Britain was looking for for an alternative in 2015, not for English Conservatism

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.

Why Jeremy Corbyn could win in 2020

Initially viewed by the right-wing establishment as a lefty dinosaur, Jeremy Corbyn’s unique appeal to both disgruntled former Labour voters and disengaged non-voters could deliver a Labour win in 2020 – especially when competing against a slim Tory majority.

Amongst all the criticism being thrown at Jeremy Corbyn by his detractors, the claim that he is ‘unelectable’ is perhaps the most significant one. The argument being that, while his politics and approach might go down well with the broad left (who have propelled him to the front of the pack in the Labour leadership contest), their numbers are still insignificant when compared to the voting population of Britain.

We are told that when ‘white van man’ and the rest of middle England are presented with this ‘scruffy socialist’ they’ll run a mile – straight into the waiting arms of the Conservatives.

It’s certainly true that Corbyn looks and sounds completely different to the politicians we’re used to seeing fronting a mainstream political party in Britain. And yet, we’re constantly reminded that the electorate are fed-up with career politicians, who all look and sound the same and speak in corporate jargon. Indeed, much of UKIP’s success has been down to Nigel Farage’s public persona – the ‘normal bloke down the pub’ image that he has successfully constructed (regardless of the fact that he’s actually a privately educated banker).

The main problem is that the media and the political establishment are still behaving as if the 2015 election was ‘business as usual’ for British politics – where Labour and the Tories compete to decide who will form a majority government. But that wasn’t the case – regardless of how much the Tories would like to believe that they won a landslide majority victory thanks to a resurgent wave of British Conservatism.

In reality, neither of those things happened in 2015. The Tories won a narrow majority of 12 seats, thanks primarily to the collapse of the Lib Dem vote (27 of the seats the Tories gained in 2015 came from the Lib Dems). Meanwhile Labour haemorrhaged seats in Scotland due to the SNP’s landmark victory.

The Lib Dem collapse and the SNP’s surge were the real stories of the 2015 election – take those two things out of the equation and you have an election result remarkably similar to the 2010 election (with a couple of losses for the Toires and a couple of gained seats for Labour). Meanwhile, two of the smaller parties received more votes than ever – UKIP got nearly 4 million votes and the Greens took over a million. Conversely, the Tories managed to win a Commons majority by getting only 24% of the electorate to vote for them.

If the 2015 election proved one thing, it’s that a significant number of the British electorate are more willing than ever to vote for an alternative – which, in 2015, manifested itself as support for UKIP, the Greens and the SNP.

Of course under first-past-the-post, it’s still incredibly difficult for these small parties to turn their votes into seats in parliament (UKIP’s millions of votes translated to a single seat). But if that outsider/man-of-the-people alternative suddenly finds itself as the leader of the opposition – the story is dramatically different.

Under Corbyn, Labour could win back disgruntled former Labour voters from the Greens, SNP and UKIP – people who abandoned Labour because it had become nothing but a watered down version of the Tories. That alone could net them a couple million more votes – enough to put Labour level with the Tories (who polled 11 million votes compared to Labour’s 9 million in 2015).

But winning back disgruntled former voters from smaller parties isn’t the only prospect of a Corbyn-led Labour party. He is also the is only the leader in years who stands a chance of engaging some of the 33% of the electorate who didn’t vote – those famously disengaged from politics.

This is both Corbyn’s secret weapon and the Tories biggest threat. If just a fifth of the people who didn’t vote in 2015 could be persuaded to vote Labour, that would be enough to not just draw level with the Tories but decisively beat them. Meanwhile, traditional Tory election strategy continues to deliberately ignore non-voters. Tory strategy operates on shoring up their vote with the key groups who traditionally come out and vote in large numbers while ignoring those who don’t.

With his appeal to both disgruntled former-Labour voters who left to smaller parties and traditionally disengaged non-voters, Corbyn finds himself in a unique position – a Labour leader who may be able to beat the Tories without having to pander to middle-England (at least not as much as previous Labour leaders).

That’s precisely why the right-wing establishment have now stopped treating Corbyn as a joke and are instead viewing him as a genuine threat. Undoubtedly their attack on him (should he become Labour leader) will be unparalleled – they will attempt to portray him as a Socialist terrorist, determined to burn Britain to the ground. And yet, the establishment’s war of words may end up falling on deaf ears, as (for once) the people with biggest say in the outcome of the 2020 election may not be the ones reading the Daily Mail, The Sun or The Telegraph – and for Corbyn that could be decisive.

Why Labour Lost The 2015 General Election

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.

Conclusions
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.

Welcome

It’s no coincidence that I’m starting this blog on the 12th of May 2015, just four days after the 2015 UK General Election.

As a left-wing, Labour-supporting, trade-unionist, the outcome of this election (a Tory majority government) is a major disappointment and sets a huge challenge for the British Left.

I hope to use this blog to speak about that challenge and to be part of the public conversation that will hold this right-wing government to account.