The outcome of the 2015 general election was a tactical triumph for David Cameron but it was achieved by destroying his own political allies the LibDems. For Labour this was a huge missed opportunity. There is now a Tory Prime Minister with a majority in Parliament with the lowest share of the popular vote ever, who presided over the longest decline in living standards, yet Labour lost seats. The rise of the SNP, the other big winner from the election, being due to the greater distance it places between itself and Tory policies.
Overall, support for the parties that had been in government fell by 14.4 per cent. This large loss was due to the austerity polices and was greater than the previous large Tory loses of 1945 and 1997 when Churchill and Major lost 11.6 per cent and 11.2 per cent in vote share respectively.
The remarkable Tory feat was to ensure that all of Coalition’s lost support registered in a collapse of the LibDem vote.
Naturally the pro-Tory media are focussed on Cameron’s gain of 24 seats and a working majority in Parliament of half that size. But this is a quirk of the antiquated British electoral system. The Tory vote share was only 36.9 per cent. This is not a landslide by popular acclaim.
The tactical achievement for the Tories is to register any rise in the vote share at all compared to the preceding victory. The 2015 election is the first time this has occurred since the electoral support for the Tories peaked in 1931. In every election victory since except one the Tory share of the vote has fallen at each successive election.
Turning this tactical win into a strategic reversal would of course be a great prize for the Tory high command and its backers in big business. But this is far from certain. A gain of 0.8 per cent only interrupts and does not reverse the downward trend in Tory support, as the chart below shows.
The spectacular losers were the LibDems. Their vote share fell by 15.2 per cent losing 49 of their 57 seats. They were the only major party to lose vote share as every other party in Britain gained from their implosion. The LibDem loss was significantly greater than the combined losses of all parties in most British elections and compares to a total loss of 7.2 per cent for the losing parties in 2010.
The net Tory gain of 0.8 per cent should be seen in this context. The Coalition’s austerity policies are massively unpopular. Cameron was obliged to spend most of the campaign promising new areas of spending, and refusing to specify the £12bn in welfare cuts that are planned. The massive cuts to local government were never mentioned.
Against this background Labour’s failure to win an outright majority or even become the largest party was a dreadful performance – achieving just an increase of just 1.5 per cent in the vote share since 2010 and losing a net 26 seats.
Opinion polls running up to the election overall underestimated Tory support and overestimated Labour’s. If this polling bias operated for the past five years, It still remains the case that Labour established a commanding poll lead over the Tories by May 2012. That lead eroded rapidly when it shifted to an explicitly austerity-lite agenda. Although Labour announced it would make modest reforms such as abolish the bedroom tax and freeze energy prices for a period, it stuck with the austerity framework set by the Coalition. The effect of these policies on Labour support was made evident by the opinion polls as in the graph below.
Labour anchored it’s general election campaign firmly on the right; with vague pledges, emphasising a commitment to spending cuts, an anti-immigrant message and joining in the right wing attacks on the SNP. Improving living standards was not pushed as Labour’s central issue, the small measures it was offering were not prominent in its campaign. When the Tories shifted their own campaign tactics to making public services spending promises, including an extra £8bn on the NHS, Labour (and the LibDems) attacked the Tories from the right, for making ‘unfunded’ commitments. In effect Labour did snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
The reasons for Labour’s defeat are being keenly fought over. Big business in Britain is to remake Labour in the Tories image, a project made explicit by Blair, Mandelson and their protégés. The argument that Labour was too left-wing or anti-market to win has no foundation whatsoever. The Blairites who advance this ignore two key facts. First, their policies lost 4.9 million votes from 1997 to 2010. Second, Ed Miliband’s timid rhetoric about the cost of living actually gained over 700,000 votes. The record on Labour’s vote is set out in the chart below.
An evidence-free argument advanced is that Labour did not appeal to aspirational voters. This is code for more right-wing policies that are line with the interests of big business. Even in the misleading categories of social classes used by pollsters like Ashcroft, the Tory lead over Labour among ‘C1s’ was just 3 per cent. This was lower than its total lead. Between 1997 and 2010 Labour’s total among ‘DEs’ fell from 59 per cent to 40 per cent and it fell again to 37 per cent in 2015. Factually, Labour did not appeal to sufficient voters from both the working class and the middle classes.
In Scotland, it was the pro-austerity, pro-Trident Labour party which was outflanked on its left by the SNP. The majority of voters detest the Tories and Labour aligned itself with this toxic brand over the issue of the referendum on independence. Just as with the LibDems, Labour’s close association with the Tories in Scotland proved deadly.
The spectacular rise of the SNP demonstrates that the same point is true in reverse; distancing itself from the Tories and its austerity policies gave an enormous boost to the SNP. Labour did not lose the election because Scots were drunk on nationalism. The SNP’s 50 per cent of the vote was greater than the 45 per cent vote for independence, which is unchanged in contemporary opinion polls. They voted for a break with austerity and believe the SNP will fight for that.
The SNP is successful because it has the appearances of being both more social democratic and more diverse than the Scottish Labour party.
There have been no BBC calls for Murphy’s head after a much worse showing in Scotland than Ed Miliband managed nationally.
On the far right in Britain UKIP gained by positioning itself as rightist opponents of the Tories for being insufficiently racist, anti-immigration and anti-EU. Despite winning just one seat, their 12.6 per cent vote share shows they are a real factor in politics in England and Wales. As the Tories have no intention of turning to the left they will seek to bolster their position mainly from the right. UKIP voters, many of them former Tories will be courted with an EU referendum and increased racist rhetoric and policies.
Some in Labour claim, just as in 2010, that it lost because it too was insufficiently racist – it was not ‘tough enough’ on immigration. This is reactionary nonsense. Shamefully, Labour and UKIP were the two parties with a ‘pledge’ to curb immigration. The Tories dropped immigration as theme for the duration of the campaign in recognition of the fact that it only boosts UKIP. According to Ashcroft’s exit polling, the only party where a majority of its voters thought immigration was an important issue was UKIP. In all other parties, even among Tory voters, the majority did not think it was an important issue.
A variant of this theme is the assertion by Labour’s Jim Murphy that the party was ‘caught between two nationalisms’. This is wrong on both counts. The support for the SNP is driven by the sentiment of getting away from Tory-dominated England and opposition to austerity. UKIP is a racist party which incorporates reactionary English nationalism. Despite much media hype to the contrary there is no serious evidence that UKIP has been taking large numbers of votes from Labour.
In any event, this vile politics is a dead-end for Labour, the party’s ‘Controls on immigration’ mug will have undermined Labour support amongst key constituents. Many in Labour’s leadership are determined to head down this route, encouraged by a reactionary media in doing so.
In the big cities outside Scotland Labour tends to espouse multiculturalism and diversity. Some councils try to oppose austerity. Labour continues to make advances, and is becoming a more urban party.
By contrast the Tories, having lost Scotland, now have a vanishingly small number of seats in the big cities of England and Wales. The Tories, along with UKIP are increasingly suburban and rural parties. But the cities are the growing, wealth-producing parts of the country and are necessarily increasing in diversity. They represent very large social forces that the Tories have been able to buck in this election.
But they cannot do so indefinitely and the Tories will attempt to rely politically on gerrymandering seats and a reactionary austerity and racist offensive to do so in the future. Whether the Tories succeed will be determined by the course of the struggle against them.