Friday, May 08, 2015

Awkward facts

There will be acres of commentary on the election in the next few days. A lot of it will be saying the same things and reading personal prejudices into the headline results. The narrative will be a surprise Tory triumph and a dismal Labour defeat. Old enmities will be dusted down, favourite policies will be advanced and everyone will have a theory about the reason why it happened. They will all focus on Parliamentary seats won and lost, very few will bother to look at the voting figures. If they did they would see a much more complicated picture.

The culprit is the electoral system, but not in the way UKIP seized upon it, comparing their 12.7% and one seat with the SNP's 4.7% and 56 seats. It is a false comparison. UKIP is a national party, whereas the SNP is a regional party, only standing in Scotland where they did exceptionally well. Any proportional system, other than a strict party list, factors in geographic representation and local constituencies. Under the single transferable vote, with multi-member constituencies, the result may have looked similar, though UKIP could have picked up a few more seats where they came second if they were garnering second and third preferences. Given the nature of UKIP, they may not have got that many, but that is only speculation. The Green Party might have done a lot better. The problems with the system lie elsewhere.

First, the Conservatives won a secure majority of 12 with only 36.9% of the vote, a weak performance. They gained 24 seats, but they only increased their share of the vote from 2010 by 0.8%. Labour did badly, there is no doubt about that, they lost 26 seats, yet look at the voting figures. Labour increased its share of the vote by 1.5% - more than the Tories managed. They had improved from the last election! And this is despite the miscalculations that exacerbated their Scottish disaster. However, they hadn't improved enough or in the right places. Despite this, the recriminations have started and Miliband has resigned as leader.

Labour really needs this introspection. Its platform and presentation was unimpressive. It has to develop a coherent social policy and a revamped, social democratic, political economy. 30.4% is poor for a party aspiring to be a party of government. But it still was an improvement on last time and sometimes recovery from a very low base takes time - like from 1997 to 2010 for instance. And the Tories didn't do much better. There is no need come over all apocalyptic just yet.

Secondly, the really big change was the collapse of the Liberal Democrats. They were the only major party to lose support. Their vote declined by 15.2% and they lost 49 seats. Now that was spectacular. They had been growing over the years on the basis of tactical voting, another by-product of the voting system. They became the vehicle for anti-Tory voting to lock the Conservatives out of constituencies that might have been naturally theirs. But then they went into coalition with them and the anti-Tory rationale disappeared overnight - as did their support. Doesn't look like such a smart move today, does it? With this big a collapse, the overall result depends on where these votes go and one of the things it appears to have done is to open up natural Tory constituencies as Conservative gains.

The other factor was turnout. 66.1% isn't good. Compare it to the Scottish independence referendum for example. This was an election without widespread enthusiasm. It is why it smelt of 1992 to me and I went to bed last night before the exit poll (Greece is two hours ahead of the UK) fully expecting a Conservative win, though not an overall majority. Labour hadn't done enough, was unconvincing and, without enthusiasm driving change, we tend to end up with stasis. However well the campaign went, they rarely make any difference at all. The die was cast much earlier.

And finally, I want to give two cheers to the polls. Yes they were wrong, but all polls are published with the caveat of a 3% margin of error either way. If they were overstating Labour by 3% and understating the Conservatives by 3%, they weren't that far out. The real fault with the polls was not their accuracy, but our willingness to believe in them as absolutely correct measures rather than being an approximation.

So we have a new single party government thanks to the distortions of our electoral system. Although the Tories were unambiguous winners as the largest minority, they did relatively poorly. We have an opposition locked into a process of re-evaluation and internal struggle. It sounds like a free pass. But have you seen some of those Tory backbench obsessives? The majority isn't that big and it won't be an easy ride. The opportunity is there but only if the Labour Party can develop a coherent programme and generate the energy and enthusiasm for change. And they have to do it in the right places to win seats in an arbitrary electoral system. Otherwise we are in for a long haul.


Anton Deque said...

The best analysis I have read thus far Peter and likely to remain so. Thank you for taking the trouble to do it.

I am sitting here feeling very lacklustre. This is my twelfth election since becoming a voter and it's the first where I feel numb from being unable to respond. I feel nothing much either way.

I do think you are right about the future of this government. It will soon realise it cannot sweep all before it. I also think that since the days of Thatcher we are a much more 'hands on' society where local campaigns matter. These will develop further into a popular democracy I am sure.

Anonymous said...

I've been looking forward to reading your thoughts