Imagine a number of sports reporters turning up to a football match and discovering that one of the two teams has been hit by a flu bug and is unable to field more than three players. The game nonetheless goes ahead and unsurprisingly it finishes 45-0.
Such is the distorting effect of the imbalance between the two teams, you’d think the report would concentrate exclusively on the astonishing impact of the flu epidemic and that it would be utterly ridiculous to focus all the attention instead on the twenty-seven goals scored by the winning team’s star striker and the overall excellence of their attacking play.
But consider the nature of post-election analysis. At the election in May, the Conservatives won 36.9% of the votes cast. As the turnout was 66.1%, this represents 24.4% of the electorate… a paltry share of the vote which enabled the Tories to secure a majority in the House of Commons.
Now, if you follow politics closely then you probably know all that and you may even feel this distortion is acceptable because it delivers strong, decisive governments. I disagree with you but I accept that it’s a valid point of view.
But – against this background – it is plainly bonkers to conclude that the majority of the British people support a particular Tory policy.
When – as acting leader of the Labour party – Harriet Harman decided to order her MPs to abstain on the Welfare Bill she said it was because the party “needed to wake up and understand the reasons for its defeat, including public rejection of the party’s stance on the economy and welfare”.
It was an extraordinary act of self-immolation. It cannot even be said with confidence that all of the 23.9% of the electorate who voted Conservative hold that view so it was crazy and cowardly for Labour to wave the white flag on this issue. And Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall’s decision to toe the party line shredded their credibility in the ongoing leadership campaign.
In reality, the margins between success and failure at the election this year were vanishingly small.
At the 2015 election, a party required 326 seats for an overall majority… and the Conservatives won 330. That actually means – believe it or not – they would have failed to secure a majority if just 429 Conservative voters in five marginal constituencies had opted to put a cross against the name of the Tories’ main rival instead.
So next time you hear someone drawing confident conclusions about the political appetite of the British people on the back of the 2015 result, keep in mind that the whole outcome of the election could have been changed by considerably fewer people than attended the Vauxhall Conference clash between Bromley and Macclesfield last Saturday… where there were eleven men on each team and no one scored twenty-seven goals.
(This article was corrected after Twitter user @draggingmeunder pointed out that fewer seats needed to change hands than I originally thought.)