Understanding the UK Election Defeat

Published: 13 May 2015.
Author: Pat Byrne (TSN Editor).

 As soon as it became clear that the big business Conservative Party was going to win the UK elections outright, the pound sterling rose and the stock market jumped for joy. And not surprisingly with the bankers Party continuing in power, bank stocks showed a particularly large rise. In the article below we analyse the election result and the reasons for it.

Most Forecasts Proved Wrong
The most remarkable thing about the UK election was the failure of the opinion polls. The pre-election debate was dominated by unanimous polling predictions that no party would have a majority, with the clear implication that the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition government was on its way out, to be replaced by a minority Labour Government. Consequently, the final result with a Tory overall majority of eight in parliament came as a massive shock which has significantly shaped reactions since.

Virtually the only commentator to resist the media consensus and predict a Conservative victory was Michael Roberts in his blog The Next Recession He commented in a characteristically speedy response:

“As I write on Friday morning after the 2015 general election, the incumbent Conservative party is heading for an outright majority in the new parliament. As I keep saying ad nauseam, this is what I predicted back in 2009 before the Tories (Conservatives) won the 2010 election and formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. The main reason for the victory , I think, was as I pointed out in a recent post, that the economic recovery since the Great Recession has reached a peak in the last year, with UK real GDP growth picking up from near zero in 2012 to 2.5%-plus in 2014 and with real income per head finally turning up.?

The Economic Cycle Benefited the Conservatives
Michael Robert?s accurate forecast of the election result was based on analysing past elections. He identified a clear pattern that showed that many voters tend to vote for the existing government if in the immediate run up to the election they have experienced a rise in living standards, sometimes for as little as six months beforehand. This is exactly what happened in Britain before this election. After four years of falling living standards, the upward turn of the economic cycle in Britain had finally started to deliver some small gains for sections of the workforce. This tied in with a long trend in falling unemployment levels – which despite being based mostly on the creation of low-paid self-employed work – allowed the Government to boast that their economic programme was a great success, especially in comparison to the rest of Europe.

Moreover, the emergence of another housing bubble with rising house prices and low mortgage interest rates meant that homeowners began to feel more prosperous. Such factors are undoubtedly temporary but they gave just enough credence to appeals by the government and media for the Conservatives to stay in office and complete their economic ?recovery? programme.

The Centre Demolished
In a similar result to the last national elections in Germany, the biggest loser in the election was the junior partner in the Coalition Government, the Liberal Democrats. Like the Free Democrats of Germany, the British Liberal Democrats took the blame for the pain and betrayals of the Coalition Government. The Liberal share of the national vote in this election dropped by nearly half, from 15.2% in 2010 to 7.9% today, while their presence in parliament collapsed from 56 to just 8.

The wipeout of the Liberal Democrats is further evidence, if any was needed, that much of the centre ground of politics in Europe is disappearing in the face of the great economic crisis and the continuing harm that is being inflicted on everyone but the super rich. Large sections of the population are now looking for more radical solutions either to the Left or Right. In some of the hard hit countries of Europe this has led to the emergence of mass radical alternatives to the traditional social democracy. Thus we see the rise of Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, the Socialist Party in the Netherlands, and Sinn Fein in Ireland.

However, in Britain, among other factors the electoral system has played an important role in barring the development of a credible left-wing alternative to Labour.

Unrepresentative Electoral System
The ?First Past the Post? electoral system in the UK does not accurately reflect the national votes cast or voters? preferences, but how they are distributed geographically. In this election, the system produced some very skewed parliamentary results. For example, Labour actually increased its share of the vote more than the Conservatives ? Labour?s share went up by 1.5% while the Conservatives rose only by 0.8% and between the two parties there was a small swing to Labour. Nevertheless, such was the local distribution of the votes that the Conservatives substantially increased their number of seats in the House of Commons while Labour?s fell considerably.

Overall, the Conservatives now have an outright majority in the UK parliament and form a government on its own despite having won only 36.9% of the vote.

Even more unfair was the way that electoral system treated the Green Party. Despite receiving 1.15 million votes and 3.8% of the overall vote, the Greens ended up with only one representative out of the 650 elected to Parliament.

