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.

A qualified accountant and data analyst, interested in politics, economics and data. Twitter: @peterdonaghy