Category Archives: General elections

Why governments lose: UK elections since 1922

By Stephen Fisher, 12th April 2023.

Governments in the UK tend to win elections, but lose if there is an economic crisis. That pattern explains the outcomes of 19 out of the 27 elections since 1922. A further three elections can be accounted for by governments averting electoral disaster by changing prime minister after a crisis. The combination of economic crises and political changes at the top can explain 22 of the 27 elections, including all the elections since 1987.

That is the main conclusion from my recent working paper. A simplified version of the key table from the paper is shown below. The first row shows that governments won 10 of the 13 elections that were not preceded by an economic crisis. Governments tend to win these elections because governments have a lot of power in Britain. The three elections that were lost without a crisis were all extraordinarily early elections that should not have happened. The 1923 and 1951 elections were gambles, needlessly called by a majority government. To make things worse, on both occasions the government was offering an unpalatable economic policy (tariffs and rationing respectively). The third, 1924, only happened because 1923 produced a seriously hung parliament. None of the three are serious challenges to the idea that governments ordinarily win elections.

 Post-Crisis Political Change of PMGovernment wonGovernment lostTotal
No economic crisisNo10 (1935, 1955, 1966, Oct 1974, 1987, 2001, 2005, 2015, 2017, 2019)3 (1923, 1924, 1951) 13
Economic crisis since the last electionNo2 (1950, 1983)9 (1929, 1931, 1945, 1964, 1970, Feb 1974, 1979, 1997, 2010)11
 Yes3 (1922, 1959, 1992)03
Total 151227 
Table: Economic crises, post-crisis political changes of PM and government electoral fortunes

The bottom two rows of the table show what happened after economic crises. For pragmatic reasons, economic crises are identified by recessions and devaluations from fixed exchange rate systems (such as Wilson’s 1967 devaluation and the 1992 ERM crisis). Unemployment, inflation, strikes and other economic problems still matter, but recessions and devaluations are used because they are indicative of broader crises. 

Out of the 14 post crisis elections, the government lost 9. Using polls, and by-elections before there were polls, the paper sets out how, in each of the 9 cases, the economic crisis contributed to the eventual electoral defeat of the government.   

Continue reading Why governments lose: UK elections since 1922

Leavers united could easily thwart divided Remainers

This is a longer and more detailed version of a post that was originally published by Prospect here on Friday. The opinion polls published over the weekend do not collectively show any substantial change from the figures in the table below.

By Stephen Fisher, 9th September 2019.

The government has lost its majority in parliament, so it is unlikely to be long before there is a general election. Already at the last election, the Conservatives attracted most Leave voters while Labour was most popular among Remain voters. So what has changed in the party preferences of Leave and Remain voters, and with what implications for the next election?

The Conservatives lost many of their Leave voters to the Brexit Party at the European elections earlier this year largely because of the government’s failure to deliver Brexit on schedule at the end of March. At the same time, frustrated with the complexity and ambiguity in Labour’s position on Brexit, many Labour Remain voters switched to the Liberal Democrats or Greens.

Since May (the month and the leader) the challenger parties have waned and the two main parties have recovered somewhat, but Westminster-vote intentions are still closer to the multi-party competition we saw in the Euro elections than they are to the two-party dominance of the 2017 election.

The table shows how Leave and Remain voters from 2016 voted in 2017, and how they intend to vote now. The changes show that the rise of the Liberal Democrats and Greens has been largely confined to Remain voters, while the Brexit Party has, unsurprisingly, only really attracted those who voted Leave in the referendum.

Table: 2017 vote and current vote intention, by 2016 vote

  2017 2019 Change
  Leave Remain Leave Remain Leave Remain
Con 63 25 52 16 -11 -9
Lab 25 53 12 37 -13 -16
LD 3 12 4 32 +1 +20
UKIP/Brexit 4 0 27 1 +23 +1
Green 2 3 1 7 -1 +4

Note: 2017 figures come from the British Election Study Internet panel. 2019 figures are the average of the most recent poll from each of Deltapoll, Opinium, Survation and YouGov taken between 21 August and 3 September 2019. The UKIP/Brexit row shows figures for UKIP from 2017 and the Brexit Party in 2019, and the change between the two. 

What is perhaps more surprising is just how both main parties have suffered setbacks among both Leave and Remain voters. Labour have fallen back almost as much among Leave voters as they have among Remain voters. While the largest outflow from Labour in absolute numbers is that among Remain, in relative terms, it is the other way round. Labour have lost just under a third of their 2017 Remain voters, but as much as half of their former Leave voters. As a result, Labour supporters are even more predominately on the Remain side than they were in 2017. Continue reading Leavers united could easily thwart divided Remainers

Seats projections from GB and Scottish polls combined

by Stephen Fisher.

