The ‘centre’ did not hold – the recomposition of British politics

The outcome of the British election produced a collapse of the classic ‘centrist vote’ represented by the Liberal Democrats and a polarisation to both the right and the left of the mainstream political parties. This is a new situation as the new formations on the right and on the left are substantial and are a significant factor on the changed political scene.

Mainstream media and most commentators generally have an interest in obscuring the real trends in British politics. Therefore it is important to establish the factual record of the outcome of the 2015 general election. This is set out in the table below. (A separate article dealing with the separate situation of the Westminster elections in the north of Ireland is here).

Outcome of the General Election in Britain in 2015, Votes %

Data from House of Commons Library and Guardian (for minor parties)

From this it is possible to identify clearly the main features of the election outcome. The Lib Dems, who are held to be the classic ‘centre’ of British politics collapsed. Big social changes and the Lib Dem implementation of austerity led to the biggest swing against any governing party in the post-World War II era. The argument from many in Labour that it should move towards this centre ignores the fundamental fact that the centre was almost obliterated in 2015, losing two-thirds of its support. The centrism of being close to the Tories has proved disastrous. The jeers of ‘Red Tories Out!’ ringing in the ears of Labour canvassers in Scotland illustrate this point bluntly.

Yet the two major parties were unable to capitalise on this collapse of the centre in terms of vote share, although the Tories were able to engineer a stunning electoral victory in terms of seats. Instead, while both the Tories and Labour did absorb some Lib Dem votes, these were little more than votes they lost to other parties. The Tories lost votes mainly to their right and to UKIP and Labour lost votes to its left, variously going to the SNP and Greens. Labour actually gained twice as much in terms of vote share than the Tories, but their combined additional vote was only a net 2.1%. This compares to a 15.1% loss for the Lib Dems.

Overall the balance of forces between all the right and all the left combined was 49.4% to 39.6%. The shift in the vote from 2010 favoured the right by 53% to 47%. This is an important lead for the right and a slight majority are still radicalising in that direction. But neither the lead nor the swing is an overwhelming victory for the right. It would not require a seismic upheaval to shift both the swing and the total balance of forces towards the left.

The real winners in the new situation of a collapsed centre were the parties to the right and to the left. UKIP has absorbed the vote of the fascist BNP and the far right English Democrats and gained from the Tories. So, while the UKIP vote increased by 9.5% the total increased vote for parties to the right of the Tories was a slightly more modest 7.4%. Even so UKIP gained 1 in 8 votes in the election and despite its recent internal turmoil this overtly racist party can be expected to play a prominent and pernicious role in the next period.

On Labour’s left flank the big winners were the SNP and the Greens, with Plaid Cymru holding its former strength of 2010. Taken together these forces won approximately one in every twelve votes cast. The Greens added 2.8% of the vote, which is significantly more than either Tories or even Labour. The SNP vote share increased by 3.0%, or four times the additional vote for the triumphant Tories. Over half of all Scottish votes went to the SNP.

People considering themselves voting to the left of Labour and for parties explicitly attacking austerity (SNP, Greens, Plaid Cymru) increased sharply from 3.3% in 2010 to 9.2% in 2015.

UKIP was already becoming a significant factor in the 2010 election and that has increased substantially. The wholly new factor is that the vote to the left of Labour has seen a dramatic shift, rising from an insignificant, fringe level to a combined weight in the new political situation.

This radicalisation to the left has taken place without Labour being in office to implement austerity, or to carry out its reactionary line on immigration. The Tory government will resume its austerity shortly, as well as increased racist campaigns, new wars and new attacks on civil liberties. The minority force among the mass of the population that is to the left of Labour represents a new reservoir of support in all the struggles that arise.

These emerging forces are not socialist in character. Political formations which are explicitly described as socialist continue to register close to zero. In the current period the mood among the mass of the population moving leftwards is that they want reforms. They would like Labour to be more social democratic, less militaristic, less anti-immigrant and to address key issues such as democracy and climate change. But as Labour refuses to do so, this significant minority among the masses has been attracted to other formations.

Without losing sight of the reality of a vicious Tory government and the rancid threat posed by the politics of UKIP, it is important for militants to recognise the fact there is a new force in British politics, and one which will be important factor in the campaigns and battles ahead.