Saturday, May 9, 2015

The 2015 General Election: what happened?

Politics is a brutal business, they say; but rarely has an election in modern times been so brutal. The Conservatives were the major beneficiaries to the dramatic collapse in the Lib Dems across the UK, and Labour's Scottish supporters switching en masse to the SNP.

While in the 2010 election, the Conservatives were ahead of Labour by fifty seats, now they are ahead of them by a hundred. However, this must still be put into context. Needing 323 seats for a working majority, David Cameron won 331. This is more than the bare majority that Wilson got in October 1974, but still less than what Major got in 1992 (336). And we know what happened to that "majority" over the course of five years.
In that sense, George Osborne's hope that 2015 would be like 1992 again, we was proved right, in that the Conservatives won a similar result in terms of seats (though around 4% less than 1992 in the popular vote).

However, there the comparisons end. For Labour, the number of seats won (232) was similar to what they won in 1987. But this was not because of collapse in the votes in England. Compared to 2010, they won nearly a million more votes this time around, in spite of the collapse of their support in Scotland. So something very strange - and perverse - must have happened. There were different factors (more on those in a moment) that resulted in Labour doing far worse than they were expecting in England.

Lastly, the poor Liberal Democrats - as many of their party members feared - reaped the whirlwind of working in government with the Tories. After losing nearly fifty seats, Tories seemingly voted tactically to save Nick Clegg's seat where so many other Lib Dems were ousted. This must have felt like a particularly cruel kind of mercy. No wonder that when Clegg gave his speech standing down as leader, he seemed like a broken man. Their cohort of MPs had been reduced to the kind of levels they had in the 1960s.

A perfect storm

For Labour, the election results were a stunning shock.

While the results in Scotland had been feared to an extent (if not quite believed), in reality they were caught in an unexpected "pincer" on both sides of the border.

They had been hoping that the losses they might have had to the SNP would have been offset by gains in English Tory/Labour marginals. Instead, in many marginals, Labour became victim to an unforeseen "UKIP Effect". In places like Bolton and Bury (close to this author's neck of the woods), the Tories unexpectedly won, sometimes by a margin of only hundreds of votes. This was repeated even in places like Wales, and across other towns and small cities in "Middle England". In these constituencies the common denominator was UKIP coming a strong third. What seems to have happened is that, rather than the Tories bleeding votes to UKIP and letting Labour through (as they had hoped might happen), the opposite was happening: Labour was bleeding "working class" votes by their thousands to UKIP.

This was one of the major factors that accounted for UKIP receiving nearly four million votes. And was - without doubt - the reason for Labour's biggest (and most unexpected) casualty of all - Ed Balls.
Of course, this does not explain all the results in the key Tory/Labour marginals, but it was certainly a key factor in a significant number of them. In many marginals, UKIP were the Tories "secret weapon".

The reasons why people chose to vote Conservative and not Labour in those key marginals will not be discussed here. Some of these factors have been discussed by the author before. It was also clear from anecdotal evidence that the SNP "fear factor" was playing on the minds of some key voters.

One more thing about UKIP. As UKIP themselves predicted, they came second in a number of "safe" Labour seats in the party's northern heartlands, and similarly, came second in a number of the Tories' heartland seats in the South-East. So Farage's claim as being the only "working class" party in England, was now beginning to look more and more credible, in spite of the reality.

A "lucky" Prime Minister?

As said at the start, the Conservatives won their seats due to the collapse of the Lib Dems, grabbing almost all the seats that were a toss between the Tories and the Lib Dems. Cameron claimed during the campaign that he only needed twenty more seats to govern, and he got them, from the Lib Dems. However, that presupposed that he didn't lose any seats to Labour, but as we have seen above - again - he was proved right, against all the odds. Thanks to the insurgent effect of UKIP on Labour's base, the "fear factor" of the SNP and worries over the economy on classic swing voters, the Tories emerged from the face-off in the Tory/Labour marginals relatively unscathed. Some seats were lost to Labour, but there were equally other (unexpected) gains from Labour. The losses and gains basically cancelled each other out. It was in these seats that the election was really won.

The switching of many Lib Dem seats to Tory, and the collapse of the Labour vote in Scotland meant that Labour had to rely on the English marginals mostly going their way in order to ensure that the Tories lost enough seats to bring Labour into contention as a serious alternative to form a government. In this way, Labour really were fighting against the tide. Due to the three factors mentioned - the Tories being the biggest recipient of the Lib Dem collapse, the surge of the SNP, and the UKIP "secret weapon" - the Tories really held the best set of cards to allow them to consolidate on their 2010 result.

In hindsight, these three factors should have been more obvious, in spite of all the predictions of a hung parliament and a messy politics to follow.

As things stand now, both Labour and (even more so) the Lib Dems have serious questions to ask themselves about what direction they should take their respective parties. While Labour's result in this election is comparable with 1987, this fails to take into account the loss of so many MPs in Scotland this time around. They cannot expect to gain them back any time soon. So the 1987 comparison is not truly accurate. Labour now are much more an "English" party than they were on Thursday morning.
But the political scene in Westminster is more fractured than ever before, in spjte of the gross injustices that FPTP has brought to UKIP and the Greens (while massively rewarding the SNP). In that sense, the political scene feels, if anything, like that in 1983: a divided opposition allowing the Conservatives to continue ruling from Downing Street.

David Cameron may well have felt he has dodged a bullet in this election, and been rewarded with a political bomb landing in the laps of his opponent, leaving a multitude of political carcasses.

Perhaps he's just "lucky".

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