The Iron Laws of Politics explained by Vernon Bogdanor

The Iron Laws of Politics explained by Vernon Bogdanor

Now I began this lecture
with a confession, I end with a warning on the
limitations of the subject. Men and women have always
tried to achieve certainty about the future and they’ve
always been disappointed. The ancients consulted
the Oracles at Delphi. Later it was thought that
history might give the answers. The more we knew about the past the better we could
predict the future. But as the Oxford historian
AJP Taylor once said “We learn from history not
to make the old mistakes. And that leaves us free to
make new ones instead.” In our time it is the academic
students of politics, or as they call themselves
political scientists, who have taken over
the role once enjoyed by the oracles and then
by the historians. At any rate, political
scientists do not seem to have been much
more successful than the o racles or the
historians and certainly the political scientists
were amongst the losers of the election of
2017, which confirmed there are no iron laws of politics. Consider the supposed iron laws which have been shown to
be no longer iron laws. The first was the
apathy of the young who it was said were simply
not interested in politics. The second was the unimportance
of the electoral campaign. At the beginning of
the 2017 campaign, the Conservatives were 22
percent ahead in the polls. In the election they had a
lead of just two percent. Theresa May had no doubt
called the election after looking at
the opinion polls but they were of
just as little use as the Oracle at Delphi. Opinion polls give a
snapshot of the present, they cannot be used to
predict the future. The third iron law
was that elections are won on the centre
ground and that a Labour Party
firmly on the left could not make electoral gains. The fourth iron law was the party ahead in voter surveys
on the issues of economic competence
would win the election. The fifth law was that
the party whose leader is thought to be
the best candidate for Prime Minister would
win the election. The Conservatives were
ahead both on economic competence and on the
best Prime Minister, much good it did them. The sixth law in which
I was complicit was that Britain was
inevitably moving from a two-party system
to a multi-party system. In fact as we have
seen the 2017 election yielded the largest
two-party vote since 1970. The seventh iron law
was that social class is the most fundamental
determinant of voting behaviour and that politics
was based mainly on class. Instead Labour made
large gains in middle class areas and
university seats. While the Conservatives
did best in the manufacturing areas
of the East Midlands among the less privileged. There are no doubt other
supposed iron laws which I have not noticed. All these iron laws
predicted a massive Conservative victory
which I have to confess I believed myself would occur. A Conservative victory was,
as it were, overdetermined. But it did not happen. The truth is that
politics can never be a predictive science and
we all make ourselves foolish when we seek
to make predictions, and in addition despite
the very sophisticated work being done by
students of elections, I do not believe we can
ever have firm knowledge of why it is that people vote
in the way that they do. That perhaps is fortunate
for if we did know it would be open to ill
wishers to manipulate the way we vote by using that predictive knowledge
to our detriment. That is why I have tried
in these lectures to look at the development
of the British party system through
historical perspective and I have throughout try to
bear in mind the quip that the effect that the
trend is your friend until the end when it bends. So if asked what are
the electoral and political trends of the future or even what might happen
in the next election, I can only answer in
the words of the great jazz trumpeter the late
Humphrey Lyttleton who was once asked
“Where is modern jazz going?” He replied “If I knew that
I’d be there already.” I confess I find all
this very comforting. For it does show that
we do after all have free will and do not have
to do what political scientists and others
tell us we must do. I conclude by referring
to another election which caused a surprise,
that of June 1970, an election which the
Conservatives won even though a week before
the election the polls had put Labour 12 percent ahead. At the time the
philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote to an American correspondent “I am naturally cock-a-hoop about the refutation of the pollsters. Anything that upsets
careful predictions, the general assumption that
vast impersonal forces are guiding our
faltering footsteps in directions unknown to
us but known only to American scientists
please me immensely. There is no limit
in my pleasure in the unforeseen and fortuitous.” And in my view it is
an insight into the unforeseen and the
fortuitous that makes the study of Political
History so fascinating. Thank you for listening.


  1. aren't we happy to allow people the vagaries in their voting and or their everyday inclinations?
    i fear that predicting certainties will eventually allow whoever it be to render the voting system obsolete in all but simulation…

  2. Just seen this chap do a superb interview on Sunday morning UK TV. Straight-talking, explanatory, comprehensive, informative and informed, and most of all – not biased to any one political party! Top guy! Wish more were like him!

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