8 June, 2015Issue 28.4Politics & SocietySocial Science

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If you can meet with triumph and disaster… Part 2

Edward Hicks

7 May 2015


The second of a two-part reflection on the results of the 2015 General Election

In the last edition, I surveyed the electoral fortunes of Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives. In this edition, I concentrate on the other side of the election—the rise yet failure of UKIP and the Greens, and the staggering triumph of the SNP—before seeking to explain why this most unexpected of election results occurred.

UKIP arguably had reason to be disappointed with this election. They only held onto one seat (Clacton). Given that Parliamentary seats are the Alpha and Omega of UK general elections, this represented failure. Yet they achieved 12.6% of the UK vote share and 3,881.099 votes. So why did they not convert this into seats? UKIP’s performance was fairly even across the United Kingdom with the exception of London and Scotland, where they failed to attract one-in-ten voters (In Scotland they won only 1.6% of the vote). This in itself was unfortunate as their vote was thinly spread. However, a similar argument could be seen to apply to the Liberal Democrats. So why did UKIP manage one seat to the Liberal Democrats eight? The answer, I think, lies in the share of the vote achieved in specific constituencies. UKIP achieved a vote share of over 25% in sixteen seats, scattered across both Labour seats (e.g. Rotherham and Hartlepool) and Conservative seats (Boston & Skegness, Castle Point, etc.). But crucially only in Clacton and Boston & Skegness did UKIP win over a third of voters. As a rough rule, parties tend to need to win around a third of the vote at least to stand any chance of winning a constituency. Thus the UKIP surge in those sixteen seats tended to fall short of the critical yardstick.

The same yardstick—of requiring at least a third of voters in a constituency to have a practical chance of victory in most places—explains the failure of the Greens. The hype of their rise had been less vocal than that of UKIP and their eventual performance—one seat and 3.8% of the vote—reflected that. More significantly, apart from Caroline Lucas’s victory in Brighton Pavilion, the Greens did not gain anywhere near thirty per cent of the vote in any constituency, and only one other seat (Bristol West) saw them obtain more than one-fifth of the vote share. Although they achieved second place in Labour strongholds such as Sheffield Central and Liverpool Riverside they failed to make any major breakthroughs—most of their support was concentrated in the south of England. Their highest regional vote share was 5.9% in south west England, suggesting many Green voters were former Liberal Democrat supporters. The only bright point may be that their successes in Brighton, Bristol, and Sheffield was probably due to the high student population in those parts. Whilst a party which mainly appeals to students has limited appeal amongst their elders, if such loyalty can be retained it may bode well for their long-term prospects.

Let us turn to Scotland now. Nowhere else were the results as dramatic; nowhere else was the majoritarian tendency of first-past-the-post more aptly demonstrated. From being, in 2010, a land where not a single seat changed hands, in 2015 fifty seats changed hands—all going to the SNP. They won 56 of the 59 seats, and 50.0% of the vote. Additionally the scale of the SNP majorities, especially over Labour, makes it difficult to see how they can be removed without a collapse as spectacular as recently befell the Quebec nationalists. Only six SNP seats had a majority fewer than 10%, and only in two of them (East Renfrewshire and Edinburgh North and Leith) were Labour in second place. Of the twenty-five most vulnerable SNP seats Labour came second in only twelve. The SNP benefited from three factors—the split between the Unionists parties which not only allowed them to win in areas that had voted “no” in the referendum, but also because their fire tended to be directed on one another (particularly in the UK-wide television debate); a new and effective leader in Nicola Sturgeon, less divisive than Alex Salmond, a competent and in any case largely un-critiqued record in Holyrood and the energetic identification of the SNP with “Scotland” and the better representation of Scotland which cemented the votes of separatists and unionists alike; and thirdly, the erroneous expectation that the SNP would be able to hold the balance of power at Westminster.

The failure of the last to materialise may dampen subsequent enthusiasm for the SNP. Clearly their optimistic outlook is for another referendum to be held and this time won by them. However until and unless this occurs they will need to maintain two balancing acts. One, of crediting themselves with all that goes well in Scotland whilst blaming Westminster (or the rest of the UK) for any difficulties so as to avoid the inevitable anti-government swing which eight years of administration in Holyrood is liable to incur. Two, between the left-wing, former Labour voters of the central belt, of Strathclyde, rural Ayrshire, and the ilk, and the diverse mixture of middle class and rural farmers of Berwickshire, Edinburgh, Perth, and Aberdeenshire who seem attracted by the effective combination of pragmatism and small-S Scottishness sold to them by the SNP. For the other three parties in Scotland there is a need to rebuild. The Scottish Conservatives must learn the lessons of their counterparts in Wales on how to arrest a decline into irrelevance, probably by concentrating on those parts of southern and north-eastern Scotland where they retain some strength and are the main SNP challengers. Labour must sweep away the mixture of bewilderment and complacency which have too long characterised their attitude to Scotland. The Liberal Democrats must examine whether they want to retrace their steps from the 1950s, when similar woe had befallen them, or radically reposition themselves. It may even before these brands are so irremediably tainted and too closely attached to London that a remodelling, on the model of the CDU-CSU in Germany-Bavaria, is in order. If they fail, the Union may fail with them.

