It is, unfortunately, not a caricature to say that much comment on the recent election has consisted of vigorous assertion by the Labour Party right that the programme was too left wing, countered equally vigorously by the left that it was not left wing enough! Supporting evidence has been scanty, beyond the cry of ‘1983’ from the right, countered by ‘1945’ from the left.
The leadership campaign has, if anything, made this situation worse, with fear of a Corbyn win having elicited some desperate responses from the right, and from the other candidates, and, while Corbyn himself, to his very great credit, has stuck to an elaboration of policy, many of his supporters on the blogosphere have sunk to the level of their opponents.
It is surely only by a rational analysis, rather than blind assertion, that Labour can again successfully promote itself in 2020 or before, and this article looks at some of the more considered evidence and opinion about the recent election than that referred to above. Much of this has not received the attention it should have done, although there will hopefully be a renewed focus on this when the official ‘Learning Lessons’ enquiry is published next month.
The most important areas of investigation can, I think, be reasonably grouped under these main headings:
- How the UK voted, by region, age, gender, class and other relevant distinctions.
- How the new electoral situation has changed Labour’s prospects.
- How potential and actual Labour voters viewed the party’s appeal.
- The impact of UKIP and the Greens.
- Why Scotland moved from Labour to the SNP.
- Why the pollsters got it wrong again.
I shall cite some of the main findings under these headings and comment briefly on each.
How we voted
The biggest single change was Scotland, where Labour’s loss of 40 seats was a huge blow, which will not be easily reversed, and obviously makes it much more difficult for Labour to gain a majority. It also means that we now have three different electoral systems – Northern Ireland, which was always different, and now Scotland, because of its domination by the SNP. The main system is what remains, in England and Wales. Here there were significant variations between the main regions, with London and the three Northern regions experiencing the biggest swing to Labour, with small to negative swings elsewhere, including, inexplicably, Wales. However, extra Labour votes were largely at their strongest in seats already held by Labour, and much weaker in the small towns and suburban areas that Labour needed to take.
The Lib-Dem vote went to Labour more than any other party (24%), but the Tories got, crucially, not much less at 20%, and the Greens 11%. Over 65s were twice as Conservative than Labour, with a much higher turnout, while voters became progressively more Labour as they became younger, but with a progressively lower turnout. Women, except the over 65s, were more Labour than men, particularly the young. There was some reversion to social class alignment, but the middle class Labour vote largely held, but turnout was much higher among the more Conservative inclined social groups. The Conservatives lost heavily to UKIP, as did Labour to a lesser extent, mainly from the older white male working class. Labour remains strong among BAME voters, but the Conservatives have increased their share here. Workers in the private sector are more Conservative, those in the public sector Labour, but less so. Those with more qualifications tended to Labour, those with fewer to the Conservatives.
It is clear that, unless Labour can either increase its turnout among the under 35s and the D/E social groups, or increase its support among the over 65s, and preferably both, then winning is going to be very difficult. Labour must pay urgent attention to these tasks as well as analysing its failure to capture more than a handful of Conservative seats, and losing some to them.
The new electoral situation
Prior to the election, Labour had an in-built advantage, all of which has not only gone, but the advantage has swung the other way to the Conservatives, and that is before any boundary changes, which they will no doubt push through prior to the next election.
There are three main reasons for this reversal of fortunes. Firstly Scotland, where Labour’s huge loss of 40 seats contrasted with the Conservative’s nil loss; the huge decline in the Lib-Dem vote meaning that the opportunity for tactical voting, either by Labour to keep the Conservatives out or by the Lib-Dems to keep Labour in has largely disappeared; and the swing to the Conservatives in their marginal seats meaning that they are less marginal.
Several commentators have pointed to the huge challenge that Labour faces here, and of the necessity of winning back votes from the Conservatives if Labour is to win in 2020. This is strictly not true, as a combination of votes lost to the SNP, UKIP, the Greens and of new voters and previous non voters could suffice, but it is unlikely that all of that could happen simultaneously, and there is no longer a big Lib-Dem vote to be inherited.
How voters saw Labour
There have been a number of surveys on this, most of which have highlighted similar concerns. The most important were concern over Labour’s past and future handling of the economy, immigration, too generous welfare, control by the SNP and Miliband’s credibility as leader. Anti aspiration and anti business were lesser factors, as was austerity, about which there has been an interesting debate.
It is hardly surprising that Labour is viewed poorly on the economy, as its biggest mistake was not to defend its record in government prior to 2010 and allowing the myth that the deficit was Labour’s fault to become widely believed. Not having put forward a coherent alternative to austerity policies means there is little support for something that is not policy, which is not the same as support for austerity. The problem with the ’immigration problem’ is that it can embrace much, from racist opposition to any non white immigration since the 1940s to justifiable concern with pressure on local services caused by migrant European workers. Here and on welfare, myths abound, but Labour’s rather desperate pronouncements on these issues prior to the election indicate that much work is needed here.
UKIP and the Greens
Both, predictably, did very well, despite ending up with only one MP apiece. The Greens, thanks to the Lib-Dem implosion have probably secured lasting extra support, now at 4% although clearly at Labour’s expense. In most of the seats lost to the Conservatives, the Green vote was higher than the margin of loss.
But it is UKIP that is now the most significant extra force. The failure to even win a seat for Farage highlights the injustice of our electoral system and may well serve to boost pressure for the adoption of some form of PR, and UKIP are likely to remain strong at least up to the forthcoming referendum. Thereafter it is, assuming a by no means certain win for remaining in, partly a question of how the Conservatives position themselves, but it is difficult to see UKIP sustaining its momentum, although its appeal now goes well beyond the EU to cover immigration and nostalgia for the whole gamut of reactionary prejudice. The decline of UKIP would help the Conservatives most, but Labour as well, although it would make it harder for Labour to win overall.
As indicated above, this now effectively constitutes a separate electoral system, about which much has been written, which I do not intend to add to, except to say that without a significant number of Scottish MPs Labour’s task is much harder. With the SNP having firmly established itself as the dominant Scottish party there can be no assumption that, in the short run at least, those seats will be won back.
They got it wrong again, more badly than at any time since 1992. To be fair, it was only Labour and Conservative that they got badly out, by three points too many for Labour and the same too few for the Conservatives, thus enabling a majority government to narrowly emerge, and experts on a hung parliament to go back to their ivory towers. Investigation into the reasons for this error are ongoing, with not much evidence of a late swing over Scotland, nor of ‘Shy’ Conservatives (i.e. those deliberately lying), but some evidence of turnout by Labour being down for those indicating their intention to vote.
This brief summary of what happened on May7th has not touched on the wider and more important issues that will determine Labour’s future. Can Labour win on the basis of a populist social democracy now being promoted by Jeremy Corbyn here and elsewhere in Europe? Or is a reheated Blairism the only way back to power? Is our unjust electoral system a barrier to change, and is PR the only way forward? Did Labour lose because of a number of factors which can be changed, or is its plight part of the crisis of social democracy afflicting similar parties in Europe.
Such questions and others will be debated in the coming period, but in order to move forward we must have a clear idea of what actually happened.
For those interested in further reading, I list some of the main sources below:
Touchstone. TUC Polling.
Ipsos Mori How Britain voted in 2015
P. Kellner You Gov How Britain really voted.
J. Curtice IPPR A defeat to reckon with.
A. Harrop Fabians The mountain to climb.
Smith Institute Red Alert. Why Labour lost.
UK Polling report.
This article was written for Chartist magazine.