Monday, May 11, 2015

The 2015 General Election: the aftermath, and the implications for Labour and UK politics

The results of the general election were a shock, to Labour most of all. The Liberal Democrats suffered catastrophic losses, who - for their naive willingness to join in coalition with the Tories five years ago - may as well now be called the "Useful Idiots" of the last parliament. But this was not totally unexpected, given their low percentage of polling.

In spite of all the criticism of the pollsters getting the result so wrong, the reality was that they got most things more-or-less right - except for the polling for Labour and the Conservatives. All the other parties polled at roughly where they predicted. It was the "shy Tory" effect that the pollsters either completely missed or - just as likely - a collective "group think" that made polling companies discard "wrong" polling results that appeared to inflate the support for the Tories.

In this election, it was a "perfect storm" of factors that resulted in Labour overall losing twenty or so seats, leaving them a hundred behind the Conservatives in parliament. Several factors over the duration of the last parliament swung things - unexpectedly - for the Tories, leaving them with a surprise (albeit tiny) majority. The collapse of the Lib Dems left twenty-odd seats there for the taking for the Tories. The surge in UKIP over the last few years has seen a portion of the working class transfer their vote from Labour and into the purple, costing Labour precious votes in key Tory/ Labour marginals. And the surge of the SNP has effectively left the three main parties locked out of Scotland, which cost Labour forty-odd seats.

These three factors, coupled with the simple effectiveness of the Tory message (in spite of its negativity and bare deceitfulness), allowed the Tories to fend off any Labour advance in the key battlegrounds. The result was a net gain of twenty-odd seats.

The road to contrition

Labour now has some hard questions to ask itself about what strategy they can formulate to regain power. Where did it they go wrong? The Tories were allowed to dictate the "narrative" of the events of 2008 without a coherent alternative argument (namely, the truth!). Many will say that the Tories' message about Labour was based on a willful lie - which is basically true - but the fact that the Tories were able to so easily get away with it demonstrates the weakness of Labour's leadership and message.

Equally, many will - rightly - point to the loss of the key marginals (places that, under Blair, usually swung their way). Winning back the confidence of those voters is key to Labour being able to eat into the hundred-seat gap that separates them from the Tories. The battle over "Middle England" (i.e. the marginals) is the key to getting into government. Regardless of how popular a party is in Scotland or Wales, England will always be the only way a party can find its way into government. This may be not what some Labour people want to hear, but that is the reality.

And herein lies a problem - several, actually. First of all, there has to be a realisation that the next time there will be an election (presumably in 2020), many people will have forgotten why the financial crisis happened. If Labour were unable to convince people of the truth about what happened in 2008 this time around, five years from now it will be basically impossible. Think about it: any voter who will be, say twenty, come the next election, was only a child of eight when the financial crisis happened. Arguing over what happened in 2008 in a 2020 election will look parochial and backwards-looking in the extreme, regardless of the truth.

Labour may well have to swallow their pride and - to an extent, at least - accept the "lie" of the Tory narrative. It's already too late to change people's minds about what they think what happened. While Labour go on arguing about the facts, the Tories have their "narrative". The average person will believe almost any narrative if it is explained simply and repeated enough: this is the simple (if sad) truth. The extent to which Iain Duncan Smith can still convincingly talk about "welfare reform" is a case in point.

To get to that point in the party, however, will probably involve a prolonged "blood-letting" exercise within the party, like that which existed in 2005 after the Tories lost their third successive election. This is will painful for many after the bitterness of losing an election they thought they had a good chance of "winning" (after some negotiation). Those people will have to simply take in on the chin if the party is to move forward, or look at leaving the party altogether.

But that exercise in "contrition" is only half of the problem...

The "Party Of Britain" no more?

Blair's Britain was the high watermark for the Labour party: winning three successive elections, two of them successive landslides. Whereas the Conservative and Unionist Party at one time represented the nature of the United Kingdom, under Blair, Labour came to represent the modern-day "Party Of Britain", leading in all parts of Great Britain. The Conservatives were reduced (and still are) to being essentially an English party, looking parochial compared to Labour's embrace of the modern, diverse Britain of the 21st century.