More dramatic was what happened to the anti-EU right-wing populist United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). UKIP was the biggest vote gainer in the election – it took nearly 3.9m votes, 12.6% of the total – but because its votes were not concentrated heavily enough in certain local areas, it won only one seat in Parliament. In fact, this was a reversal as it meant that UKIP actually lost one of the two they had previously gained from Conservative defections in the last couple of years.

One of the few crumbs of comfort from election night was that UKIP?s leader, Nigel Farage, failed to win a seat and has since resigned his position. This may prove only a temporary departure but is a big victory compared to him entering triumphantly into the new parliament with all the publicity and prominence he might have gained there. But it is a salutary warning that at this election UKIP became the third biggest party in terms of votes.

A Scottish Tsunami
The other factor in the election outcome was the unprecedented success of the Scottish National Party. The SNP swept the board gaining 56 out of 59 Scottish seats. Most of these gains were from Labour including throwing out Jim Murphy, Labour?s Scottish Leader, and Douglas Alexander, their Foreign Affairs spokesman. From holding 41 Scottish parliamentary seats Labour now has only one. Yes, in Labour?s historic stronghold, it has just one seat! In addition, the Scottish Nationalists also removed many Liberal Democrats including their Treasury minister in the coalition government.

It should be pointed out that the success of the Scottish Nationalists was greatly exaggerated by the UK?s electoral system. Thus the SNP was able to win 56 seats in parliament with less than one and a half million votes. Compare that to only one seat for the Greens with 1.15 million votes or even more to UKIP?s single seat with nearly four million votes.

That said, after years of voting Labour the Scots went over to the SNP on a scale far beyond what the result of last year?s independence referendum would have suggested. This was because of the opportunist but brilliant strategy of the SNP which successfully undermined Labour among its core vote. Instead of trying to revive the Independence issue, the Scottish Nationalists posed as the radical anti-austerity Party, recognising how fed up working people are with Austerity and the cuts, as confirmed in one opinion poll after another.

However, any careful analysis of the SNP?s election programme and its record in office in Scotland would quickly reveal that it is a pro-business Party which accepts the key tenets of neo-liberal ideology. But presentation and image is important in an election, and the SNP were able to convince Labour voters that it was serious about ending the austerity programme and the cuts.

The SNP went further, claiming that it represented the ?old Labour Party? compared with the modern Labour Party which they correctly pointed out had abandoned and betrayed its roots.

To complete the strategy, the Scottish Nationalists were able to overcome the tendency of the two-horse British voting system which had excluded them from much success in previous UK-wide elections. In the past, Scottish voters who wanted to vote against the Conservatives tended to vote Labour as the only viable alternative. This time around, the SNP pledged that its Members of Parliament would vote to keep out a Conservative Government and gave a categorical commitment to support a Labour administration. In this way, existing Labour voters could feel reassured that a vote for the SNP was almost the same as a vote for Labour, but with the added bonus of supporting a radical anti-austerity platform which is what they wanted from Labour but were not getting.

The Lesson of Scotland
The obvious lesson here is that if Labour had adopted a decisive anti-austerity position and consistently campaigned for it in Scotland and across Britain as a whole, they would have won a big majority in this election. The Labour leadership are themselves aware of this, but they know that to break with austerity and the neo-liberal ideology behind it, would also mean to break with big business and the media which promote it. This is something that the existing Labour leaders are not prepared to do. Instead Ed Miliband, Labour leader for the last five years, repeated Neil Kinnock?s old mantra of ?refusing to make promises that we can?t keep?. Thus Labour refused to promise to stop and reverse the cuts, accepting the capitalist propaganda about the need to cut back on government spending and to ?balance the books?.

All Labour offered instead was merely a slower, ?liter? and less vicious version of austerity. This position made no sense at all and conceded the main argument to the Conservatives, robbing Labour of any potential to defeat the propaganda of the government and the media.

Similarly, Labour failed to effectively counter the other arguments of the Right, more often conceding ground to them and bowing before the reactionary capitalist media. As TSN supporter Will Howley succinctly put it: ?the ‘narrative’ on the banking collapse, the economy, Europe and immigration was set by UKIP & the Tories years ago, and not clearly challenged nor an alternative clearly made.?

