What went wrong? A psychologist’s view

David Clark-Carter, Professor of Psychological Research Methods

Prof David Clark-Carter

What lessons can be learnt from the 2017 British general election?

The picture seemed obvious at the time the Prime Minister called the election:  the next election was due in three years’ time, which could be inconvenient when trying to deal with the aftermath of leaving the European Union (EU); Theresa May had become Prime Minister without being subject to an election; she had a small majority which meant she was dependent on the support of factions within and outside her party in order to get her proposals through Parliament, making her job harder; and the manifesto to which the Government was being held was throwing up some serious problems, such as not allowing them to raise National Insurance and so causing a U-turn after the budget.  The Conservatives were far ahead of Labour in the opinion polls and so an election would address each of these problems.

Now, instead of increasing her majority, she has no majority; so what went wrong?

Firstly, she had said publicly and repeatedly that she wasn’t going to hold an election, so her trustworthiness was already being questioned, which would mean that any appeal to the public just to trust her would be less successful.  Secondly, despite saying that leaving the EU was the main topic, it was hardly mentioned.  Instead the manifesto proposed a number of measures which proved unpopular, some of which forced rapid U-turns or demands for clarification which didn’t fully emerge.  Thirdly, she tried to stage manage her appearances during the campaign to such an extent that we were left with just the impression of parroted phrases such as ‘strong and stable’ and ‘coalition of chaos’, which, like ‘Brexit means Brexit’, started to seem meaningless.

As part of that management she refused to take part in any debates with her opposing parties.  A fourth issue is that her opponents generally performed better than she did and than predicted, despite notable exceptions such Diane Abbott’s appearance on LBC and Jeremy Corbyn’s on BBC Woman’s Hour, both of which involved failure to remember costs of policies.  Her opponents appealed to an electorate which was tired of the consensus that we should continue to have more austerity measures for a further five years or longer, so taking the agenda away from the one she said she wanted.  Finally, the atrocities in Manchester and London should have put her in a good light.  As the Prime Minister, she had a platform to demonstrate her gravitas and resolve.  She did that well. However, having been in the party which had been in power for seven years and having been the Home Secretary for most of those, the cuts in police numbers during that time became another issue.

When Gordon Brown was Prime Minister, he was in a similar position to Theresa May: he had not been elected and the polls showed that his party had a large lead over the Conservatives.  However, he didn’t hold an election until he needed to and he lost.  He has been blamed for that loss by not holding the election earlier before the financial crash was used to question his Government’s ability to handle the country’s finances.  Perhaps we should re-evaluate his decision, given what has happened in this election.

Opinion polls have been shown to be wrong a number of times recently and, even if they accurately show that one party has a large lead, during an election campaign it is possible to lose much of that lead through ill-thought out and poorly explained policies, failure to engage in debates and the occurrence of events which put the spot-light on previous policies.  You can’t do much about the last one, except try not to leave hostages to fortune, but the first two will need addressing if the same mistakes aren’t to be made again.  As people are already talking about another election being held soon, the mistakes made in this one will need to be analysed quickly.

A first step would be to look at the numerous examples in the past of policies being devised by a small group of like-minded people.  They are not discussed with a wider group or, if they are, criticisms are resented, seen as disloyalty and ignored.  When the policies are implemented they prove to be very unpopular; in fact, sometimes so unpopular that they can be the first step towards the leader being replaced. The Poll Tax, as it came to be called, was one of these.  Although trying out ideas on a wider group, and genuinely listening to reactions, doesn’t guarantee that they will find general approval and increases the danger that they will be leaked to the Press, it does reduce the danger of creating a budget or a manifesto which contains untested ideas which need to be withdrawn soon after they are made public.

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