A conventional election strategy and a First-past-the-post voting system worked well for the Tories in 2015 and badly for Labour. To succeed in 2020, Labour must mount a new kind of campaign that speaks to those who want something different – not more of the same.
After Labour’s catastrophic defeat this year, the Conservatives continue to behave as if they won a landslide victory – rather than a slender majority of 12. And as Labour stumbles through a very public and increasingly embarrassing leadership contest, the Tories still act as if they are the benefactors of a modern day ‘divine right of kings’. Nothing encapsulated this better than Iain Duncan Smith’s fist-pumping glee during the announcement of a national ‘living wage’ at this year’s budget.
But far from a tale of overwhelming Conservative support, the real story of the 2015 General Election was the British public demonstrating that they were more willing than ever to vote for an alternative. The SNP, UKIP and The Greens took over 21% of the vote between them. In 2010, these smaller parties barely managed to get 5%.
And yet, the right-wing press has already constructed a self-gratifying narrative for the 2015 Election: That the Tories rode a wave of resurgent English Conservatism to a ‘landslide’ majority victory – and that the Labour Governments elected in 1945, 1964, 1974 and 1997 were merely blips in an otherwise unbroken run of Conservative rule. But this mis-reading of events could prove fatal for the Tories.
A genuine public shift towards the Tories in the UK would have meant a significant number of seats changing hands from Labour to the Tories in 2015 – and yet the Conservatives actually made a net loss of 2 seats to Labour.
Most of the Tories new seats in 2015 came from their old coalition partners the Lib Dems. But this had more do with the peculiarities of the First-past-the-post voting system than a shift to the Conservatives from former Lib Dem supporters.
Of those who voted Lib Dem in 2010, their 2015 vote roughly split 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 proportional representation this would have benefited Labour, yet under First-past-the-post, the Tories 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).
Without the 27 seats gifted to them by the Lib Dems, the Tories would have won 304 seats – short of the 326 needed for a majority in parliament and 2 seats less than they won in 2010. Conversely, 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.
Take away the unprecedented SNP surge and Lib Dem collapse and the 2015 General Election would have been a rerun of 2010 – with a small loss of seats for the Tories and a small, but slightly more significant gain for Labour.
Fighting the 2015 election using conventional strategies paid off surprisingly well for the Tories and very badly for Labour, though it may not have the same result in 2020. The 21% of the electorate who voted for smaller parties aren’t going to change their minds if they are offered more of the same by the big two parties and the 33% who didn’t vote will remain largely unengaged without something new to connect with.
If Labour approach the 2020 election with a conventional strategy of winning over Tory swing voters in marginal seats, it’s likely to see a similar result to 2015. But under a new leader, Labour now has the opportunity to change its tune and reach out to a wider group of the electorate – especially the half of the electorate who are either already voting for an alternative or waiting for one to present itself. A Labour campaign of real hope and vision, offering a rejection of Tory austerity and a proper alternative could do that. By comparison, the Tory election machine has only one gear – shore up the vote with those who traditionally come out and vote Tory and ignore those who don’t. In 2015 that was enough to cross the finishing line but in 2020 it could fail dramatically.