On the immense popularity of Tony Blair


There’s a lot to criticise in Tony Blair’s defence of Blairism earlier this month. But let’s take just one claim: that, as Blair puts it,

“the essential position we occupied in British politics retained appeal which is why we not only won a third term in 2005, we were never in any real danger of not getting it.”

True? You can probably guess the answer: it’s completely untrue.

As pollster Ipsos MORI reveals, solid majorities felt “dissatisfied” with both Blair and his government when he went into the 2005 election, and solid majorities were dissatisfied when he came out of it. The height of his personal popularity that year came when people rallied round after the 7 July bombings – but even then, only 44% were satisfied, 47% dissatisfied. The height of the government’s popularity that year came just after the election, perhaps as people rationalised how they’d just voted. Yet even then, only 38% were satisfied, while 52% were dissatisfied.

A low point for the government that year came in September, when Blair’s government failed to please three out of every five people. But 2005 wasn’t even such a bad year for them. For much of 2003-4, they failed to please two thirds of the population. And for several months in 2006-7 (before Blair left), seven out of ten people were dissatisfied with them. This was a governing party facing a massive crisis of popular legitimacy, even before the financial crisis.

This was a governing party facing a massive crisis of popular legitimacy, even before the financial crisis.

Tory leader Michael Howard didn’t do much better, of course. He received net negative ratings from mid-2004 onwards, which continued until he stepped down. In fact, the only party leader to secure net positive ratings in 2005 – and throughout his entire term – was Charles Kennedy.

The British Election Survey found only 25% of people thought Labour was best qualified to tackle the issue they considered most important. Fully three out of every four people, in other words, didn’t have faith in New Labour on that score. And the party “received failing grades” on most issues the Survey asked about, including health, transport and pensions, along with “massively unfavourable” responses on Iraq.

What, then, explains the election result? As the British Election Survey authors put it, “a heavily biased electoral system came to the party’s rescue”. In fact, when you examine how much of the electorate voted for the governing party, 2005 was the least legitimate election result in the last seventy years.

UK votes and seats, 2005


Winning party's share of electorate, 1945-2015

Even then, things were a lot closer than we ever realised. As the British Election Survey authors point out, Labour clung on by the skin of its teeth:

It is not obvious from the electoral statistics how close Labour came to losing the general election, since a majority of 66 is more than adequate for sustaining the party in office. However, there is a good case for arguing that if the election had taken place on April 5th, the day that it was announced, instead of May 5th, Labour would have lost its overall majority. The evidence for this comes from a forecasting model, which is used to predict seat shares in a general election from vote shares in opinion polls [and] was very accurate in calling the result of the election.”

Blairism “retained its appeal”? Not exactly.


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