Skip to main content

Democracy in the UK #6: Picking up the pieces

Well, nobody expected that. The final projections are still in my spreadsheet, here, and now look like a snapshot of a strange collective delusion. Even the numbers that looked most positive for the Tories underestimated their eventual tally of seats by 35; everybody had Labour and the Lib Dems well above where they eventually ended up. Pollsters - not to mention Labour Party members - are thoroughly shell-shocked. It's a result so surprising, in several different ways, that it can't be boiled down to one key point; but here are a few things to think about.

1. How did this happen? The main story is just that Labour didn't pick up anywhere near as many votes as it had to, or as it was expected to. They went from 29% at the last election to 30.4% this week, rather than the 33-35% most people were expecting. That would have produced a modest increase in Labour seats, made up of gains from the Tories and Lib Dems in England and Wales almost cancelled out by losses to the SNP in Scotland. As it turned out, the gains in England/Wales were much smaller than expected - though they did happen, from both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats - and losses in Scotland bigger, so they actually more than erased the wins further south.

Meanwhile, the Tories won a lot more seats from the Lib Dems than was expected, which is where the entire increase in Conservative seats has come from. This presentation might obscure more than it reveals, but you can look at the results this way: the government bloc (Con + LD) shrank, but consolidated under the Tories, while the opposition bloc (Labour + SNP are the consequential players) grew (though not as much as predicted), but splintered away from the Labour Party.

2. What's going on in Scotland? Not that long ago, the SNP suffered a pretty serious setback: independence was rejected by a 10% margin and almost every council ward voted against it. Now it's swept Scotland and reduced Labour and the Lib Dems to one seat each - equal with the Conservatives, who haven't been competitive in Scotland for decades. How did this happen?

Part of the answer is first-past-the-post: the SNP's vote was not hugely more than the 45% who voted Yes in the independence referendum, but it was plenty to give it a plurality in almost every Scottish constituency. But the more interesting answer is that votes in the referendum were not reliably linked to support for the SNP. I watched the referendum last year with a guide that used SNP support as a predictor of support for independence. It turned out to be totally useless: areas that have long been strong bases of SNP support voted overwhelmingly No, and areas where Labour had always dominated the SNP - like Glasgow - voted strongly Yes.

The reason is that a lot of the SNP's base consists essentially of rural, conservative ex-Tory voters who switched allegiances as the Scottish Conservative party collapsed. They had never been real separatists and they voted against independence. But the urban, working-class communities that had been the core of Labour support in Scotland became convinced in the course of the referendum campaign that independence would help address their problems, so despite being Labour voters, they voted Yes.

Once you're convinced that UK-wide, Westminster-based politics is a main cause of your poverty and deprivation, though, it's not much of a leap to abandon the UK-wide Westminster parliamentary party you'd always supported in favour of the party that convinced you in the referendum campaign and wants to be rid of that harmful influence. The leap was made even easier by a number of things: seeing Labour figures campaigning with Tories in the No campaign made it all the more plausible that all the Westminster parties are the same; seeing devolution promises rapidly walked back from after the referendum made it seem the UK Parliament could never deliver; seeing the negativity and disdain the Labour Party poured on the Yes campaign naturally alienated Yes voters. So in the aftermath of last year's vote, a lot of people who had always voted Labour flocked to the SNP because they'd been convinced that Westminster is rotten and independence is the answer, and the ex-Tory base was still strong for the SNP so long as the question wasn't essentially about independence. Hence the near-tripling of the SNP vote. This is obviously an unmitigated disaster for Scottish Labour, more on which below.

3. Were the Tories ready for this? I don't have a huge amount to say about this, but there is an idea doing the rounds that the Conservative manifesto, along with some ideas they were really committed to like a referendum on EU membership, contained quite a few ambit claims to be abandoned in the course of coalition negotiations. Particularly in focus is the scale and scope of welfare cuts and deficit reduction, which the Liberal Democrats would certainly have demanded be reduced as part of any coalition agreement.

