A couple of people have asked me to share some thoughts on what happened in last night’s UK General Election.
As I see it there are three main issues to be addressed, and I’ll take each of them in turn before I talk a little about what I think this means for the future of the UK.
First, why did the Tories do so well? They are the first incumbent government in over a century to actually increase their seats in a second term (307-330). However, I think it’s worth noting (although no one is talking about this on the news) that the government from 2010-2015 was actually a Tory-Lib Dem coalition and the government has been returned with a reduced majority (364-338), but the because the configuration of the seats that make up the coalition has changed, the impact is to give the Tory part of the coalition more seats and an overall working (if very narrow) majority, so they’ve been able to ditch the 8 remaining Lib Dems.
So why has the Tory part of the coalition been strengthened and the Lib Dems annihilated? That’s a little more complicated. The traditional Lib Dem voter is a social democrat, strong on redistribution, electoral reform and inclusive policies – basically a Labour alternative for the middle-class in England who were a bit nervous about unions and didn’t necessarily want to align themselves with grubby-handed C-2s and Ds (in Scotland the dynamics are different and I’ll get to that later). In 2010, faced with a very unpopular Labour administration, the Lib Dems picked up a huge chunk of the disaffected Labour right wing, especially in the south of England, and parts of London, and that (almost) compensated for the more right wing Libs voting Tory in an effort to make sure that Labour didn’t win another five-years. So while the Lib Dems actually lost 5 seats in 2010, their remaining 57, combined with the Tories 306 was enough to form a government in the face of Labour’s 91-seat loss. When they formed the coalition with the Tories, the Lib Dems promised to extract all kinds of concessions in return for keeping the Tories in office, but they spectacularly failed to achieve any of them. University tuition fees remained in place (and actually went up); the NHS continued to be dismantled; they got their referendum on proportional representation, but the Tories designed both the particular form of PR on offer, and the referendum campaign and vote to ensure that it failed; they failed to mitigate the worst of the Tories’ austerity measures, particularly the hated bedroom tax. All they seemed to achieve was getting, and holding, seats in the cabinet and thereby keeping the Conservatives in power.
Last night they paid for that with a -15.2 swing and the loss of 49 seats. All of their transient support disappeared, either back to Labour or the Tories, and even much of their traditional base seems to have deserted them (there isn’t a single Lib Dem left in the Southwest of England, which has been their heartland for thirty years), in Scotland going to the SNP and in England either to Labour or the Greens. They have taken all of the blame for the hard choices that the coalition made, largely I suspect, because the people who voted Lib Dem in the past are more interested in social justice than Tories typically are and they don’t like what five years of austerity have done to the bottom 20% of society. In some places that just meant that the old status quo was resumed, if you look at London as an example the traditionally Tory suburban Lib Dem seats went back to the Tories and the traditionally Labour inner-city LD seats went back to Labour.
However, in Conservative seats, where Labour expected to do well, the collapsed Lib Dem vote not only made up for UKIP sucking up part of the Tory vote, but also allowed, in some places small Tory gains and increased margins. And even in some Labour marginals, the Lib Dem swing to Tory allowed them to take those seats. Interestingly, in an election where everyone is bemoaning how badly Labour failed, they actually had a larger positive swing nationwide than the Tories – +1.5% vs. +0.8% – but FTPT being what it is, that swing largely took place in either safe Labour or safe Tory seats with no effect on the final outcome. In the marginals the Tories did far better, and that’s one reason I think the polls were wrong (back to that later).
Second, why did Labour do so badly? There is an issue here, again, that no one seems to be talking about and it’s the impact of UKIP on the Labour vote. In safe Labour seats in places like the North East, the swings to UKIP (which in some cases shoved the Lib Dems into fifth place behind even the Greens) weren’t enough to make a difference to winning the seat and seemed to come largely at the expense of the collapsed Lib Dem vote. But in other seats, particularly in South Yorkshire and post-industrial Lancashire, as well as the Thames estuary, there seems to have been a direct shift of votes from Labour to UKIP. So while people tend to look at UKIP as far-right (which they are) and therefore poaching votes from the Tories (which they do) they are also very populist in the crassest possible fashion; xenophobic, homophobic, ableist, sexist and racist – which appeals to a cadre of disenfranchised, poorly educated, sometimes unemployed, white men. These are people who traditionally would have been in unions, and/or the sons of union industrial workers and would have been tied from birth to the Labour party. Those links are now gone and they’ve shifted their allegiance to the anti-Europe/anti-immigrant/people’s party that allows them to blame all their ills on people who aren’t like them. They are the Tea-Party without the evangelizing and the guns. Of course, it doesn’t help that eighteen years of New Labour, undermined the party’s credibility as a truly social democratic party, and Miliband, as hard as he tried, wasn’t able to mitigate that.
