performance in England and Wales. How did the Tories manage to pull off such an unexpected triumph in Britain?

Both Labour and the Conservatives increased their vote in England and Wales in 2015 compared to 2010. The Labour vote increased by 1.07m from 7.57m to 8.64m. The Conservative vote didn’t increase by as much, increasing by 566k from 10.29m to 10.86m, although they were obviously the clear leader in the popular vote.

However, both Labour and the Conservatives lost ground in a number of seats. Labour lost votes in 110 seats, and lost votes totalling 121,183 in these constituencies. They increased their vote in 462 seats, with their vote increasing by 1,190,373 in those areas. The Tories lost votes totalling 211,449 in 164 seats, and increased their vote by a total of 777,851 in 408 seats. The Green vote increased by 872,001, Ukip polled an extra 2.97m, and the Liberal Democrats lost over 4.42m votes, going from 6.84m votes to 2.42m.

Due to the wipeout in Scotland, Labour would probably have needed to win at least 30 seats in England and Wales that were actually won by the Tories. Despite the collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote across Britain, Labour only won an additional 14 seats in England and Wales, going from 217 to 231. The table below shows the movements from 2010 to 2015 for the 573 seats in Britain.

Britain Seat Moves

Absolutely crucial to the Conservatives’ win was the eight seats that they managed to pick up from Labour. All of these were shocks, most famously of all Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls losing his Morley and Outwood seat to the Conservatives (his odds of victory were 1/33 before the election). The movements from 2010 to 2015 in these eight seats looked like this:

Tory Gains from Lab

As in almost all seats in Britain, there were strong gains for Ukip and heavy losses for the Liberal Democrats. However, it would appear that in half of the eight seats picked up by the Conservatives from Labour, it could have Labour to Green switchers that tipped the seat to the Conservatives. The Tories picked up two seats in Wales; Gower, a seat that had previously been Labour for a century, and Vale of Clwyd. These were both seats that I had identified as potentially being at risk for Labour because of Labour to Ukip switchers. It is clear that in these seats both Ukip and the Greens played a key role in causing what had been considered safe Labour holds to fall to the Tories. Also, this was a very efficient in terms of seats per votes; the Conservatives only needed an extra 14,716 votes to pick up these eight seats.

Also key were the Tories holding seats that had been expected to fall to either Labour or Ukip. This table shows the increase or decrease in votes since 2010 for 16 seats, where either Labour, Ukip or both had a strong chance of taking the seat. All were successfully defended by the Conservatives.

Tory Defence

It is notable that in three way marginals, in Thurrock and in Thanet South, the Conservative vote held up much more strongly than the Labour vote. This possibly suggests ex-Tory Ukip supporters were more likely to vote Conservative than ex-Labour Ukip supporters were to vote Labour.

Had these seats either stayed Labour or fallen to Labour, as expected, then the Conservatives would have had 306 seats, which would have possibly given Labour a chance to put together a governing coalition with the support of the SNP, the SDLP, Plaid and the remaining Liberal Democrats. But what firmly won the election for the Conservatives was their almost complete defenestration of the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives took 27 seats from the Liberal Democrats in England and Wales, whilst Labour took only 12. There were seven constituencies where the combined increase in the vote of Labour and the Greens would have been enough to save the Liberal Democrat.

Lib Dem Falls

Of course, it is possible to over-analyse what was a fairly simple story; the Conservatives won in England and Wales, and won handsomely. However, had a small number of votes went differently in a few constituencies, then it would have been a lot more difficult for David Cameron to govern as Prime Minister. The polls, and all seat prediction models based on polls, were clearly very wrong. But the strategy of Lynton Crosby, the mastermind behind the Tory electoral strategy, was to ignore the polls and to work hard in the key marginals. It is now apparent how stunningly successful this strategy was. Those, including myself, who thought that Ukip would severely damage the Tories in a first-past-the-post election have been proved massively wrong.


  • Gerry Lynch

    Also of tremendous importance was the way the Tory vote came out, in at least the biggest numbers since 1992. A very similar election – a gorgeous spring day in most of the country, polls predicting a hung parliament, people pouring out to vote all day and then come 10 o’clock the sudden realisation that the Tories had a majority that no-one saw coming and the LibDems, in particular, had crashed and burned. But in 1992 everybody’s vote came out heavily; this year it was only the Tory voters who did (and, of course, the SNP in Scotland).

    The Tories were saying themselves in polling week that they had a realistic chance of an overall majority because they were going to take a lot of LibDem seats, and if you look at Cameron’s final travel schedules, they were particularly skewed that way. I never quite bought into it but pretty much as soon as I heard the exit poll, it made perfect sense.

    Interestingly, I called in with a church friend and experienced former LibDem local politician (now, like so many of them, politically homeless) who lives opposite a big and very socially mixed polling station on my way home from Evensong on Thursday. She was emphatic the Tories were going to win: “All I’ve seen all day is officers and their wives going in to vote with their kids in tow – and hardly any of the crusties have come out.” She was spot on.

    Interestingly, Labour’s constituency agents were saying from about a week before polling day that their canvass returns weren’t as good as the polls and in some cases were even going backwards from 2010. At the end of the day, you can’t beat good information from people who really know their patch; but you also need to know how to act on it. I’m not sure Labour had the answer to the Tory line on being in the SNP’s pocket, even had they known it was costing them the election; and the LibDems were just clueless, like a rabbit in the headlights.

  • Yeah, Gerry, it’s 1992 all over again…

    I wouldn’t put your hopes on a Labour recovery, and subsequent dominance, though…

    “and hardly any of the crusties have come out.”
    It’s all the [non-voting] crusties fault!
    You heard it here first.

  • Gerry Lynch

    Did I say anything about a Labour recovery and subsequent dominance?

  • No you didn’t ,Gerry.

    You just harkened back to that era…

    It’s all the [non-voting] crusties fault!

    You heard it here first.

  • mickfealty

    I’d suggest that poor political reporting on what the actual UKIP challenge was might be part of the reason the LibDems were caught by surprise.

    In other news, here’s a possible clue for how Labour might go forward:

  • Gerry Lynch

    “No, you didn’t, Gerry”. That’s right. You made some stuff up and put words in my mouth…

  • kensei

    I think there was maybe two approaches that Miliband might have had some luck with vis the SNP:

    1. Been explicit on calling their bluff over confidence and supply and as they’d committed to voting anti-Tory, dare them to do otherwise. Then admit that you’d talk to them vote by vote but stress that was more on modifying Bills on the table rather than trading policies. Stress that you’d also make deals with other parties. Some toughness mixed with truth might have sold.

    2. Point out that if the SNP won the predicted number of seats, there’d be a crisis of legitimacy and that the Tories would have a hard time ruling Scotland. He could have called Cameron out for risking the Union for party advantage – recall Ireland if you must. That would have at least moved the conversation on a bit and might have stuck the Tories on the backfoot.

    I was fairly shocked when Miliband seemed to completely rule out any deal during the last audience debate, but internal polling and focus groups must have been screaming it at them. The polls probably played a part though – a draw would have put Labour in a decent position, so they didn’t want to risk it.