Left Challenge to Labour Fails Miserably
Apart from in Scotland, the main challenge to the Left of Labour came from the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), with Left Unity standing joint candidates with them in a few areas. TUSC is supported by the CWI’s Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers Party and others including significant support from the RMT railway trade union. Although TUSC stood in 135 of the 650 constituencies they only received 36,000 votes out of 31 million cast which in percentage terms was only 0.1% of the total. Not only did they lose their deposits in each constituency where they stood, in many seats their vote was not much more than those received by joke candidates such as the Monster Raving Loony Party!

Compare this pathetic outcome to the explicitly anti-austerity Green Party whose 1.15 million votes and 3.8% share represented a trebling of support in this election.

To round up the rout, the only non-Labour left-wing member of the British Parliament, former Labour MP George Galloway, who was elected in the last parliament in a bye-election for the Respect Party, was easily defeated in Bradford West by the Labour candidate.

Once again these results demonstrate that trying to build a Left alternative to the Labour Party in England and Wales within the current election system offers no prospect of success.

The Issue of the Labour Leader
An additional question in the election was the personality of Ed Miliband, the Labour leader. Despite coming from a radical socialist background ? his father was Ralph Miliband a prominent émigré marxist academic ? Ed Miliband typified the modern middle class aspiring social democratic leader, graduating from elite Oxford University and working in media research and then as policy researcher in parliament. Not long after spending two years in the US, Miliband, like so many of the new breed of career politicians, was effectively parachuted into a safe parliamentary seat, the rock-solid working class constituency of Doncaster North, an area he had no connections with. After being elected to parliament in the 2005 election he was fast tracked into ministerial office reaching the position of Energy Minister just three years later. Move two years on and he was elected leader of the Labour Party. In the leadership election he stood as a candidate of the Left, promising to return internal democracy to the Party and to put the New Labour era behind us. But once elected he chose to abandon his promises of internal democracy and instead to compromise with the Blairite wing of the Party and pursue a centrist course within the Party which satisfied no one.

With a history behind him entirely restricted to a life in the cynical and manouvering world of parliamentary politics, it is not surprisingly that Miliband failed to connect with the working people of Britain. He came across as stiff, distant and intellectual, lacking the common touch expected of a Labour leader. This was undoubtedly a negative factor in the electorate?s perception of the Labour alternative, especially in this era of highly personalised, image-conscious presidential-style contests.

As it turned out, Miliband performed much better during the election campaign than he had in the previous period of his leadership. Likewise, Labour?s election campaign came across as more radical than expected, with the emphasis of Miliband?s speeches being on the need to address inequality and raise workers living standards. But it is not possible to overcome a poor image or an inadequate platform in the space of a few weeks. It needs years of consistent campaigning to explain a genuine alternative and to win the trust of the masses of people. Thus the election period was a largely dispiriting affair, with little enthusiasm among the population at what they saw as a choice between the main parties with only marginal differences between them and limited issues in dispute. No wonder then at the relatively low turnout of 66%, only a shade higher than in 2010 when working people were disillusioned with the ruling Labour government..

Labour Leader Resigns After Defeat
Once the result of the election became clear, Miliband resigned taking “full responsibility” for the defeat. The media immediately launched a series of interviews with old and present ?New? Labourites denouncing the campaign run under Miliband and attacking the trade unions for helping him win the leadership against his super Blairite brother.

Now the Labour right-wing are moving fast to lay the ground for the election of one of their number to lead the Labour Party, and for a reversal of the marginal shifts away from New Labour which had taken place under Miliband.

TSN supporter Rob Holt in his blog captures the anger which many activists will be feeling at this attempt to rewrite history and switch Labour even further to the right:

“The whole Labour Party implosion and soul searching thing really is bonkers. I mean, 7 days ago the polls were showing Labour in a strong position. Everyone was confident and calm. Then on election day, a shift of a few % points takes place for a host of complex reasons and suddenly Labour is in turmoil and now destined to spend 10 years in the ‘wilderness’.
?It’s the same party today as a week ago. It’s % share of the vote WENT UP!
The only difference being external pressure from assorted hostile media, pundits and other anti-Labour morons have imposed a completely false agenda on the party – one which dictates years of naval gazing and a move to the right.?

