Experts from QMUL address the most important issues arising from the 2015 UK General Election and assess the fall-out for the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Union, the EU Referendum and Parliament.
11 May 2015
David Cameron is the first PM since Margaret Thatcher in 1983 to increase the number of Tory MPs in parliament from one election to the next, and the first Tory PM since Anthony Eden in 1955 to increase the party’s share of the vote. The Tories won 330 seats (51% of the total) on a vote-share of 37% (just under one percentage point up from 2010). Their performance in Scotland, at 15% was their worst ever, although they still held onto one seat. They got 27% of the vote in Wales, garnering 11 seats, up three from 2010. Just as encouragingly, albeit under the radar, the Tories picked up around 500 additional local councillors and 24 councils: this may help revive their party at local level. They will also be advantaged by boundary reform, although this will not now be accompanied by a reduction of the number of seats in parliament, demand for which has (unsurprisingly perhaps) died. See portraits of the new intake.
The Conservatives’ improved performance was down in no small measure to what I call ‘the black widow effect’: after mating with their Lib Dem coalition partners, they killed and then ate them, taking 26 of their seats. They lost only 2 seats net to Labour. They were helped in this by an incumbency effect favouring MPs who won their seats in 2010, and by being well ahead of Labour when it came to economic competence and leadership. Much like the Better Together campaign in Scotland, it wasn’t pretty but it was effective, and its growing emphasis on the ‘chaos’ inherent in some sort of Labour-SNP ‘deal’ may well have persuaded some waverers (back) into the Tory camp. Possibly (although only partially) as a result, UKIP did as much if not more damage to Labour in the marginals than it did to the Conservatives.
The Conservative benches in the Commons now contain the party’s highest ever proportion of women, the 68 female MPs who will sit there making up 21% of the Tory total. Some 48% of Tory MPs went to independent schools (with 34% having been to comprehensives and 18% to grammars): this is a drop from 54% in 2010 and continues a long-term trend toward there being more state-educated Tory MPs. 34% of Conservatives in the Commons were educated at Oxford or Cambridge.
Cameron’s 12-seat overall majority may represent his ‘sweetest victory’ but it is nonetheless slim – less than the 21 seat majority won by John Major (on 42% of the vote) back in 1992. Anyone old enough to remember will recall that that victory soon turned to custard. And while it is difficult to foresee anything on the horizon that could do as much swift or fatal damage to the Tories’ reputation for economic competence, there is one obvious parallel with the early 1990s: Europe. The number of Conservative MPs who will actively work for, or at the very least lean towards, Brexit runs to around a third of the parliamentary party. The problem for Cameron is that there may a big difference between what his backbenchers (and, indeed, some of his front-bench colleagues) want and what his EU partners are prepared to give him by way of a deal that he can present as reason to stay in the union: Eurosceptic demands, for instance, for an opt-out from the free movement principle and/or the right to veto any unsatisfactory law made in Brussels cannot be met. As long, however, as Cameron does not allow himself to be forced into making such demands from other member states (which would be refused and thereby reduce him to recommending the UK leave the EU) he should be OK. The package he renegotiates may not satisfy many in his own party, but it will probably persuade the public to support a cross-party recommendation to stay in.
Cameron can then depart the scene, triggering a leadership contest which, in sometimes barely-supressed form, will already have been going on for 2 years. By then Boris may have made a hash of things and others may have moved into the frame.
The parliamentary party may be easier to manage because jobs can be given to Tories rather than Lib Dems. Also, the narrowness of the majority may (on balance) improve discipline, especially if combined with a more inclusive approach by a PM enjoying a degree of goodwill after winning, and sensible management from Chris Grayling – a Leader of the House who will be trusted by the right – and Chief Whip, Mark Harper, who surely cannot make as many mistakes in that job as Michael Gove. That said, many right wingers and free-market ultras will now discover that the reason they can’t get what they want (for example, on climate change and energy policy, welfare cuts, immigration, surveillance, human rights, planning restrictions, grammar schools, trade union reforms, and EVEL/Scotland) has less to do with those pesky Lib Dems and more to do with even more pesky parliamentary, legal, international, and electoral realities.
Just as problematic for Cameron will be the campaign promises he made, in an era where both the birth rate and the elderly population is rising, to protect health and, to a lesser extent, education spending. Unless he and George Osborne really have discovered a magic money tree in the Downing Street back garden, then, given their promise not to raise a number of key taxes, resources will either have to be diverted from other budgets – including welfare, science, research and public-sector payrolls – or conjured up by generating additional revenues, such as higher university tuition fees, non-dom taxes, or higher property taxes. The Tories also have to fund higher rail subsidies and measures to boost childcare and home ownership. The obvious solution, as it was from 2012 onwards, is to slow the pace of deficit reduction.
This, plus, the party will hope, a fairly smooth leadership transition, may well help it to a third victory in 2020. But long term problems remain, not least the party’s difficulty in appealing to younger, better-educated and ethnic minority voters – all growing proportions of the electorate (although not necessarily the electorate who actually turn out and vote).
