25 May, 2015Issue 28.3Politics & SocietySocial Science

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If you can meet with triumph and disaster…

Edward Hicks

7 May 2015


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

It is 800 years since King John sealed Magna Carta in the meadow at Runneymede. It is 750 years since Simon de Montfort summoned the first Parliament to include Commons as well as Lords. To that Parliament came two representatives of the prominent cathedral city of Lincoln. In 2015 Lincoln again returned an MP, Conservative Karl McCartney, having done so at every Parliament from the reign of Henry III to Elizabeth II. Through the immense passage of time—through the Black Death, the Renaissance and the Reformation, the Civil War, the Glorious Revolution, the Acts of Union, the agricultural and industrial revolutions, the Reform Acts, the waxing and waning of the British Empire, the arrival of democracy and the two World Wars—this institution has endured. One might legitimately join with John Newton, and ask of the bastion of the civil establishment, as he asked of the spiritual, “on the rock of ages founded / what can shake thy sure repose?” Not, it transpired, the prognostication of a Hung Parliament, foretold by almost all opinion polls, prophesied with all the optimistic sprightliness of Dr Pangloss and saturnine gloom of Jeremiah by so-called experts and commentators. All calculations were swept away by the results. The exit poll, mocked for underestimating Labour and the Liberal Democrats, had overestimated them, along with the Greens, UKIP, Plaid Cymru, the SNP. In fact, it had overestimated everyone except the Conservatives. For the first time since John Major had taken to his soapbox amid the jostling crowds of Luton in 1992 to pull off a shock victory, the Conservative Party had a majority.

The results are the bread-and-butter of all elections, however unfashionable they appear to be. And they tell us much that is of interest. First, that the overlooked battle between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats was probably the decisive struggle of the contest. Second, the travails of the Labour Party are open to multiple readings. Third, that the capital city has diverted considerably from the trend of the rest of the nation. In the next edition I shall explain how the “minor parties” fared, and about arguably the most significant event, the landslide of the Scottish National Party.

The great narrative of the 2010-15 Parliament was the existence of the coalition administration. It was assumed the main losers from this would be the Liberal Democrats. This proved true. It was also assumed that the exodus of disgruntled supporters would reward Labour, allowing them to advance against both coalition partners. Conversely the benefit to the Conservatives facing the Liberal Democrats would be minimal. High-profile figure such as Vince Cable in Twickenham, or Norman Baker in Lewes, or David Laws in Yeovil would have no difficulties in holding on to their seats. Hence former leader Paddy Ashdown’s declaration that he would eat his hat if the exit poll (predicting a mere ten Liberal Democrat seats) proved correct.

But then the grim electoral reaper went to work, from Land’s End to John O’Groats. Ten of the eleven seats in Scotland, many long marked for loss, duly fell, the only redoubt the furthest islands in Britain, Orkney and Shetland. South of the border all but seven Liberal Democrats lost their seats. Neither longevity of party tenure nor political celebrity helped. Berwick-upon-Tweed, held since 1973, fell, as did Vince Cable in Twickenham of sporting fame; so did Norman Baker with his penchant for conspiracy theories, in quirky Lewes where the Pope is still burnt in effigy on the 5th November, and erstwhile Treasury minister David Laws in the former stronghold of Yeovil (held since 1983). The figures of the Liberal Democrat collapse are stark: they fell from fifty-seven seats to eight, from 23% of the vote to 7.9%, and in both these categories and in the number of votes cast (2,415,862) it was their worst set of election results since 1970 (and indeed equivalent to their performances in the dark days of 1945 and 1950). In terms of second place finishes they slumped from 243 in 2010 (more than any other party) to a mere 63. The seat of North East Cambridgeshire, where Clement Freud was the Liberal MP until 1987, saw the Liberal Democrats lose their deposit with only 4.4% of the vote. Most importantly the majority of the losses, twenty-seven in all, were to the Conservatives, the critical difference from 2010. Prior to polling day, the battle amid the rolling Somerset hills and small cathedral town of Wells, in the mountainous vastness of Brecon and Radnorshire, in the former spa towns of Bath and Cheltenham, in the prosperous suburbs of Manchester Hazel Grove and Cheadle, and amid the fishing villages and tourist hotspots soured with unnoticed decay of Cornwall and Devon, had been ignored. But it was here—away from the great cities and media spotlight—that the foundations for the Conservative majority were laid. Crucially the deserting torrent of Liberal Democrat support did not flow singly to Labour but diverted along many channels—including into that of their coalition partners.