This brings us to an important question—did Labour lose or did the Conservatives win? And, either way, why? There were various charges brought against Conservative voters by exasperated and disappointed Labour supporters. These ranged from lurid conspiracy theories of stolen postal votes to claims that it was once again “the Sun wot won it.” It is ironic that those who happily imbibe their opinions and news from the Guardian, the Independent, or the Daily Mirror—or, worse still, Facebook and Twitter—are so quick to condemn the supposed gullible partisanship of opposing voters, as if they have passed through life unaffected by the slant put upon their daily news. But a fairer response would be to note that most readers of newspapers do not blindly follow its proprietor. Rather the proprietor tends to follow what they perceive to be their readers’ views and buttress them so as to sell more copies. When proprietors have intervened—as with the Independent’s eleventh-hour endorsement of the Coalition, or Richard Desmond’s Daily Express championing Blair in 2001 and Farage in 2015—the impact (especially from the evidence of 2001) is negligible.

The next charge was that the Conservatives were successful because of “fear.” This is a loaded term. One might easily substitute “concerns”: concern about the leftward shift of a Labour government dependent on the SNP, concern about the Scottish separatists’ influence over a United Kingdom which they publicly desire to see terminated, concern about the apparent inadequacies of Ed Miliband, concerns about Labour’s record for economic competency. If the election in Scotland represented an endorsement for the SNP one might equally say the Conservative victory elsewhere in Great Britain represented a repudiation of them. This isn’t an anti-Scottish judgement per se—opinion polls at the time of the independence referendum showed overwhelming support in England and Wales for the preservation of the Union—but it is an anti-separatist judgement, and one it would be as undemocratic to ignore as to snub the Caledonian landslide. Paradoxically those contradictory results create a dilemma for Labour as to which way to go—left or right. Here the electoral arithmetic, if it is seen as a straightforward “recapture Scottish seats” versus “recapture Conservative seats” divide, would, as I outlined earlier, suggest the former is vastly harder in returns for minimal gains compared to the latter.

Another observation to make here is that the Conservatives were effective in three other ways. Their campaign effectively targeted voters with tailor-made messages. This was especially true with pensioners, the group most likely to vote. There was a swing (according to research by polling company Ipsos Mori) of 5.5% to the Conservatives among voters over 65, and this swing was greater among women of that age group than men. Furthermore wealthier women (social class AB equating to higher and intermediate level managers, administrators and professional workers) swung by a similar 5.5% margin to the Conservatives, whose vote rose by 10% among this group. This helped to equipoise a swing to Labour among manual workers, the unemployed and the young. Secondly, at both a local level through 2010 elected MPs building up their reputation and so personal vote, and at a national level where David Cameron bested Ed Miliband, the Conservatives were strengthened by their personnel and leaders. Lastly, despite the negative rhetoric about “austerity” and the Jeremiah-prognostications of Keynesian economists, the political reality is that voters were unconvinced by these arguments, and the Conservatives retain the mantle of economic competency they have held since 2007.

To draw the two strands of this article together, it is worth mentioning the question of electoral reform. Undoubtedly, the UK’s constituency-based, winner-takes-all, electoral system produces disproportional results when judged by shares of national vote. This is because the UK does not have an election, so much as 650 consecutive elections in each seat. However, I would make two brief points about the hue-and-cry being expressed by the Electoral Reform Society and others. Whatever the result, it is likely there would have been complaints about the disproportionality between the national vote share and national seat share. Furthermore, those complaints are probably louder precisely because the predictions that first-past-the-post was about to fail in its habit of producing majority governments were disproven, and thus an older cry (heard intermittently throughout the previous four decades) was regurgitated to critique the system. As to the future—evidently the Conservatives will not act on electoral reform—so the uncertain factor is whether Labour now endorse it.

There are various other interesting points about the election. Turnout increased, albeit by only one per cent, to 66.1%. The fervour of the Scottish referendum meant turnout rose there to 71.1%. There were more women elected (including a 20-year old who became the youngest MP since the Great Reform Act, though this may not be universally acclaimed as a success); more ethnic minority MPs, including the first MP of Chinese descent. Dartford in Kent continued its record as Britain’s bellwether constituency, following the national trend at every election since 1964, whilst North Shropshire returned a Conservative MP as it has done at every general election since 1835. The BNP won a miserable 1,667 votes, half the number achieved by the Monster Raving Looney Party. But as MPs reassemble in the neo-Gothic grandeur of Westminster, we ought to end on a broader point. The day after the election was the commemoration of VE day. During the Second World War British democracy, even existence, teetered on the brink of annihilation. We may therefore be grateful, to the living and the dead, that we have a democracy—and if we have not reached Churchill’s “broad, sunlit uplands” we are still, slowly but surely, hiking our ways towards them.

Edward Hicks is reading for a DPhil in History at St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.