Why do UK governments typically fall after 15 years?

By Hasan A

If we were to look at the periods of single-party dominance over the last 100 years, we would easily notice that not one government has survived for much more than 15 years. No party seems capable of retaining power for much longer – with even Thatcher and Major’s governments falling after 18 years of continuous dominance. So what is it that makes every government doomed to fail after this length of time?

One explanation could be down to how the electorate naturally tires of one party’s policy ideas and political direction after a certain period. Even if a government continuously puts forward new legislation, at some point the public are likely to want to see a fresh political impetus, by simple virtue of the fact that they want to feel as though something is changing for the better. Simply put, people get bored of hearing the same things year after year – and before long, they feel as though a new party needs to be in government, who will present new and inspiring reforms to re-invigorate the political discourse. Similarly, it can be difficult for a party to find ways to excite the electorate about the prospect of another term with the same party in power and finding new policies to replace the old ones becomes increasingly difficult – the policies become stale and ideas stagnant.

Also, when one party has been in power for an extended period, it increases the strength of the argument that the country is in a bad state because of that government’s actions. When a government is new, it can simply blame any mishaps on the failings of the previous government and how it inherited a poor legacy from them, just as when David Cameron blamed New Labour for the fiscal deficit that the new Coalition government took on. This argument can no longer be made when one party has been in power for more than two terms of office. Economic downturns also tend to come around about every decade or so, irrespective of how a government has performed – fitting the 15-year cycle well. Take the 2008 financial crisis and the current cost of living crisis for example: 14 years apart. The incumbent government is in the position to feel the brunt of the blame for any economic hardship which the public have to suffer, irrespective of whether it is actually at fault or not. However, while recessions are arguably inevitable in the long run, their depth and severity is down to how fit a state the country was in before heading into the crisis. As a government’s time in office lengthens, it begins to be blamed for every issue the country is facing, whether major or minor. Recessions always come around soon enough to provide sufficient ammunition for opposition parties to blame the government for its handling of the country’s finances. The older a government is, the more likely it is that it will become the scapegoat.

 As time passes, it also allows the Opposition to change tack, re-brand and give a new strength to their message. For example, John Smith – Tony Blair’s predecessor as Labour Party leader – was highly successful at rebranding the party for a new era of more centrist policy, ready for Tony Blair to take Labour into government in 1997.

It can also be said that after an extended time in office, any government tends to become complacent and overly confident. This complacency is often reflected by the scandals that frequently plague a government in its final years. The recent Partygate saga under Johnson and the Cash For Questions scandal that rocked John Major’s government are examples of this. It’s almost as if the party in power forgets what it’s like to be in opposition and begin to take being in government for granted. Struggling political parties also attract innovative, young and visionary leaders – as Blair and Brown were for New Labour – while long-term governments begin to struggle to find fresh talent to re-invigorate the front benches and win new support.

The Conservatives have been in power now for 12 years, in one form or another, and it’s becoming increasingly likely that they won’t make it to 15, with one YouGov voting-intention poll giving Labour a 33-point lead and a projected vote share of 54%. In this case, it seems as though their possible failure will be put down to complacency, and the electorate’s widespread ability to blame one party for the current situation the country faces.

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