Cast your mind back to the 1991 elections. Having trouble bringing them to mind? These were the local elections the year before John Major won his famous general election victory over Neil Kinnock's Labour Party. Admittedly, you do need to be a bit eccentric to remember them. I do. Peering at David Dimbleby on my old black & white television during the small hours, armed with mugs of Nescafe, was just one of the pleasures of being a student. And I specifically recall thinking that the Tories had done rather better in 1991 than expected. Good enough, I thought, to win the general election next year. I put some money on a Conservative victory in 1992 and won £70 or so. That was quite a bit for a student back in the early nineties (although not nearly enough to stretch to a colour TV).
And John Major didn't just win in 1992. The Conservatives garnered fourteen million votes, more than any other party in history, before or since. Even in 1997, Tony Blair fell short of that total by 500,000. Mrs Thatcher never exceeded it during her landslide victories of the 1980s. The reason that Major's majority was a measly 21 reflected tactical voting by the left and a very high turnout. In 1992, it was 78%. In 2001, it was under 60%. Even in 2010, it was only 65%. But this meant that the 10.5 million votes for David Cameron's Tories in 2010 failed to achieve a majority. Blair won only slightly more 2001 and achieved a landslide.
Turnout matters in elections, although you hear little about it. We think in terms of the percentages won by each party. But this percentage is the combination of two figures: the number of votes the party gets over the total number of votes. In opinion polls, both figures are subject to inaccuracies. That's why exit polls are usually more accurate: you don't have to factor in turnout because everyone you ask has, by definition, voted. Variations in turnout make elections even harder to call than you'd already expect.
Going back to 1992, the polls in advance of the general election predicted a Labour victory. Labour lost, I think, because many conservative-inclined habitual non-voters went to the polls specifically to keep Neil Kinnock out. John Major was the safe bet; Kinnock was scary. Voting by these non-voters increased turnout and pushed the Tory vote up to an all time high. Turnout also went up in the 2010 election as people rejected Gordon Brown. However, this time, Cleggmania meant that many anti-Brown votes went to the yellows rather than the blues. Coupled with election arithmetic that is biased against the Tories, this meant that Cameron fell short of victory.
All this political nerdishness matters, because it explains why the Tories will fail to win in 2015 if they swing to the right. The Alternative Queen's Speech by Peter Bone and the three other Tory irreconcilables is a suicide note addressed to the electorate, much like Michael Foot's notorious 1983 manifesto. John Major won more votes than Neil Kinnock because he was more moderate. He was clearly closer to the political centre than Labour. When Bone and Co rattle the cage, they make the Tories seem scary to middle-of-the-road voters. These are people who don't want to privatise The Archers or legalise sexual harassment. They want to feel safe in dangerous times.
David Cameron's job in 2015 is to repeat the same trick as John Major. He has to convince people to vote Conservative because the prospect of Ed Miliband becoming Prime Minister is just so ghastly. And Cameron has a great message: "we've all worked hard to sort out the mess Labour left behind. Don't let them back in to ruin it." The Tories need to prove that they are competent and safe; that Labour are a risk we can't afford to take. Peter Bone just needs to shut up.