We’ve had eight Britain wide opinion polls since the election was called. Roughly in order, with the most recent first (and with thanks to Anthony Wells at for the figures and changes since the previous poll) they are:

ICM/ITV, CON 48%(+2), LAB 26%(+1), LDEM 10%(-1), UKIP 8%(nc), GRN 3%(-1)

Norstat/S Express, CON 42%, LAB 26%, LDEM 10%, UKIP 8%, GRN 6% Continue reading Seats projections from GB and Scottish polls combined

Another Labour Meltdown?

By Stephen Fisher

The polls in Scotland just before the last election showed a 21-point lead for SNP over Labour. The SNP went on to take all but one of Labour’s 41 Scottish seats.

This week Theresa May called a general election in the wake of polls showing her Conservative party 21 points ahead of Labour. Could Labour now be headed for a Britain wide meltdown of the kind that they suffered in Scotland two years ago? Continue reading Another Labour Meltdown?

How did the Tories win a majority?

By Stephen Fisher

The election outcome was a shocking defeat for Labour and a remarkable victory for the Tories, both relative to expectations from the opinion polls and considering that you have to go back to Salisbury in 1900 to find an instance of a Prime Minister increasing their share of the vote after being in power for more than 18 months. Overall Labour will be just a point up on the abysmal 30% of the GB vote that Gordon Brown achieved in 2010. Moreover Labour are down from 258 seats to 232 (-26).

So how did why did Labour do so badly and how did the Tories manage to increase their vote share and seat tally after five years of cuts and practically zero growth in GNP per person, even if there has been debt stabilisation and some relative good headline growth and jobs figures over the last year? Continue reading How did the Tories win a majority?

Coalition-directed voting comes to Britain?

by Stephen Fisher

This a slightly longer and more detailed version of a post at

David Cameron has argued that a Labour government dependent on SNP support would mean “total chaos”. But the Conservatives are not clear about what they want the voters in Scotland to do about it, and they have failed to mention that coalition-directed voting in England and Wales might be more effective than voting Conservative or Labour. Continue reading Coalition-directed voting comes to Britain?

Links between economics and nationalism at this election

By Stephen Fisher

This is an edited version of a piece for The Cherwell.

As with any election, the one on May 7th is about lots of different issues and different things for different people. The factors that will affect the outcome are more numerous and varied still. Nonetheless many commentators are afflicted by a chronic temptation to try to define what particular elections are really all about.

Two main themes stand out this time: the economy and nationalism. The economic contest is between ideological positions on the size and role of the state as well as over competence in macro-economic management. For nationalism the relationships between Scotland and the UK and between the UK and EU are the main issues. Continue reading Links between economics and nationalism at this election

Liberal Democrats after the election: a left of centre party which should be able to work more easily with Labour than the Conservatives

by Stephen Fisher and Eilidh Macfarlane

At the 2010 election Liberal Democrat MPs, members and voters were all more social liberal than economic liberal (using both terms in their traditional British not American sense) i.e. left rather than right of centre. But their leaders, especially Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander and David Laws are further to the right than most of their party. In his book 5 Days in May, Andrew Adonis goes so far as to argue that the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition with the Conservatives rather than Labour not because of the parliamentary arithmetic was considerably better but instead because Nick Clegg and David Laws especially were ideologically closer and personally warmer to the Tories than to Labour. Continue reading Liberal Democrats after the election: a left of centre party which should be able to work more easily with Labour than the Conservatives

Salutary lessons from the Israeli election polls 2015

by Stephen Fisher

Publishing polls in the last five days before an election is illegal in Israel, so the final pre-election polls were published on 13th March. They suggested that Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud party would get around 22 seats to 25 for the Zionist Union (the alliance between Labor and Haunuah, led by Issac Herzog and Tzipi Livni).

The exit polls yesterday suggested 27 each.

The actual result was 30 for Likud and 24 for the Zionist Union. Continue reading Salutary lessons from the Israeli election polls 2015

The public-private electoral divide

by Stephen Fisher

Janan Ganesh in today’s FT is right to point to trends in public sector employment as an import factor in understanding the political future of Britain. He notes that, “The public sector headcount has fallen by about 1m since the last election to 5.4m, which is where it was before Labour’s expansion commenced in 2000. […] Meanwhile, private-sector employment has risen and the self-employed account for a record 15 per cent of the labour force. The confluence of fiscal policy and economic trends is creating a looser, more individualised economy. This does not guarantee that the electorate will become less receptive to collectivist ideas, but it requires no feat of imagination to see how it might.”

As well as the electorate as a whole becoming less collectivist with a smaller state there is also a more simple mechanism at play. For obvious reasons, private sector workers have long been more likely to vote Conservative and public sector workers more Labour. The more of the former and the fewer there are of the latter the easier it will be for the Tories to win elections. Continue reading The public-private electoral divide