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Reflections on the election: lessons to be learned...

What happened on the 7th of May? And what next?

2015UKElectionMap by Italay90, recoloured by Cryptographic.2014, derived from: 2010UKElectionMap.svg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons


The shocks are still reverberating from the UK general election results, with party leaders falling on their swords within hours (and at least one comically resurrected three days later – I thought Easter was last month!). Questions abound as to the future direction of Labour, whether the Liberal Democrats can recover from a wholly unanticipated disaster, why the pollsters seemed so fixated on the prospect of a dead heat (and the commentariat, as a consequence, on the near-certainty of a post-election coalition), whether electoral reform might re-emerge as an issue, how the SNP will deploy their near clean sweep of Scottish seats, and the implications of UKIP winning 12.6% of votes cast.

Let’s start with the easiest: UKIP is a busted flush, successfully deflated by Cameron’s promise of an in/out referendum and warnings against a Labour government propped up by the SNP. As Nigel Farage (the briefly dislodged leader of UKIP) put it immediately after the results were announced, UKIP voters drifted away once the SNP edged towards the 50% mark in pre-election polling in Scotland. It was all very well voting for UKIP when it didn’t much matter (as in the European elections), but May 7th was much more serious.
More importantly, the actual 12.6% is a hollow achievement. Much of that was piled up some 120 constituencies where UKIP finished second. That sounds impressive, but in only a handful of these was the UKIP candidate within 10% of the winner. The average deficit was 34%! Even the one seat UKIP hung on to from last autumn’s two bye-election victories – Clacton – is now decidedly marginal. The chances are that UKIP will have no MPs by May 2020.

This likelihood is underpinned by the fact that, well before the next election, UKIP’s two main issues – EU membership and the UK’s ability to manage East European inward migration – will have been resolved, one way or another. If – as I expect – Cameron finesses some kind of deal with Brussels ahead of the promised referendum, UKIP will be stuck with the result of a decisive vote to stay in (unless there is a 52:48 yes vote which might be seen not quite to have settled the issue. If the vote is “no”, their fox is well and truly shot).

Unsurprisingly, Farage described his party’s meagre proceeds of one MP from some 4 million votes as a further condemnation of our first-past-the-post voting system. For those who might have sympathy with that complaint, it is worth noting that an allocation of MPs in direct proportion to votes cast would have resulted in a Conservative/UKIP coalition.

With a referendum in the last Parliament having decisively rejected the alternative vote system, with the giant multi-member constituencies used in European elections distinctly unpopular, and with the repeated evidence from Israel of the perils of a pure party list system, the chances of electoral reform in the next five years must be minimal. Indeed, the only real expectation will be for the Tories to push through boundary reforms, with or without a reduction in the size of the Commons: this regularizing of constituency sizes is expected to give them an extra twenty to forty seats in the 2020 contest.

The SNP’s crushing of the unionist parties was surely entirely predictable after the independence referendum’s results. With the “no” vote being split three or more ways, the 45% “yes” vote could be concentrated on a single party. Indeed, comparing the differential turnouts, the SNP’s total votes fell short of September’s “yes” level.

Somewhat disingenuously, Nicola Sturgeon has called on David Cameron to respect the “end to austerity” result in Scotland, as if he had not actually won a majority at Westminster on a very different platform. Having taken the gamble of allowing Alex Salmond to write the wording of the referendum (where the result cost Salmond his job), Cameron is well-positioned to tease Sturgeon with the prospect of full fiscal autonomy, in the safe knowledge that its inherent riskiness would force her to decline. Her negotiating space on the further devolution process planned by the Tories will be quite limited, with her focus on the next round of Holyrood elections as the best hope of providing a springboard for another referendum.

The near-death blow inflicted by the SNP on Labour in Scotland was accompanied by a brilliant outflanking of Labour on the left. Whoever succeeds Ed Miliband will face a deeply unpalatable choice. Without edging left, the new leader will have little hope of re-gaining its Scottish supremacy, without which it can bid farewell to ever again forming a majority government at Westminster. Yet any shift to the left would need to be sufficiently well-disguised so as not to alienate the block of former Labour voters who voted UKIP this time (estimated to be as large, if not larger, than the total of Conservative deserters to UKIP).

