Review of the year: Election 2005

A victory Labour couldn't savour

The general election of 05/05/05 was unusual in that it had no real winners. All three main parties emerged with a sense of disappointment from proceedings.

Labour's unprecedented third successive victory should have been a cause for a celebration. Historically, the party's overall majority of 66 was extremely healthy. But, after winning 160-plus majorities in 1997 and 2001, it didn't feel that way. Tony Blair had hoped for an 80-plus margin, which explained the rueful look on his face come election night.

After eight lean years, the Conservative Party finally made some progress under Michael Howard, gaining 33 seats. But not much. It increased its share of the vote by just 0.5 per cent to 32.4 per cent, ending up with only 198 MPs to Labour's 356.

Labour was lucky that the Liberal Democrats, not the Tories, were the main beneficiaries of the anti-Blair sentiment. The third party boosted its number of MPs from 52 to 62, the highest total since 1923. But, as the only major party to oppose an unpopular war in Iraq, it should have done better. Charles Kennedy hoped to win perhaps 80 seats; his party looked back on the 2005 election as a missed opportunity.

If there was a winner, it was Gordon Brown. The Prime Minister had tried to secure a third term without the Chancellor in his customary front-line role, calling in Alan Milburn to co-ordinate Labour's campaign. In the end, Blair's close advisers Alastair Campbell and Philip Gould advised him that he might lose without Brown by his side. So, after months of tension, the partnership was renewed for the campaign, and they maintained an impressive united front. In return for Brown's support, Blair guaranteed that he would remain at the Treasury in a third term. He also, in effect, had to anoint him as his successor. So the election marked the start of a perceptible shift in power from Blair to Brown.

Once the Chancellor was recalled, Labour's victory was never really in doubt. The real question was its majority, which shaped the campaign. The Tories denied adopting a "core vote" strategy in the hope of winning the following election. But it looked as though they were doing just that as they urged voters to "send a message" to Blair and "wipe the smile off his face."

Lynton Crosby, a campaign chief brought in from Australia by Mr Howard, imported so-called "dog whistle" tactics into mainstream British politics. Tory messages on asylum, immigration, crime and gypsy sites were designed to play on voters' fears. "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" Tory advertisements asked. The answer: only up to a point.

The problem was that the campaign reinforced the Tories' image as a "nasty party" that preached to the converted rather than reached out to floating voters. Howard did not mean to focus so heavily on immigration, arguing that the media made the issue run. But some Tories felt there were no more votes to be gained by banging on about immigration. Howard's protégé, David Cameron, the party's policy co-ordinator, warned that it was overshadowing other messages.

The Tories reaped no benefit from the controversy over Iraq, which Labour calculated "lost" it five campaigning days as details of the legal advice by the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith emerged. Although the issue highlighted the voters' lack of trust in Blair, the Tories were hamstrung by their support for the 2003 war. When they branded Blair a liar, it appeared to hurt them more than him.

Howard, who replaced the ousted Iain Duncan Smith just 18 months before the election, judged that it was too late to junk his policies. But the party's support for measures such as subsidising people who opt for private health treatment gave the impression that it stood for the few rather than the many.

Blair found himself on the defensive as never before. "Iraq and Blair" were inseparably linked in the public's mind, and Labour fretted about anti-war voters defecting to the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, Respect - or just staying at home. Labour pollsters calculated that the party lost between 2 and 3 per cent of its support in the last week, mainly to the Liberal Democrats, because of Iraq. But it could have been worse: for other voters, Iraq was not a defining issue. They may have been dissatisfied with the progress in improving public services and worried by Brown's stealth taxes. But they were not ready to put their trust in the Tories, preferring the devil they knew.

Iraq, opposition to university tuition fees and plans to help pensioners all helped the Liberal Democrats appeal to disaffected Labour supporters. But it repositioned the centre party to the left of New Labour, even though it potentially stood to gain more seats from the Conservatives. In the event, Mr Kennedy's party made a net loss of three seats to the Tories. It was no surprise that a post-election battle broke out over the party's leadership.

Labour's 35.2 per cent share of the vote was the lowest ever for a party winning an overall majority, only 0.2 per cent more than Neil Kinnock won in the party's 1992 defeat. As his pollster, Philip Gould, told Blair in a private memo: "They [voters] felt that the records of Labour and Blair did not warrant another landslide and that the Conservatives were not yet ready for Government." So, despite the quirks and constraints of the first-past-the-post system, they got the result they wanted.

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