The 2015 general election result was one of the worst for Labour since universal suffrage. The party achieved 30.5 per cent of the vote and 232 seats – a rise of 0.8 per cent in the share of the vote, but 26 fewer parliamentary seats than in 2010 when it had been defeated as an incumbent government with a historically unpopular Prime Minister.
Labour’s vote fragmented on three fronts: in Scotland to the SNP where Labour was swept away by the nationalist surge; in English marginal constituencies where the collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote benefited the Conservatives more than Labour, alongside direct Labour/Tory switching (e.g. in Nuneaton); and in northern seats where the rise in the UKIP vote hurt Labour disproportionately (e.g. Morley and Outwood).
Although Labour gained from the electoral decimation of the Liberal Democrats securing 12 additional seats, the Conservatives won 25 seats. In large swathes of Southern England, there is now no effective challenger to the Tory party.
The results have surprised many since Labour was judged to have fought a technically competent campaign. It’s ‘ground war’ operation was widely praised, and the ‘air war’ was better than expected. Ed Miliband improved his personal ratings over the course of the campaign despite an overwhelmingly hostile media.
Labour had some success in framing the key issues and predominant policy agenda of the election. Voters generally rated the issue of living standards and the National Health Service above tax, immigration and Europe. Labour’s manifesto promises on housing, zero hours contracts and the minimum wage were judged to be more popular than the Conservatives.
The post-mortem on Labour’s defeat will focus on its so-called ‘35 per cent strategy’. The 35 per cent strategy attached the 29.7 per cent of voters who supported Labour in 2010 with 5-6 per cent of left-leaning Liberal Democrats who defected over Nick Clegg’s collaboration with the Tory government. Preliminary analysis of the results indicates that Labour picked up votes from the Liberal Democrats, but more former Liberal voters defected to the Conservatives (in southern England) and to UKIP (in northern England).
The other factor was, of course, Scotland. The spectre of a minority Labour government propped up by the SNP spooked English voters, exploited ruthlessly by the Conservatives – although this attack gained traction because Labour was less trusted on the economy.
The challenge Labour (and its next leader) faces is to address the defection of ‘aspirational’ voters in southern England and the Midlands, the drift to UKIP in the North, and the collapse of the Labour vote to the SNP in Scotland. This will be a difficult balancing-act. There is no off-the-shelf political strategy, either Michael Foot circa 1983 or Tony Blair circa 1997 that would produce guaranteed political success in 2020. In the meantime, the Conservatives will introduce reforms of the UK political system, reducing the number of parliamentary constituencies and redrawing the constituency boundaries, which will make Labour’s task far harder next time around.
In total we lost nearly 4.5 million voters: left wing graduates and professionals went to Labour, protest voters to the Greens, working class voters in the north to UKIP and everyone in Scotland to the SNP.
We also suffered from the Conservatives doing what they hadn’t managed in 2010 - finding an effective squeeze message. Fear of the SNP drove voters away in the South and South-West, and, incidentally, showed that the debates may have been more important in 2010 than people realised.
Labour’s focus on attacking the Lib Dems hurt us and hurt them too, in Twickenham Vince Cable lost by 2,017 votes. The Labour Party gained 2,546 votes.
It’s clear that coalition damaged the party badly, as we knew it would. Early mistakes in terms of our positioning created an impression of the party that we couldn’t shake off. But saying the party shouldn’t have gone into coalition ignores the situation at the time.
Going into coalition angered people who saw us as a centre-left party that would only work with Labour. But the real mistake wasn’t entering coalition, but to paint ourselves into that corner in the first place. The Clegg project was to reverse that position, but coalition came too early.
The next leader has two numbers to focus on: over 7,000 new members in a few days, and the 63 seats where we are second and therefore at least have a chance in the next election or a by-election.
He will have to energise the party for a long slog, the Lib Dems are back to the early Paddy Ashdown days of having to build grassroots, develop council bases and identify areas where they can look to make breakthroughs. And all this has to be done with almost zero media interest and with the party’s acceptance that it will take many years for us to get back to where we were.
The only short term opportunity is a Conservative majority government inadvertently demonstrating what the Lib Dems did stop in government.
There are three important short-term tasks for the new leader, who will probably be Tim Farron, the first is finding a definition of Liberalism that isn’t simply about our relationship to the other parties. No more splitting the difference, or positioning ourselves one step to the left of the Labour party.
The second is building a campaigning structure that enables us to mobilise people without using the media, whether that’s social media, old-style campaigning or a combination.
The third and final one is to identify some issues that the party can quickly latch onto that it is united by and can credibly make a noise about. Conservative attempts to revive the snooper’s charter would seem the perfect opportunity.
All of that is far easier to say than it is to do, but with just eight MPs the Lib Dems have no option but to pull it off.
British party politics has ceased to exist as a singular entity which operates across the different territories that make up the UK. The distinctive party dynamics and balances that emerged in Wales and Scotland after devolution have become even more divergent from those in England, and the First-Past-the-Post Electoral System has resulted in the SNP nearly sweeping the board (having won 50% of the vote) in terms of parliamentary seats (winning 56 out of 59).
