openDemocracyUK

8 things this election will be remembered for, and what they actually mean

As Britain heads to the polls, what is the real significance of these elections? 

John Smith
7 May 2015

Image: Flickr / secretlondon123

Elections determine lives. If, at the end of this arduous process, the Coalition remains in power, we will be faced with five years of horror that will make the previous government look tame: we will lose precious public services, we will lose liberties, and vulnerable people will die. If Labour forms some kind of government, things might be better.

You won’t get that message from most political pundits today. Instead, most of the commentary will focus on the mechanics of the campaign and the rituals of the election – on the procedural and tactical minutiae that distinguish this election from any other. This is of course tedious, and often bears no resemblance to the real meaning of the political events that will unfold today and in the coming days. So here are 8 things that this election will be remembered for – and what they actually mean.  

1. Arithmetical complexity

It used to be that the exit poll, published at 10pm as the polls closed, was a relatively straightforward way to predict an election. Of the two main parties, one would be ahead by enough points that they would get an overall majority, and you could calculate that majority on the back of an envelope by using a national uniform swing. This year, that is completely impossible – the variables of the election are so many and varied that we will basically be waiting for each seat individually to find out the results. The commentators will spend all night repeatedly reminding us of this and somewhat tediously caveating almost everything they say.

What this actually means: our electoral system is utterly broken and outdated, and it will remain so until someone introduces proportional representation or preferential voting, or both.

2. The rise and professionalization of the smaller parties

This election will be remembered as a seven-way race. From three parties being included in the last set of debates, we now have the addition of Plaid Cymru, the SNP, UKIP and the Greens. The nationalist parties had already ‘risen’ as major political forces in their own nations, and were to an extent already pretty well professionalised. It’s what’s happened to UKIP and the Greens that really changes the picture: one to the left of Labour, the other to the right of the Tories, both mobilising parts of the electorate that the others can’t get, and both defying an electoral system which promises them a night of defeats. This election has seen a massive surge in membership and votes for the Greens, and UKIP has undergone a process of mainstreaming and talent-spotting, starting with the recruitment of Paul Lambert in December. Both have revamped their online and doorstep presence and now look like permanent election fixtures.

What this actually means: a large part of the electorate is now significantly to the left of the Labour leadership, and rather than fighting inside Labour, they have decided that they want a party that reflects their individual views now. Meanwhile, another part now bases its political identity on scapegoating foreigners (in Brussels or living next door). 

3. Tactical voting like never before

Tonight, we will see an alliance of voters that mirrors the proposed alliances of political parties. Conservatives and Liberal Democrat voters are going to come out for each other all across the country: in Sheffield Hallam, Nick Clegg will almost certainly be saved by Tories voting for a fellow traveller. In other parts of the country, Green members will vote Labour and UKIP members Tory.

What this actually means: the country is increasing polarised and conscious of where the battle-lines are drawn, seeing the election as a fight against the rightwing or leftwing devil incarnate (See point 1: our electoral system is utterly broken and outdated, and it will remain so until someone introduces proportional representation or preferential voting, or both).

4. The Lobbying Act

In the final year of its reign, the Coalition managed to pass the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014. This Act, for the first time, regulates non-party campaigners in the election. Anyone spending over £20,000 in England or £10,000 in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland has to register with the Electoral Commission, will have to declare all of their spending returns and donations, and will not be able to spend over a certain limit nationally and in local constituencies. This has been an underreported element of the election campaign, given how much fuss there was about it, and given how blatant it was as an attempt to stymie the third sector and trade unions from campaigning against the Coalition parties. The National Union of Students has continued to campaign pretty effectively, with a ‘Liar, Liar’ billboard campaign attacking Lib Dems who broke their pledges.

What this actually means: the Coalition tried to ban organisations it didn’t like from being politically active, and while the legislation is very bad, it didn’t really work.

5. The Labour conversation machine

If Labour out-performs the polls (which is actually quite unlikely, based on previous elections) then this will be the election of the Labour doorstep. Labour always has a big doorknocking campaign, but in this election it has been even bigger – old inactive members, desperate anti-Tory voters and an army of the party faithful have been out having millions of below-the-radar conversations with voters. This contrasts with the Conservative Party’s main election weapon, which is money – lots and lots of money.

What this actually means: the Tories are a party run by and for the mega-wealthy, while Labour, for all their faults, are rooted in something better.

6. Individual Electoral Registration (IER)

Another corker of the past few years has been the switch from household voter registration to individual voter registration. This means that in order to be able to vote, people have to register themselves personally, rather than relying on being registered by someone else in their household to vote. A lot of people either don’t know or understand this, and in February, it was reported that almost a million people had dropped off the register in the preceding 12 months. 

What this actually means: loads and loads of people – a large chunk of them students and young people – are going to turn up at polling stations and be told that they can’t vote. Three guesses as to who that will benefit, and as to whether or not those people are going to be happy with the process.

7. Crowdfunding

Political parties have done a lot of crowdfunding this election. Every party other than the Tories (why would you need small donations if you have the kind of money they have?) has a crowdfunding account somewhere, and the Green Party has a whole hub for it. This method of funding political activity is going to increase and become more important in future years, and it means that new and fringe political forces can get access to quick money if they capture the public imagination.

What this really means: our system of party funding is hugely asymmetrical and allows the Tories to basically buy elections. The Internet and the political mobilisation of large numbers of people has, to a small extent, levelled the playing field.

8. Social media

Most pundits don’t really understand social media, and will be heard throughout election night lazily citing it in relation to young people, the rise of smaller parties, or the failure of mainstream politics to connect to various demographics. All of these things are true(ish): young people use it more, and they can bypass the official messages of the bigger parties to tune into what their mates are saying – simultaneously liberating them from the official campaign slogans and trapping them in a bubble of likeminded people. But these people will then go out and work zero hours jobs, sign onto the dole, face daily racism and sexism and have their services cut.

What this really means: social media is a means of communication. It does not alter the arrangement of society – but mainstream political commentary will use it as another way to not talk about people’s experiences of exploitation and their connection to political agency. 

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Join us on Thursday 9 July at 5pm UK time/12pm EDT for a free live discussion.

Hear from:

Evadney Campbell Managing director and co-founder of Shiloh PR. A former BBC broadcast journalist, she was awarded an MBE in 1994 for her services to the African and Caribbean communities in Gloucester.

Sunder Katwala Director of British Future, a think-tank on identity and integration

Sayeeda Warsi Member of the House of Lords, pro-vice chancellor at Bolton University and author of ‘The Enemy Within: A Tale of Muslim Britain’.

Chair: Henry Bonsu Broadcaster who has worked on some of the UK's biggest current affairs shows, including BBC Radio 4's Today. He is a regular pundit on Channel 5's Jeremy Vine Show, BBC News Briefing and MSNBC's Joy Reid Show.

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