A mythology is being developed around the 2015 General Election. According to this mythology Labour lost the election because the electorate decisively rejected the move by the Labour Party away from Blair’s New Labour to left of centre Old Labour policies. The development of this mythology has some parallels with the mythology that was also carefully developed by the Tories and the Liberals around the Great Recession of 2008 to the effect that it was caused by economic mismanagement by the Labour Party rather that the failures of global financial institutions and Labour’s failure to regulate the banks before the failure of those institutions. Labour failed to confront that earlier mythology and so found themselves always in a defensive position in discussions on economics rather than leading an attack against the inadequacies of financial capitalism.
Labour should therefore aim to scotch this mythology around the 2015 general election quickly. Let us review some of the facts. The Conservatives had a net gain of 28 seats which gives them an overall majority in the house of 12 seats. On the surface it seems not unreasonable to conclude there was a definite move of the electorate to the Conservatives from Labour especially given that Labour had a net loss of 25 seats. However a closer analysis of these figures does not support this view.
First let us look at Scotland. Labour lost 39 seats to the SNP. This was clearly a swing away from Labour but it was a swing that took place because Labour was not seen to be sufficiently effective in opposing the Conservatives. It represents a deep rejection of the Conservative Party by voting out a Party that was not seen as sufficiently different to the Conservative Party. It is simply not possible to argue that Labour lost Scotland because it failed to stick to Blair’s policies. Rather it was the abandonment of social democracy by Labour in England which was the main factor in the collapse of Labour in Scotland.
What happened outside of Scotland? Labour gained 10 seats from the Conservatives while the Conservatives gained 10 seats from Labour. Again no massive swing against Labour to the Conservatives, although Labour failed to make the progress that they had hoped for.
The Conservative Party won 27 seats from their previous coalition partners the Liberal Democrats. One might initially be tempted to conclude that there was a massive swing from the Liberal Democrats to the Conservatives resulting in the gain of 27 seats. But the figures do not support this.
The Liberal Democrat vote dropped by over 230,000 in these 27 constituencies which are almost entirely based in the South West in Devon, Cornwall, and Somerset. The Conservative vote increased by 63,000 and the Labour vote by 42,000. Meanwhile in the same 27 constituencies the UKIP vote increased by 108,000 and the Green vote by 48,000. Hardly a ringing endorsement of Conservative policies.
But the really interesting question is why the Liberal Democrats abandoned their Party in such large numbers. Was it because they believed that their interests were best served by the Conservative Party? Definitely not. Liberal Democrat voters stopped voting for their Party because they rejected what their Party had done in the coalition years with the Conservative Party. It was a vote against the Conservative Party. Yet it resulted in a Conservative gain of 27 seats. How could this happen?
The First Past the Post electoral system produced this strange result. These 27 seats, mostly in the South West, were closely fought seats between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrat Party. In the 2010 election the total Conservative vote for these constituencies was some 530,500, the Liberal Democrat vote was 648,000 and Labour was only 104,000. There was never any possibility that Labour was going to win seats here. However by not voting for their Party in protest at its role in the coalition government the Liberal Democrat voters split the anti-Conservative vote thus allowing the Conservatives to win 27 seats. This is certainly not the result that the Liberal Democrat voters wanted but such is the nature of First Past the Post electoral systems. An essentially anti-Conservative vote led to gains of 27 seats for the Conservatives.
Party Performance in South West England.
|2010||2015||2015 Gain/Loss||% Change|
Looking at the total vote in 2015 confirms that support for the Conservative Party has changed little despite the gain in the number of seats.
The Conservative Party increased its percentage of seats in parliament by 7.8% yet only increased its vote by .8% (less than 1%).
The Labour Party’s percentage of seats in parliament dropped by 10% yet it increased its share of the vote by 1.5% – more than the Conservative Party and that despite the huge loss by Labour of all those anti-Conservative votes in Scotland to the SNP.
It is of course true that Labour failed to make the progress it had hoped for elsewhere in the country, particularly in the Midlands. There is good reason to believe that loss of votes to UKIP was a significant factor here. Since the time of Blair, Labour has neglected working class voters in the belief that they ‘have nowhere else to go’. Well, they have and a failure to attend to them was a large contributing factor to Labour’s failure to win a majority. Turning back to Blairism will certainly not address this problem.
In conclusion there is no reason to believe there was a massive rejection of left of centre politics by the electorate. The voting patterns are considerably more complex. Labour would do well to analyse them carefully rather than to rush back to the New Labour version of Conservatism. The journal has suggested for some time that an emphasis on the creation of good jobs and support for employers who give their workers a say and invest in high quality, well paid work is an approach that will attract voters from a range of different backgrounds. At the time of writing we cannot see any candidates for the Labour leadership who really understand this and want to do something about it.
For a detailed analysis of the Tory gains, see Key Constituencies in the South West: a voting analysis