Come 2015, and the the UK looks more divided than ever, between the nations and between different segments of society. While Labour still dominates in its Welsh heartlands, Scotland's politics has effectively detached itself from the rest of the country. Meanwhile, England looks politically very similar to what it did twenty or thirty years ago: with Labour dominating the North, the English cities and London, with the Tories having a sea of blue in everything between. England is segments and islands of red in a sea of blue. And under the surface, UKIP is the second party in many places up and down the coast of England.

This leaves Labour in a more difficult situation politically than in 1987, when they last won a similar number of seats in an election. While the Tories' majority is slender (even less than in 1992), Labour - due to the factors mentioned earlier - have their work cut out to claw back the lost ground.
Assuming that the party choose a "modernising figure" (i.e. "Blairite", for want of a better moniker), this will help them win back the Tory marginals.

If Labour is very smart, they will also exploit the (temporary?) collapse of the Lib Dems and try and muscle into contention in places like the South West, where traditionally Labour have struggled against a Tory/ Lib Dem two-horse race. However, even this may be a lost cause, given that the LibDems look keen to get a new leader in quickly. Tim Farron, chairman of the party and a leading left-wing figure, looks to be favourite. Indeed, the LibDems may already have the threat Labour poses on their mind more keenly than Labour does, given Labour's post-election introspection. The irony here is that while it was Labour's failure of introspection post-2010 that resulted in a lurch leftwards and Ed Miliband becoming leader, a surfeit of introspection post-2015 may lead to Labour missing out the opportunity to quickly fill the political space in the centre by the collapse in the LibDems.
Labour made the assumption back in 2010 that a collapse in LibDem support would leave a mass of support flocking to Labour. The 2015 election proved this to be a pipedream. While this effect won them maybe a dozen seats, the same effect won the Tories around double that. It is possible that the transfer of votes in Tory to LibDem is "soft", and therefore malleable to the right kind of Labour message; but it's tall order. The right kind of message from a LibDem leader would see them simply switch back to what they know.

Many Labour figures are talking about a ten-year plan, with no realistic hope of regaining the lost ground needed in time for the next election. Unlike in 1987, Labour's position is precarious because the diversification of the British political scene is mostly to the cost of Labour. If Labour, as necessary, move to the centre to reclaim the middle ground as Blair did, it leaves their left flank exposed. Under Ed Miliband, their positioning was deemed to far to the left to convince enough centrist voters to back them. If Labour move more to the centre as anticipated, it will be more difficult to dissuade the working class against switching to UKIP. As Labour move to the centre, more of their "core voters" will see them as increasingly out-of-touch compared to the straightforward message of UKIP. This may be a risk that Labour will have to take: will the votes they gain from undecided voters in marginals be more than those lost to UKIP?
Regarding the Greens, it is unclear if they had a decisive effect on the Labour vote or not. Apart from in a small number of constituencies, their numbers did not seem big enough to have a decisive effect either way, compared the striking performances of UKIP.

Lastly, of course, there is the SNP. Politically, Scotland is now separated from the rest of the UK, leaving Labour without one of its heartlands. The one-time "Party Of Britain" is now looking like a party without a country - in a sense, a "stateless" party. The Tories may have retreated into being "Little Englanders", but at least they have retained their coherence; the diversification of British politics has left the Labour party being ideologically and geographically pulled apart, with little unifying coherence remaining.

Ironically, while the Tories may be a party in hock with The City, Labour cemented its political dominance of London itself in the 2015 election. London remains the most "Blairite" part of the UK, and a Labour citadel. It is the miles of towns and countryside around the rest of England that are largely with the Tory camp. Meanwhile, the Labour supporters in the Welsh and Northern heartlands are politically closer to those supporting the SNP. Trying to keep these differing versions of "Labour" together is becoming a more difficult challenge given the changed landscape

The battle for the political soul of Britain is not over, but the forces that are pulling Britain's politics and identity apart are winning. And time is running out.

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