`Kinnock Defeats Major' - Oops

THE results of last week's election in Britain confounded vir-tually the entire army of election prognosticators. The consensus held that the ruling Conservatives would lose their absolute majority in the House of Commons, and likely to come in second to Labour in a "hung Parliament" - where no one party had a majority.

In fact, the Conservative Party won decisively. It took 336 seats - down 32 from its previous total but still 65 seats ahead of Labour. The third place Social Democrats were again the principal victim of Britain's single-member-district, simple-majority-wins, electoral system. Their 17.9 percent of the vote got translated into only 20 seats.

The record of election polls has been dismal of late in many countries, the United States included, but their failure in Britain last week may be the most spectacular ever in a major democracy. It makes the polling failure in the 1948 US presidential election look rather modest.

Only one of the major national surveys taken just prior to last week's balloting showed the Tories besting Labour - and that by just half a point. The composite picture had Labour winning.

The Conservatives actually got, however, 41.9 percent to Labour's 34.2 percent, a margin of 7.7 percentage points - large by any standard and especially so given British electoral experience. The Tories' margin over their principal opposition this time was the fourth largest compiled by the winning party in the 14 British general elections since World War II. It was surpassed only in the Labour victory of 1945 and in the Thatcher landslides of 1983 and 1987.

Even the exit polls, of people leaving voting stations on election day, underestimated Conservative strength. They showed the party winning a plurality of seats, but only a few more than Labour.

The explanation of both these surprises - the Conservatives' winning a decisive victory, even though they had been in power 13 years and the economy was mired in recession; and the inability of poll findings, as interpreted, to capture what was going on in voters' minds - may well be one and the same.

The last 15 years or so have been a conservative era, and not just in the United Kingdom. All across Europe and North America, parties and intellectual movements which call for limiting government's role, curbing tax hikes, freeing markets from state regulation, and the like, have been ascendant.

This doesn't mean, of course, that conservatives have come to power everywhere. All sorts of local conditions influence election results. If a party of the right has been long in office and is blamed for some of the things which, inevitably, have gone wrong, it can hardly expect immunity from "time for a change" impulses.

Still, broad social forces have been shaping a conservative era. The extraordinary expansion of government's reach that took place between 1930 and 1970 has, over the last two decades, generated strong counter-movements. In both Britain and the US, there has been an enormous loss of popular confidence in the idea that more government is the answer to national problems, and in the political party that offers more government as its principal prescription.

Polls show that strong public reactions against government's growth - often focused on higher taxes - aren't abating on either side of the Atlantic.

Other things, of course, are going on as well. Analysts in Britain kept reporting throughout the campaign that voters were "angry," especially about the economy, and dissatisfied with the incumbent party's performance. Undoubtedly this was true, to a considerable extent.

But every country faces perplexing problems, and it's typical for many voters to be dissatisfied with aspects of their government's record. The bottom-line question is: Does the public think the out-of-power opposition is likely to do even as well, much less better?

In this conservative era, parties like Labour in Britain and the Democrats in the US enter elections facing the majority's assumption that the answer is no. This they may overcome but not easily. Republicans used to face much this same hurdle during the New Deal era.

In Britain polls picked up clues that Labour was not overcoming it this time. Its purported margin was falling as election day approached. All along, the public expressed more confidence in Tory leader John Major than in Labour's Neil Kinnock. And a large plurality said they expected they and their families would do better financially under a Conservative than under a Labour government.

The British electorate's intention, clearly confirmed by the final vote, was to chastise the ruling Tories but not change political direction.

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