I am sceptical. This is a party that really is committed to serious reduction in the size of the state and the extent of welfare provision. That's already been seen from the macroeconomic austerity and the introduction of things like benefit caps in the last Parliament. They also want to abolish the Human Rights Act and potentially withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights altogether. The Conservatives evidently have quite radical views on what the state ought to be doing. They might have been willing to barter some of this away, but in my view it goes too far to suggest they don't really want it at all.

4. What does Labour do now? The moves so far have been very predictable. A series of senior figures from the Blair years, and eventually Tony Blair himself, have emerged to declare that this election failure was caused by Ed Miliband's shift to the left. This was obviously always going to happen, and is a bit depressing. But at first glance it's hard to resist. Miliband's entire leadership was premised on abandoning Blairite New Labour and moving to a more left-wing, less reflexively pro-market stance. The result was Labour's worst performance since 1987, before the shift towards New Labour began. Pro-working class, redistributive messages without a strong emphasis on growth, the argument is now going, have just failed to attract aspirational and middle-class voters.

I expect that argument will win, after some internal argument, and Labour will return to Blair's centre over the course of the next few years. But I'm not convinced it's right. The real story has to be mainly about Scotland: restore the SNP runaways and Labour would have 272 seats and 33.4% of the vote. It's still a defeat, but it would have been a solid improvement on 2010; and part of the Conservative strength would have to be attributed to the presumably temporary collapse of the Lib Dems.

Stepping back from the sound and fury of the campaign that's just finished, it would actually be fairly remarkable if a Labour government was restored after a single term in opposition, after three terms of government. Incremental improvement, and a Conservative government buoyed by the aberration of the Lib Dem wipeout, would be a decent outcome. On those numbers Miliband would certainly still be leading the Labour Party today, and would have a reasonable chance at staying the course to the next election.

So my take is that Labour's basic problem is in Scotland. And Scottish Labour really does seem to be toxic. A key Labour message throughout this campaign, and particularly towards its tail-end, was that Miliband could become PM even if he didn't head the largest party. That message was constantly undercut by Jim Murphy, the Scottish Labour leader, hectoring and insisting that a vote for the SNP was effectively a vote for a Tory government, since Labour couldn't come to power if it wasn't the largest party. Miliband had to take increasingly severe positions on whether he would be willing to work with the SNP, eventually saying that he'd rather not be PM than make any sort of formal deal with them. These kinds of messages, attempting to demonise and delegitimise votes for the SNP, played straight into the nationalists' core, anti-Westminster appeal.

Why? Partly to stave off the Conservative campaign in England which claimed Labour would be held hostage by the SNP. The evidence suggests that didn't really work, and of course it was never really going to: the numbers were very clear that Labour wouldn't have a majority, and would be able to survive confidence votes and pass much of its programme only with the support of the SNP, so Miliband's claims were ultimately only about semantics. The bigger reason - especially for the tactics of Jim Murphy and other Labour MPs in Scotland - was pure self-interest on the part of the Scottish parliamentary contingent. They harped on in ways that were immediately detrimental to Labour in England, and ultimately in Scotland as well. They seemingly did their utmost to present as uninterested in engaging with, rather than caricaturing and demonising, the nationalists. That was exactly the charge leveled at them during the referendum campaign, in which they lost the support of key Labour supporters - and apparently they failed to see the warning signs.

Murphy has declined to resign as Labour leader in Scotland, despite having lost the seat he held by a 20-point margin in 2010. This is clearly dysfunction at an absurd level. But the candidates for the leadership are mostly not talking about: Chuka Umunna, for example, who's tipped as one of the main neo-Blairite candidates, says Scottish nationalism has "deep cultural roots", and then turns to arguing the real problem is in the move away from the centre. This is obviously very convenient for the Blairite argument. But I don't think it flies: deep cultural changes don't happen in nine months, and without the Scottish wipeout this result would look very different. If Labour doesn't address this essential problem then, aspirational voters or no, it will seriously struggle to restore itself to government.

I might be wrong about this, but, as a coda - it's all fascinating! Watching a political party argue about its identity and consider reinventing itself can't be done very often. I've never seen it before: the Liberal Party in Australia thought about it after 2007, but hadn't quite got there before Tony Abbott took charge, with a leadership built on the idea that sheer discipline and attack politics would be enough, a strategy he doubled down on after 2010. So, whatever happens, it'll be interesting.