There are actually more seats where the combined Labour and UKIP votes exceeded the winning Conservative total than those where the combined UKIP and Tory votes exceeded the winning Labour total. (Uniquely, in Southport, the winning Liberal Democrat could have been unseated by a combination of either Labour or Conservative with UKIP.) Finding a way to appeal to Scottish socialists and anti-EU, anti-immigrant discontents will challenge the political skills of whichever Labour leader emerges in September.
Perhaps the boldest option would be to accept that Scotland will not return to “normal” politics till after the next referendum, and to concentrate on wooing refugees from the LibDems and (in due course) UKIP with an offer to the left of Cameron but to the right of the Greens. There will never be another Labour government unless the new leader finds a way to close the 100-seat gap with the Tories in England and Wales.

The Liberal Democrats have an even more daunting task. It is easy to see now that their goose was cooked within months of the last election. What did for Clegg is less the u-turn on tuition fees and more the spectacle of LibDem ministers embedded in an otherwise Tory administration. Evidently, the pre-coalition LibDem strategy was to appeal to anti-Tories and anti-Labourites in roughly equal measure: but as soon as the Parliamentary party attached itself to Cameron, a good half of the 2010 LibDem vote simply disappeared, never to return.

In the months leading up to May 7th, Clegg and his team tried to comfort themselves with the thought that long-serving LibDem MPs entrenched in their constituencies would have more survivability than the polls otherwise suggested. But the combination of the SNP surge in Scotland, a small movement to Labour in London and a determined Tory assault on the LibDem strongholds in the West country put paid to those illusions.

Oddly enough, the poll evidence shows that, outside Scotland, most of the standard 10-15% drop in LibDem support as compared with 2010 went straight to UKIP, almost as if there were a core “protest” cohort of voters who attached themselves to the most promising “rebel” party available. Unfortunately for the LibDems, in the seats they were actually defending in England, their own deserters switched as readily to the Conservatives and Labour as to UKIP, depending upon which of the two had the best chance of defeating the incumbent, and had worked hardest on targeting (similarly, in Wirral, where the LibDem vote declined by 13 percentage points, Labour picked up 9 of those points, just enough to unseat Tory minister Esther McVey). This added up to the most decisive rebuff for any political party since 1945, and the only hope for a recovery comes from the prospect of UKIP fading, as their issues and supporters disappear over the next two years.

What of the polls? After the election, some of Cameron’s US poll experts were scathing about the methodology of UK polling companies (the US experts claim to have placed the Conservatives well ahead at least a week before May 7th). It seems to me that there are three problems converging here.

The first is undoubtedly methodology. Anyone who has ever commissioned polls (which I have done many times over the years) knows that you are never allowed to see the raw data – only the processed results after corrections have been made to adjust the actual sample to match a pre-existing snapshot of voting behaviour (here, typically, the 2010 outcome). This inherent problem is compounded by sample size – although samples of 1,000 are assumed by the pollsters to be of sufficient size, it was notable that the BBC exit poll (actually, jointly financed with ITN and Sky), based on 20,000 interviews as people left the polling stations, was not just remarkably accurate but at complete odds with the “consensus” predictions of the previous three weeks.

Indeed, the habit of many media outlets was to compile “polls of polls”, as if combining the massaged results of half a dozen different small-sample polls, taken at different times and using different sampling and questioning techniques, gave you greater accuracy (from the grossing up of the sample size), rather than less. Indeed, there is even some anecdotal evidence that “out of range” outcomes were quietly discarded, for fear of being subsequently derided.

Compared with the disasters that befell the LibDems and Labour, the humiliation of the “pollster party” need not give us much pause. Yet the implied major party dead-heat as predicted by the pollsters, week after week, may have lulled Labour into a false sense of level-pegging with the Tories in England and Wales, where it was in fact lagging well behind. Indeed, Ed Balls was cheerily campaigning in other constituencies when his own seat was in severe danger (something some claim Labour HQ reportedly suspected, but did not pass on to him).

No doubt, Labour will point accusing fingers at the Tory press, which spared little effort in a campaign of vilification against Miliband. His many mistakes (not least of which was the “menhir”) gave this hostile force plenty of opportunity. Yet barely 15% of UK adults buy a newspaper: and previous research suggests that newspaper readers are barely affected in their voting behaviour by what they read, however inflammatory. Over 60% of all news consumption is of BBC output. Even if we discount Tory accusations of BBC bias, it would be hard to put this particular Labour defeat down to media influence. People may have made up their minds late, but there is no reason to suppose that, in doing so, they were mesmerised or misled.

About the author

David Elstein is Chairman of openDemocracy's Board. He is also Chairman of the Broadcasting Policy Group. 


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