Britain Decides: The UK General Election 2005 edited by Andrew Geddes and Jonathan Tonge

22 January 2008

I picked up this book from the sale table at The Strand bookshop in New York City a few weeks ago, gleefully carrying it off for nearly a quarter of its regular retail price. An excellent find, I must say.

Britain Decides: The UK General Election 2005 edited by Andrew Geddes and Jonathan Tonge

The UK General Election of May 2005 was, in the observant words of Labour MP Tony Wright (Cannock Chase), ‘the election that nobody really wanted to have — not the politicians, not the media, and certainly not the electorate’. People knew that it was coming, and for the most part there was sense of resignation at what the expected outcome would be. The Labour Party would get a sharp kick in the polls (so to speak), but not really enough to completely wipe out its majority. Some seats would change hands, some MPs (almost certainly including John Prescott) would say or do things that would come back to haunt them at some point down the line, one or two constituencies would have particularly nasty campaign battles that would dominate the national news for the better part of the run-up to the election itself. And though all of these things certainly did happen, the ‘expected events’ seemed to blur together — which meant that some of the more interesting (from a political historian’s perspective) aspects of the 2005 election often happened to be overlooked.

Election synopsis books are becoming increasingly popular in the publishing business; for the 2005 General Election, I can think of at least three books I might turn to for analysis of the parties, the polls, the campaigns, and the final results. Britain Decides: The UK General Election 2005 would probably not have been the first book I’d have thought of, but after reading it there’s no doubt that it is a worthy addition to include with longstanding publications such as Dennis Kavanagh and David Butler’s British General Election series. The contributing authors have provided a set of fine essays on what one might consider the usual topics — the Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democrat election campaigns; special points of interest regarding the election campaigns and outcomes in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland; and reports on the influence of the Internet and the mainstream media outlets during the campaign. The book also has a dozen tidy and well-laid-out single-page summaries of some of the more notable election results, such as George Galloway’s upset victory over sitting Labour MP Oona King in Bethnal Green and Bow, Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble losing his seat in Upper Bann, and the late Peter Law’s protest against Labour’s all-women shortlist in Blaenau Gwent. In addition to the usual facts and figures, the book contains a reflective essay by the abovementioned Labour MP Tony Wright, providing one sitting MP’s thoughts and feelings about what it was like to be on the ground during the campaign.

Having had a little bit of experience on the ground myself at the 2005 General Election (I spent Election Night at the BBC Studios in Shepherd’s Bush, watching the results come in until the wee hours of the morning), I found Geddes and Tonge’s book to be quite fascinating. I’m not really much of a psephologist — statistics aren’t my forte, even when it comes to statistical analysis of elections — but the book is written in such a way as to be accessible to an audience that is interested in elections at a bit of a distance, away from the immediacy of the media hype and the nonstop bickering of the candidates. Even if, as the book suggests, it didn’t entirely seem as if ‘Britain’ collectively decided much of anything in May 2005 (except perhaps that Tony Blair’s days in Downing Street were numbered), this retrospective looks at some of the decisions made during the election and draws some thoughtful conclusions about the state of British politics going into Labour’s historic third term.


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