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The University of Southampton
Centre for English Identity and Politics

Paul Goodman

“English issues in the 2015 general election”

18 January 2016

University of Winchester

Paul Goodman, Editor, Conservative Home


This is an uncorrected transcript of talks given at the ‘English issues in the 2015 general election’ seminar held at the University of Winchester on 18 January 2016. Please do not quote without seeking permission from the speaker.

Well John thank you very much.  And John Harris’s film is called ‘Anywhere But Westminster’, if anyone had been filming me during the general election and put the film up it would be called Only in Westminster, because I spend the entire election at my desk covering the election from there.  So I’m going to reflect on my experience in that light.  I’m grateful to you for asking me because it gave me a chance to go back through this morning and look at some of the things I’d written and some of the things other people had written and look at where I was broadly right.  Which is by the end I thought the Tories would win more seats than Labour, where I was completely wrong, I thought it was impossible for David Cameron to get a majority, I was completely wrong about that.  And so where does Englishness come in from my experience of dealing with the Tories.  I’m just going to talk about the Conservatives, I’m not going to say anything about UKIP, that’s all been very well covered, and I’m going to do so in this way.  When I was back writing for the Daily Telegraph before being a Member of Parliament, we all used to wonder when the dog of English nationalism was going to bark, post-1997 you know.  There had been this imbalance if you like in the Constitution and what were the English going to do, and for years nothing seemed to be happening, the dog resolutely refused to you know bark or stir or wag its tail or move, and one might have thought it wasn’t there.  But there were signs before last January, the period I want to talk about, that something had been up for a long time.  One was the abstention rate, you know we’ve been talking a lot about UKIP but there  are people who don’t vote at all, another was UKIP, another very bad sign for Labour was the way in which even in the 05 election the Tories just about uphold it in the popular vote in England, that was a kind of bad slang for what was coming.  And I was surprised, it would have been about January of last year, about now, when a Tory strategist said to me ‘Well you know what we’re finding in our focus groups is a lot of people are expressing a lot of worries about a possible coalition between Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, between Labour and the SNP’.  And I really raised a sceptical eyebrow for two reasons, one I was sceptical about the idea that they’d raised this spontaneously, about someone putting it into their mind.  And second, I was sceptical about the idea of it actually having much of an effect come the election in May.  Roll forward to March, I went in the to see a senior minister who showed me with glee, I don’t know why ministers feel they have to talk to journalists about their political strategy, it doesn’t seem to be a kind of wise thing to do cos we nearly always go and write about it.  But he had a video on his phone from the New Zealand election and it showed on the one hand a kind of disorderly rabble of different political parties in a tub.  And you know they were the opposition Socialist Party in New Zealand and the Nationalist Party, all thrashing around and going nowhere, and then a sort of sleek craft powered by John Key and his team, and the kind of strapline was ‘competence or chaos’.  So they were already sort of picking up what they thought was going to worry in the air and in some places in England about weak government as those voters would see it, Miliband plus Sturgeon, competence via chaos.  Finally during the campaign itself I rang up a brighter minister and said to him, with all the infallibility of a political commentator, ‘Well Labour’s campaign seems to be going fine, they’re contacting a lot more voters than the Tories you know, this has been very widely noted’.  And the minister said, ‘Well I think it’s already been decided, nothing’s really going to make any difference’.  And we had this kind of Zen master conservation for ten minutes where he said nothing the campaigns were doing would make any difference on polling day about three weeks after.  Except he said one thing, ‘I am picking up a lot of worry on the doorstep about a Sturgeon/Miliband coalition’.  And when Andrew Jimson, my colleague who writes for Conservative Home, went up to Ed Balls’ old seat, Leeds, Morley and Outwood, he came back and said, ‘Well you know the Tories are very confident they can win it because the Scottish issue keeps coming up on the doorstop’.  And I said with the absolute authority of having been an MP for ten years, ‘Nonsense, all candidates always say they’re going to win, but they always say their canvass returns are a lot better than the polls’.  And of course you know the report from Morley and Outwood you know was more accurate than a lot of pollings were suggesting.  So at the end of all that what do you… is my best guess at what happened.  Well I was listening earlier to James Morris, is still James still here, is he here?  But I’m probably wrong but I thought I heard you say that even with the finest research voters don’t always accurately remember why they did what they did, which suggests that it may be impossible ever to know.  And there’s a lot of evidence around to that effect, I remember see the polling after 1997 that showed, I’m exaggerating slightly, but just about nearly everyone had voted Labour right.  But in fact you know we do know the Tories notched up at about 30% and that some people who voted Conservative must remember voting Labour because of course they must have done.  So how do you know what actually happened, well if you can’t you’re relying on your best sense and your gut instinct.  And I think gut instinct is there was a movement late, it was building on something that was there before, but I was quite struck by the slide somewhere that showed that it wasn’t Englishness as an abstract issue or immigration, which is always a double-edged sword in elections, it was kind of a worry about the economy, borrowing, debt, probably, almost certainly not as abstract but what it mighty mean to you as a voter.  An insofar as the kind of Englishness thing came in at the election I suspect, and I don’t really know, it was a kind of marriage if you like of these deep cultural factors that we’ve knocked around, and very concrete, individual, homely worries about the economy and the wallet and the purse.  And I’m going to stop there.  Thank you very much.







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