The Election also confirmed the existing trend in England towards a more regionally variegated system of political competition. The results of the election leave London an increasingly Labour city, now surrounded by a sea of Tory blue across the South and South East. The North West and North East remain predominantly Labour, while the East of England is almost entirely Conservative, with some Labour outposts. Wales remains a source of strength for Labour, though the Conservatives performed well there, winning three additional seats and moving to within 10 points of Labour. UKIP’s rise has added a new regional ingredient, with particularly strong performances across the East of England and emergence as the main party of opposition in Northern England (and further confirmation of its unpopularity in London).
The regional character of the support of the two main UK parties remains largely unaltered by the Election, though the Conservatives have improved their geographical reach, with notable successes in Wales and the South West of England. But they remain adrift in most of the North of England and Scotland, and are increasingly on the defensive in London. Labour’s position in the South, South East and East of England has declined still further from the poor position of 2010, despite the odd success it enjoyed (against the Lib Dems) in urban seats.
Territory and nation were at the heart of the Election campaign, and have been cited by some as the root cause of Labour’s disastrous performance, as the party was supposedly squeezed between an insurgent Scottish and a reactive English nationalism. This characterisation is misleading. The roots of Labour’s rout in Scotland lay also in its inability to address the major weaknesses of culture, organisation and thinking that were highlighted in successive elections since 2007, and the strategic decision to prioritise winning back working-class Catholics in Glasgow, rather than focusing upon areas that voted ‘No’ in the Referendum.
In England, the Conservatives did not orchestrate English nationalism. Instead they understood and responded to a shift of national mood and understanding which has been underway for some considerable while, and was either ignored or denounced in progressive circles. Not only did the Conservatives position themselves as a political voice and vehicle for English interests, but they stabilised and re-energised their own campaign by focusing relentlessly on the prospect of a minority Labour government at the mercy of the SNP. This was an especially potent issue as it neatly connected the question of Labour’s economic competence with this more nationally sensitised mood.
The conditions are now in place for a deepening crisis over the domestic union, but their emergence does not make the break-up of Britain inevitable. The Conservatives will need to relocate the knowledge and wisdom associated with their older approaches to territorial statecraft if they are to avoid allowing the SNP to raise the demand for independence to a new level. This will require overseeing a new, UK-wide settlement, perhaps along more federal lines, including greater fiscal autonomy for the Scots, as well as EVEL, and decentralisation within England. It will also mean diffusing and deflecting Anglo-Scottish tensions, and ensuring that Wales and other parts of England become more central to the territorial politics of the UK, and start to reap the benefits of economic recovery. Building on the Northern powerhouse is a key ingredient within this strategy.
Perhaps the gravest danger to the domestic union arises in the context of conflicts over the European Union, and the Referendum that will very likely happen by 2017. If this results in a decision to leave, reflecting majority English sentiment, then the United Kingdom could very well break apart. A vote to stay in the EU could do much to undercut the SNP’s attempts to re-legitimise the demand for a Referendum. The fate of the two Unions is now inextricably interlinked.
David Cameron’s pledge to renegotiate the UK’s terms of EU membership and to put them to an in/out referendum may have helped to secure the Conservative Party their victory, but in the long term this move could turn out to be bittersweet. There has been much discussion about the rise of the SNP at Westminster and the possible consequences for the UK, but the particular details of how the EU referendum will work remain an open question.
One thing that we do know is that history often proves itself to hold valuable lessons. When Harold Wilson came to power in 1974 promising to negotiate a better deal for Britain in the then European Economic Community and put membership to a national vote, his intentions were never quite matched by the reality. Wilson found that EEC member states were preoccupied with the 1970s economic crisis and were unwilling to concede much to Britain. Wilson had to settle for financial concessions in the form of the structural funds and not much else.
Cameron is entering a renegotiation of the terms of membership in an almost identical situation, but the bar is much higher in terms of expectations of what can be achieved. Cameron has hinted that he wants to push for Treaty changes, but there is very little appetite for this in Brussels: not least because it will open a Pandora’s box of demands from other member states. The other issue is that when the EU was pushing for Treaty change in 2011 to respond to the Eurozone crisis, Cameron vetoed it despite such changes not affecting the UK.
A number of issues that Cameron has raised, such as increased competitiveness of the EU, the reinvigoration of the Single Market, a stronger role for the EU in foreign policy, are already key priorities for the EU. So British demands actually become slightly confusing because it’s unclear what the Conservative Party wants from the negotiations. EU member states may simply turn around and say that the EU is currently doing all that Britain is demanding.
The good news is that over the weekend, the Presidents of the European Commission and European Council, as well as some national leaders, have said that they are prepared to listen to what London has to say. So Cameron could get some policy initiatives off the ground at EU level, he will also introduce some legislation at national level, such as the waiting time for EU migrants to claim benefits in the UK.
The bad news is that none of this falls under the banner of renegotiated terms of membership; they are all things that can be done within the EU’s existing legal framework. The British public may be disappointed with the final outcome and so too will Tory backbenchers. And for those in the Cabinet who will look to Brussels for favours, they will be disappointed too. EU leaders can look back at a period of five years in which the UK has become increasing disruptive and unaccommodating. Why then should they help the UK? All of this will be Cameron’s greatest challenge to date.