How a perfect storm of the SNP’s rise, the Lib Dem’s collapse and a weak response to its economic record produced a devastating loss for Labour – and a surprise win for an under-performing Conservative party.
No one saw it coming – least of all the Labour Party politicians and supporters who believed that with another hung parliament almost certain, there was a real chance that a Labour-led coalition could dethrone David Cameron in May 2015. Instead the Tories pulled off the unthinkable: A (narrow) majority win.
Throughout the Labour Party, many are now offering their perspectives as to what went wrong. Unsurprisingly, many are attributing Labour’s loss to a significant shift to the left. Their solution is to move back to the centre just as Tony Blair did with New Labour in the mid-90s.
But it wasn’t an embracing of left-wing politics that cost Labour this election, if anything this election sidelined manifestos, pledges and promises like never before. Instead, this election outcome came from a perfect storm of the SNP’s rise, the Lib Dem’s collapse and a weak response to Labour’s tarnished economic record – all played out against the backdrop of a growing dissatisfaction with the Westminster status quo of two-party politics.
The rise of the SNP in Scotland
Dissent amongst Scottish voters had been brewing for decades. Subsequent Tory and Labour governments had failed to address the high levels of poverty in Scotland and an increasingly anti-Westminster attitude had firmly taken hold by the turn of the 20th century.
The SNP were successfully able to position themselves as the protest party of Scotland (just as UKIP has for English voters) and tap into the anti-establishment / anti-Westminster mood throughout Scotland. Their narrow win in the 2007 Scottish Parliamentary general election paved the way for 2014’s independence referendum and though 44% in a referendum is a loss, in a first-past-the-post election it’s a landslide.
For Labour in Scotland, the loss of 39 seats was an unmitigated disaster – but it was never realistically within the power of the Miliband team to prevent it from happening under their 2010-2015 tenure. For the Scottish voters who handed the SNP 50 seats in the 2015 election, this was a clear two fingers up to the Westminster establishment – an establishment that had been letting them down for decades.
After the polls began to show the scale of the SNP’s potential gains in Scotland, it became clear that the chances of a UK Labour majority were virtually nil. The best team Miliband could hope for, was to win more seats than the Tories but accept that they’d still fall short of a majority. In that scenario, with a result in the region of 280 seats in England and Wales, Labour would need the support of a coalition partner (most likely the SNP) to take power.
There is a popular belief currently circulating amongst commentators, that English voters in marginal seats were particularly terrified of voting Labour if it meant the SNP would be their coalition partner. It was certainly an issue played up in both the Tory election campaign and the right-wing press. However, research carried out on the election data by the British Election Study shows no evidence that the possibility of a Labour/SNP coalition caused any shift in vote or allegiance in England or Wales.
There is a risk for Labour that this myth could well take hold in the same way the infamous Sheffield Rally did for Neil Kinnock in 1992.
It’s also worth noting that the same research shows that the biggest reason for former Labour voters to move to the SNP in Scotland was austerity – these were the people most concerned about cuts to public spending. This means that in Scotland, Labour’s voters (and former voters) were further to the left than their party. If Labour wants to stand a chance of winning back Scotland and holding the North of England it would do well to recognise this lesson.
The collapse of the Lib Dems
As with the SNP’s surge in Scotland, one other thing the pollsters did accurately predict was a wipeout for the Lib Dems, following their five years in coalition with the Tories.
Of those who formerly supported the Lib Dems in 2010, their 2015 vote roughly splits into equal thirds: a third moved to Labour, another third moved to other parties (primarily Tory, Green and SNP) and a third stayed with the Lib Dems.
Under a proportional representation system this would have been hugely beneficial to Labour. However, under First-past-the-post it benefited the Tories, who gained 27 former Lib Dem seats compared to Labour’s 12.
This happened because two thirds of former Lib Dem seats had the Tories in second place already, so former Lib Dem voters shifting their vote to a third place Labour candidate simply bumped the Tories up into first place (leaving Labour second or third).
Labour’s failure to defend its economic record
The third contributing factor to Labour’s defeat goes back to the global banking crisis of 2008. Following the 2010 election, the Tory press machine successfully re-wrote history by shifting the blame for the crisis away from the deregulated financial sector in the USA and the EU and instead blamed it on Labour’s public spending between 1997 and 2010 (spending that they had matched pound for pound up until 2008).
At some point after Ed Miliband’s leadership victory, his team clearly made the decision that instead of attacking this myth head-on, they would simply draw a line under it and move on. In politics, it’s often the case that being defensive is seen as an admission of guilt, which may explain Labour’s reluctance to engage on this topic. However, in hindsight it was a mistake – especially now that subsequent research has shown that that the economy was a number one issue for many voters.
There are other factors that determined the outcome of this election (potential UKIP voters floating back to the Tories, Ed Miliband’s perceived leadership qualities) but the above three issues are the major contributors to what, on paper, looks like a historically bad loss for Labour. Some are likening it to Neil Kinnock’s defeats in 87 and 92, or even to Michael Foot’s dramatic wipeout in 83.
But when looking at the numbers in isolation, it’s easy to see why even some in the Conservative party are treating this outcome with caution (and not as the kind of landslide victory that both Labour and the Tories used to enjoy throughout the 80s and 90s).
With Scotland being such a unique case, it’s perhaps more telling to look at the results for England in isolation – where the Tories only saw their share of the vote up by 1.4%, giving a net gain of 21 seats. Labour’s vote share in England went up by 3.6% but only gave them a net gain of 15 seats. It’s thanks to the eccentricities of the First-past-the-post system (mainly in former Lib-Dem seats) that Labour saw its vote share rise by almost three times that of the Tories – yet gain a little over half as many seats in England.
Without the 27 former Lib Dem seats, the Tories would have ended up with 304 seats – crucially short of the 326 majority needed for a majority in parliament and 2 seats less than they won in 2010. Likewise, with the addition of the 39 seats that Labour dramatically lost to the SNP, they’d have finished with 271 – 13 more seats than they won in 2010.
In many ways without the SNP surge and the Lib Dem collapse, we’d have seen a rerun of the 2010 general election with a tiny loss of seats for the Tories and a mildly significant but small gain for Labour.
Under those conditions, the shortfall between Labour and the Tories would have only been about 30-40 seats – precisely the marginal seats that Labour would have targeted and hoped to swing. However, without a strong economic message to counter the Tory narrative it’s doubtful whether that would have been achievable.
While it may be comforting to see that it wasn’t a surge in support for the Tories that won them the election, there was no surge in support for Labour either. In reality they’ve both remained fairly static since 2010.
There are two key factors preventing the Tories from increasing their share of the vote: 1) UK household living standards have not risen in line with the economic recovery. 2) They are still seen as the party of the rich and powerful. The real worry for Labour would be if the Tories manage to significantly address and improve these two issues in the next five years.
It’s also fair to say that this result in no way suggests we’re back to a two party system in UK politics. There are now 120 constituencies where UKIP are now 2nd, plus 60 seats where the Greens beat the Lib Dems (not to mention that SNP’s unprecedented 30% increase in vote share).
The final note of caution to Labour is around UKIP. This election showed that a large number of potential UKIP voters were happy to tactically vote Tory in seats where they could stop a Labour or Lib Dem gain or hold (mainly in the South). Research by the British Election Study has shown that for every 1 Tory vote lost to UKIP, the Tories gained 2 back from UKIP.
This wasn’t true for working class Northern UKIP supporters in Labour strongholds – as they had no incentive to vote tactically by switching away from UKIP.