Recovery Will Be Difficult
It will be hard for Labour to find its way back in Scotland. Whilst its 24% of the vote is not small it has only one MP and the momentum is all with the SNP. What role the SNP and Labour will play in the anti-austerity struggles to come in Scotland remains to be seen and will determine the fortunes of both.

Meanwhile the Left inside the Labour Party is weak and we will have to mobilise better than before to withstand the onslaught of the coming period.

In reality, this painful defeat in 2015 was forged in the new ?New Labour? years under Blair and Brown when they lost 4.5m core working class votes. And by Labour?s role in the 2007-9 crash ? a disaster that has never been confronted by the leadership nor heard of by the public.

For all the nonsense being peddled that this election defeat is a failure of “old fashioned socialism”, the approach of Labour leader Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, his shadow Chancellor (economics minister), was hardly radical. Despite some valuable promised reforms and occasional populist rhetoric, they never answered the lie that Labour created the deficit by spending too much, choosing instead to mumble about not having enough bank regulation in the lead up to the banking crash. Instead of proposing a real economic alternative to the austerity programme of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, they offered just a little less austerity than the Tories. They never effectively fought the Tories on welfare or UKIP on immigration. Instead they tail-ended their arguments. Incredibly, the Blairites want to go further in that direction.

Relations with the European Union
A major issue in the run up to the election was the role of the European Union. An important part of the media?s strategy was to divert the anger of British workers away from the bankers and the super-rich by blaming the European Union for the crisis and the suffering being imposed through the austerity programme. Linked to this was the issue of the role of immigrants from the EU.

The British media gave massive publicity to the reactionary United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) as a safe haven for the disaffected. And the final outcome was perfect for the establishment ? with UKIP securing nearly 4 million votes but only one seat in parliament ? with discontent being channeled away from Labour but without undermining the position of the Conservative Party in parliament.

With the failure of the challenge from the anti-EU right, Conservative leader David Cameron will feel much more secure in campaigning to stay in the European Union in the In/Out Referendum planned for 2017. This means that a comfortable majority is likely in the Referendum and Britain will remain in the EU.

However, to achieve this the Conservatives and the majority of the media will have to argue some of the merits of the EU and point to positive improvements in Britain?s relationship to it. This will make it more difficult to play the ?EU card? in the near future and thereby to funnel discontent away from Labour towards UKIP.

A More Confident Ruling Class
There can be no doubt that the election outcome of May 2015 will embolden the political representatives of Britain?s ruling class. After having imposed deep and unpopular cuts in living standards, welfare benefits and public services, the Conservatives have managed through their control of the media and an ineffective Labour opposition to set workers against each other and present their economic programme as a success. As a result they have increased their position in parliament emerging with an overall majority without the need for coalition with any other parties. Now they will be feeling immensely confident in their ability to pursue a reactionary agenda and to persuade the public to go along with it. Already Conservative MPs have demanded an end to the bashing of the banks, calling for tax incentives for the finance industry. The Conservative Home Secretary has refused to accept any of the migrants being rescued from the Mediterranean, and the Tory Prime Minister has called for the repeal of the Human Rights Act.

On the economic front, we have a future of cuts and more cuts. Many of the reductions in welfare spending are still in the pipeline. And with the next economic downturn not far off this will be the basis for a further round of cuts and falls in the living standards. But there is only so much that working people will take.

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A Future of Struggle
Elections are important but they are not the end of the story. Indeed, only 24% of the electorate actually voted for the Conservatives so this is hardly a ringing endorsement of neo-liberalism. Now resistance must move into our workplaces, communities, schools and streets.

Already the day after the election there was a demonstration against the new government held near the Prime Minister?s residence. Our first response to the emboldened Tory attacks on all fronts must be a big turnout for the People’s Assembly anti-austerity march on June 20th in order to build a mass fightback against the current and forthcoming attacks.

Likewise, we need to make sure that the Labour Right does not succeed in winning the leadership of the Party, and in the process build a much stronger left-wing movement within all sections of the labour movement.

1 thought on “Understanding the UK Election Defeat”

  1. Interesting analysis with inevitable scapegoating and failed prescriptions. The Tories laugh every time they read this stuff. Modernisers are on the March again, and about time!


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