Much of what has been said of the Liberal Democrat disintegration can apply, in England and Wales, to Labour’s failure. This failure was twofold. It was a case of addition and subtraction. The failure to add greatly to their seat tally from the Conservatives—limited solely to ten seats—represented a failure to undo the reversal of 2010. Worst still, there was actually a swing away from Labour in the most marginal seats held by the Conservatives. The subtraction—the loss of eight seats to the Conservatives—permitted the Tory majority. This included losses where Labour can least afford it: notably further decline in the south of England (losing Plymouth Moor View and Southampton Itchen outweighed the solitary gain of Hove); the ejection of Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Ed Balls from Morley and Outwood in West Yorkshire; and in Wales (where Labour’s two losses to the Conservatives included the coastal seat of Gower which the Tories have never held since its creation at the Third Reform Act).

A crucial consideration for whoever succeeds Ed Miliband is where these marginal seats are located. One interpretation of Labour’s defeat has been that it is not so terrible, given Labour’s retention of their strength in London and major urban centres such as Birmingham, Sheffield, Liverpool, Manchester, and Newcastle. But these great cities, forged in the heat of the industrial revolution, avail them nought in the modern electoral situation. Excepting London, modern general elections are decided rather in towns and cities less remembered, perhaps less frequented by journalists, but far, far more important for being the places where Labour’s urban heartlands intersect with Conservative rural dominance. Places such as England’s medieval glories of Chester and Lincoln; Carlisle and Gloucester; the northern towns of Bolton and Bury, or Halifax or Barrow-on-Furness; the new towns such as Telford; the bastions of commuters in Swindon, Reading, and Dartford; or the occasional swath of the bucolic, such as Gower or Pembrokeshire or North Warwickshire or Amber Valley in Derbyshire. It is here that elections are won and lost.

A bright spark for Labour amid the gloom of defeat was their success in London. This was arguably more relative than real. London accounted for seven Labour gains, including their greatest capture in Ilford South. But it failed to gain seats it needed to win a majority such as Croydon Central, Harrow East, Battersea, and Finchley and Golders Green. Nonetheless Labour won a majority of seats in London and topped the capital’s poll by 44% to the Conservatives’ 35%. This has stimulated the cheerful hope that longer-term trends among a younger, more ethnically diverse, better-educated population are favouring Labour. Given the preponderance of Labour supporters among ethnic minority voters, the theory is that greater ethnic diversity in the London suburbs and commuter towns will eventually turn them solidly red, as has already happened in Luton and Slough. This may well prove to be the case. However, there ought to be caution about such extrapolation. Future demographic trends and voting patterns are unpredictable and London politics is certainly no guide for the rest of the country. That Miliband’s message had greater resonance in London than elsewhere is telling of Labour’s shortcomings elsewhere, and fits into a perception of the modern Labour party as too middle class, too London-centric, too focused on metropolis predilections such as cosmopolitanism and “identity politics.” So, while London may be a portent of the future, it is unlikely to be a useful oracle for the next Labour leader.

Since the Second Reform Act, electoral politics in Britain has gone in cycles, with roughly every third or fourth election seeing a change from Liberals and later Labour to the Conservatives and back again. Despite the rise of the SNP, UKIP, and the Greens, which will be discussed in the next edition, there is no reason to think this cycle will be interrupted. The closest historical parallel with this election might be 1922, when the Conservatives trounced their Liberal coalition-partners and secured a majority. The next election brought to power the first Labour government. Yet this election might prove analogous to 1955—also following a period of austerity—and be followed by a Tory landslide to match that of “Supermac” Harold Macmillan in 1959. But either way, both Labour and the Conservatives would be advised to concentrate on those place which, whilst lacking the pretensions of the greatest cities, nevertheless determine general elections in the United Kingdom. The Conservative manifesto launch was in Swindon, the Labour launch was in Manchester. The Conservatives made the right choice. One hopes that in the future “experts,” commentators, pollsters, even idealistic students, might—to adapt an old maxim—”go to Swindon to see the future.”

Tune in next time for UKIP, the Greens, and Scotland. Also featuring: the final verdict—did Labour lose or did the Conservatives win?

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