So in many constituencies Labour was losing ground to UKIP even as the Lib Dem voters were splitting between Labour and the Tories. If the loss to UKIP was large enough then that allowed the Tory candidate to sneak in under the wire. The return of disaffected Lib Dems explains the overall pro-Labour swing, with the regionally concentrated losses to UKIP (allowing Conservatives to take the seat) and the SNP accounting for the lost seats. It’s worth noting that the places in which UKIP did particularly well in the North are the old, overtly neo-nazi, BNP heartlands (places like Bradford and Barnsley) and that vote has almost entirely disappeared, presumably transferring to the not-quite-so-fascist UKIP.
However, Labour’s real disaster was in Scotland and that’s been coming for a while. The SNP has been making huge gains at the local level and in the Scottish Parliament in the last two election cycles. And one of Labour’s greatest mistakes was assuming that because Labour did fairly well in Scotland in the 2010 General Election (they actually saw a positive swing of +2.5% in Scotland against a national swing of -6.2% ) that the results at Holyrood had no bearing on Labour’s chances at Westminster. They continued to believe that even in the face of the overwhelming SNP win in the 2011 Holyrood elections and then engaged in a suicidal co-operation with the Conservatives in the “Better Together” campaign to kill the Yes vote in the independence referendum, creating a perception that they would rather work with the long hated Tories than risk Scotland “breaking up” the union. It didn’t help that the campaign was unremittingly negative and worked almost entirely off a script that painted Scotland as poor, incompetent and dependent on English largesse to keep the country afloat. Regardless of whether people believed the economic figures or not, being relentlessly tagged as destitute scroungers by the party that was supposed to be on the side of the people, did nothing for Labour’s popularity.
In addition, since the old guard of Scottish Labour — the solid middle class men and women who kept the party afloat in the 1980s (in the days of Militant Tendency and crazy English Trostkyite takeovers and Michael Foot with his ragged duffle coat and wild hair) and who came to power in 1997 — has now handed over the reins to the huge wave of English Labour MPs who came to power under Blair (while many of them were elected to marginal seats in 1997, the competent ones were then moved on to safer seats as they made their way up the ranks in the party) and there is a very real sense in Scotland that Labour in Westminster isn’t listening and, worse, that they are holding a very tight leash on Scottish Labour to prevent any deviation back to the left to appease the much more progressive Scottish voters. Essentially Labour has moved so far to the center that they are no longer a genuine progressive or even social democratic party and the SNP has moved in to fill the gap. The SNP has the added advantage of being directly accountable to the Scottish electorate. If Scotland is unhappy with Labour, it doesn’t really matter so long as they are fulfilling the mandate of the English voters. All of this played into persuading a lot of Labour voters to vote for the SNP in Scottish elections and then to vote Yes in the independence referendum. Given that there was some SNP voters (about 10%) who voted No in September, all the SNP had to do this time round was hang on to all the Yes voters and make sure their parliamentary voters came back to them — and mobilize the vote — all of which they seem to have accomplished. With the added bonus that the Lib Dem vote also collapsed in Scotland entirely to the benefit of the SNP. Lib Dems in Scotland are a slightly different demographic than in England, although Edinburgh’s Lib Dem tradition is very middle class. However, the strongholds in the Highlands and Borders are based on loyalty to the 19th century Liberal Party which opposed the Tory landowners and ensured the passage of critical legislation like the Crofting Act which protected land tenure for tenant farmers. The loyalty long outlasted the actual utility of voting Lib Dem and the final straw, again was their alliance with the Tories both in Westminster and in the Better Together campaign. When their vote collapsed in the 2011 Holyrood elections the SNP benefited, and last night the SNP benefited.
So why were the polls so wrong?
Shy Tories – this is always a phenomenon in British polling, tree’s always a 1-2% of the electorate that won’t admit they’re going to vote Tory; sophomore surge, a lot of the Labour targets were places that had gone Tory in the last election and they have young, enthusiastic, boots-on-the-ground MPs, in general they see a 2-4 point advantage over older more settled constituencies. And, last minute changes of heart, especially after a couple of weeks of press attention on the “horrors” of a Labour administration in thrall to the SNP, and probably a good slice of economic complacency. There is no doubt that the Tories have got the economy back on track, and if you’re not one of the people who has been forced into food banks or has suffered the direct consequences of the botched funding for the NHS, then that stability and apparent competence is probably attractive.
In addition, the English/Welsh part of the electorate was very complicated this year. Three (depending on how you count UKIP) or four major parties and at least one smaller one (the Greens) all with very different regional competencies. With polling n’s of 300-400 hundred it’s going to be really easy to miss
On the other hand, when they were able to focus on a region with clear cut party lines, they did very well and they were spot on in Scotland.
What does it all mean? I’ll get to that tomorrow…cheers
Here is a sample of the news coverage…