The really exciting thing about next May’s general election is how unpredictable it is. But there is one thing you can be sure of: the outcome matters for construction

Nick Raynsford

We are now less than seven months away from the general election. And the outcome will be hugely important for the construction and housebuilding sector, as the surface level political consensus over the need for more housing and infrastructure is belied by a very different reality. Whereas Labour and the Liberal Democrats both promise high national housebuilding targets and a big boost to retrofit, the Conservatives’ cheap homes offer, and its backtracking on green policies, adds up really to more of what we have seen in this parliament.

Normally by this stage of the electoral cycle there is a reasonably clear pattern of support for the respective political parties. Indeed in many instances there is also a consensus among informed commentators about the likely outcome. Looking back over the post-war period, that was true of many elections. There was little doubt that the Conservatives would win in 1955 and 1959; that Labour would win in 1966, that Labour would lose in 1979, 1983 and 1987 and conversely the Conservatives would lose in 1997, 2001 and 2005. So the more interesting examples from which lessons can be learned are those elections where the outcome was far from sure, which is looking like the case today.

In 1945, for example, many commentators felt certain that in the aftermath of victory, Churchill would have no difficulty in prevailing when pitted against the less charismatic Attlee. How wrong they were! This should give pause for thought for those who argue that David Cameron will benefit from being seen as more prime ministerial than Ed Miliband.

In 1950 and 1951 both elections were truly “too close to call”, with Labour just keeping its head above water at the first call, but then losing the second despite polling more votes than the Conservatives. The lesson from this is clear. The distribution of respective party support and voting strength between constituencies can have apparently perverse consequences, giving one party a workable parliamentary majority without a comparable lead in the aggregate popular vote.

In 1970 Edward Heath upset most of the pollsters by winning a surprise majority, but then four years later snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by seeking a further mandate in 1974 in the midst of a period of austerity and bitter industrial conflict.

In 1992 John Major famously defied expectations by a combination of “soapbox” homilies and a ruthlessly effective media onslaught on Labour’s “tax bombshell”. This victory had two very significant long-term consequences. First, the Tory party, perhaps lured into complacency by a fourth consecutive election victory, forgot their traditional secret weapon of discipline and loyalty and launched into what has been a sustained and bitter 20-year-long period of ideological in-fighting, mainly, but not exclusively, over Europe. Cameron, trying to set a new course for his party in the run-up to the 2010 election, famously identified the problem of a party “obsessively banging on about Europe” when the electorate had other priorities. But he was only partially successful as the Conservatives failed to win sufficient middle ground support in 2010 to secure an outright majority. And since forming the coalition government he has been beset with challenges and rebellions in his own ranks over Europe.

In 2010, the Conservatives failed to make sufficient inroads in Scotland and the North to achieve a UK-wide majority.

The second significant consequence of Major’s 1992 victory was to prompt a thoroughgoing Labour review of all its policy plans to eliminate any unfunded spending commitments that could be exploited by opponents to imply further tax bombshells. Gordon Brown’s famous commitment to prudence effectively neutralised that potential Achilles’ heel until the global financial crisis blew away his government. But Ed Balls’ determined rejection of any loose spending pledges in the run-up to 2015 is a clear indication of how long-lasting that lesson from 1992 has been in Labour ranks.

Which takes us to the key questions about the 2010 election, when general expectations were that Labour would lose and David Cameron would secure an outright majority. The fact that this didn’t happen can be attributed to two main factors. First, Cameron’s modernising agenda went some way towards detoxifying the Tory brand, but was insufficient to dispel many of the electorate’s anxieties about what Theresa May had characterised as “the nasty party”. So although it won many seats in the south of England, the Conservatives failed to make sufficient inroads in Scotland and the North to achieve a UK-wide majority. That geographic bias is even more in evidence today.

Secondly, the impact of the smaller parties - and in 2010 particularly Nick Clegg’s success in the television debates - put a significant barrier in the way of either of the two large parties securing an overall majority. Since then the Liberal Democrat position has weakened, but other minority parties have stepped in to fill the role they used to occupy as the party of protest. And with UKIP winning Clacton and snapping at Conservative heels in many other constituencies as well as posing a serious challenge to Labour in Heywood and Middleton, it would be a rash commentator who confidently predicted that the difficulty of securing a single party majority, so evident in 2010, will prove a temporary and passing phenomenon.

What is absolutely clear is that the run-up to the 2015 election will be extremely lively and full of the unexpected. There is everything to play for, both for the construction industry, and the UK as a whole.

Nick Raynsford MP is honorary vice-chairman of the Construction Industry Council