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What if Gordon Brown had called an election in 2007?

By Philip Cowley.

It is now more than four years since Gordon Brown decided not to have an election in late-2007. No election in post-war history has come so close to being called, only then not to happen.  Having allowed speculation about a possible contest to get out of hand, Brown baulked at the final hurdle, once shown the results of Labour’s opinion polling in marginal constituencies.

All modern-day Prime Ministers face constant media speculation about the timing of a so-called ‘snap’ election. But Brown could have killed it off, or at least dampened it down at any time. Not doing so was deeply damaging, both to him and to his party.  Labour was never again able to sell him as a ‘father of the nation’ figure. Instead it faced growing accusations that he was a calculating yet indecisive politician. As one of Brown’s closest aides put it shortly afterwards: ‘We’ve handed strength and competence away. We’ve not just lost it, we’ve given it away’. Few politicians have trashed their own brand in such a comprehensive way. Asked why things had gone so wrong, one Brown aide later answered bluntly: ‘Irresponsibility, inexperience, over-exuberance, immaturity.’ He added: ‘Not every person who is responsible is guilty of all four.’

Brown was then forced also to publicly rule out 2008 as well. A Parliament he had planned would only last three years went on to run the full five. Labour would almost never again lead in an opinion poll, and things would never look as electorally promising for the party as they did in late-2007. Given what eventually happened at the 2010 election even the 20-seat majority predicted by Labour’s private opinion polling now looks like a wasted opportunity. A conventional wisdom has already grown up around the idea that not calling the election in 2007 was one of Gordon Brown’s biggest mistakes.

That, at least, is the scenario examined in a chapter I contributed to a recent volume of political hypotheticals, edited by Duncan Brack and Iain Dale.  My conclusion, though, is less certain than the conventional wisdom.  No Labour victory, even with a small majority, can be assumed in 2007. For one thing, while Labour’s own internal polling was pointing to a small majority, the Conservative private polling was pointing to a hung parliament. Indeed, one private Conservative poll of 120 target seats, distributed only to a very small group at the highest levels of the leadership just before the election was abandoned, predicted the Conservatives would gain almost 90 seats (around 70 from Labour, 20 from the Liberal Democrats). This was not sufficient for a Conservative victory but it would have made them the largest single party, and produced a result very similar to that which would eventually result in Labour losing office in 2010. If that poll was accurate, then Brown’s decision not to call the election may not be as misguided as many now suppose.

The only saving grace for Brown might have been that in any coalition negotiations he would have been dealing with his long-standing friend Ming Campbell who then led the Liberal Democrats, and would have been more amenable to any deal with Labour than Nick Clegg was to turn out to be in 2010; but it would still have been very difficult for a Prime Minister who had thrown away a majority of more than 60 on an entirely needless election to remain in power, whoever he was negotiating with.

Even if we assume that the Conservatives’ polling was wrong, and that Labour’s polls were the more accurate, given the volatility in the electorate, who knew what change a three-week campaign could produce? A YouGov poll, conducted on 5–6 October for The Sunday Times showed a Tory lead of 3 per cent; the same polling organisation had a week earlier revealed an 11 per cent lead at the end of the Labour conference. A swing of 7 per cent in a week suggested an extremely uncertain electorate, and one which could have swung any way in an election campaign. The campaign of 2007 would have been very different from that of 2010 – no TV debates, for one thing – but the Gordon Brown of 2010 was hardly an effective election campaigner; he would have been better in 2007, but may still have struggled. The truth is that no one knows what would have happened in an election that never took place.

A more interesting hypothetical is to ask what would have happened if Gordon Brown had stuck with his original plan for a poll in 2008.  As soon as stories about an early election began to circulate in the media, he could have realised the potential damage were they to get out of control, and put a stop to them; he would have needed to say nothing publicly, merely tell his advisers to let it be known that there would be no election in 2007. With none of the hype surrounding a forthcoming election, and behind in the polls, David Cameron may have had a difficult 2007 Conservative conference. Labour could then have used the planned combined Comprehensive Spending Review and Pre-Budget Report to build on their lead in the polls. Perhaps Brown’s poll lead would have remained high entering 2008, providing the launch pad for a Labour victory in early 2008. An election in an alternative 2008, in which Brown did not make such a hash of 2007, might well have proved better for the party than a rushed election in 2007.

Perhaps the key error, therefore, was not whether to have held the election or not, but to have allowed expectations to build up in such a way that not holding it was to prove so damaging.

Philip Cowley is a Professor of Parliamentary government at the University of Nottingham and is the co-editor of the book ‘Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box‘. 

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

Published inBritish PoliticsLabour

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