Saturday, 9 May 2015

Some thoughts on the UK general election

Here are a few random thoughts on the election results.

The polls didn't get it that wrong

Yes, we were all surprised at the results.  But when you look at the raw figures, the opinion polls weren't vastly out of whack.  Here is a comparison of the actual results with the final figures from the BBC's pre-election Poll of Polls:
Conservative - 36.9% instead of 34%
Labour - 30.4% instead of 33%
UKIP - 12.6% instead of 13%
Lib Dems - 7.9% instead of 8%
The discrepancies turned out to be enough to make a major difference to the result, but the figures themselves weren't all that far out, particularly when you consider that opinion polls always have an inbuilt margin of error.

Comparisons have been made to the well-known opinion polling errors prior to the 1992 general election.  But the pollsters were significantly closer to the mark this year than they were in 1992.  Back then, the final opinion polls predicted a 1% Labour lead, but the Conservatives ended up winning by 8%.  The mistake was therefore 9% as opposed to 6.5%.

The Conservatives shouldn't rest too easy

It wasn't the result that I would have preferred, but David Cameron deserves his victory and can be rightly proud of himself.  Yet things are only going to get more difficult from this point onwards.  Cameron is dependent on a majority of just 12 seats - the smallest majority of any Conservative government in living memory.

In particular, David Cameron's majority today is smaller than John Major's majority in 1992.  Major managed to gain 21 seats over the other parties - and we all remember how he was savaged by his own right-wing backbenchers and ended up having to scrape up votes from the Ulster Unionists.  By 1996, Major had lost even his theoretical majority due to by-elections and defections.  This, or something like it, will happen to Cameron.  It is a racing certainty.

What's more, the Conservatives have failed to reverse their long-term decline in popularity.  Their high water-mark in recent history remains Major's 14 million votes in 1992 - or, even further back, Ted Heath's 46.4% share of the vote in 1970.  The Tories have steered the country out of a severe recession, and Cameron personally was facing two comedy characters (Miliband and Farage) as his main adversaries.  Yet the party still struggled to win over more than a third of the electorate.  That should worry them.

There should, in theory, be no no-go areas for the Tories.  They had a majority on Liverpool City Council in the 1970s.  Glasgow City Council had a Conservative leader as late as 1979.  But today, as Matthew Parris observed in The Times, no Tory leader could convincingly use John Howard's 1996 slogan from Australia: "For all of us".  This is not because Howard was some kind of soft, moderate consensualist and Cameron isn't - far from it.  It is because there are invisible divides of class, region and culture that the Conservative Party is still unable to cross.  The Tories' rhetoric of skivers-versus-strivers and Scot-baiting has not helped with this.  Even a social democrat like me can see that it is in everyone's interests for the country to have a strong, responsible centre-right political party.  I'm still not sure that we have one.

Nor should Labour

The country also needs a strong, responsible centre-left party; and it may or may not get one any time soon.

There must be a temptation to blame the defeat on Ed Miliband and his bacon sandwich - and indeed, if David had been chosen as leader in 2010, we would probably have woken up to a Tory/Lib Dem/DUP coalition.  But blaming it all on Ed is a bit too easy.  As Tristram Hunt put it, the problem isn't the lead singer, it's the lyrics.  It's also too easy to blame the result - as many leftists would dearly love to - on Rupert Murdoch.  If it wasn't for the right-wing media, plumbers from Essex and small farmers in Norfolk would presumably come back round to their natural allies like Polly Toynbee and George Monbiot.

If the Conservatives aren't a national party, Labour today are even less of one.  Labour at least had Scotland to point to.  But now God's own country is a sea of Nationalist yellow, while the whole of southern England outside London is an almost unbroken swathe of blue.  Labour has once again been reduced to its strongholds in the north of England and south Wales.

At Labour's low point in 1983, Michael Foot managed to hold 209 seats.  Labour today hold 232.  This is a really dismal performance from a great national party.

There is a route for Labour back into power, but it doesn't come via things like opposing the benefit cap.  Nor, for that matter, via things like the mansion tax, which makes sense on paper but is essentially comfort food for the party faithful.  Most voters don't care about this stuff.  Miliband eventually realised that they do care about the NHS, but even there he learned the wrong lesson.  You can't build an entire campaign out of scaremongering about healthcare privatisation.

The electoral system is back on the agenda

It was a national scandal that Labour won a majority on the back of 35.2% of the vote in 2005, and it is hardly less of a scandal that the Conservatives have now repeated the trick with 36.9%.  There is something fundamentally wrong with a system that purports to be democratic and yet gives 100% of the power, for 5 years, to a government which won barely more than a third of the vote.

First Past the Post works well enough in two-party systems, like the American system with its Republicans and Democrats.  It also works tolerably well in systems like that of postwar Britain in which there is the anomaly of one small third party like the Liberals.  But we're not in that world any more.  Britain today has a genuine multi-party system.  The Lib Dems are still there.  UKIP has now joined them.  The Greens are on the verge of the big time.  The SNP are already there.

Not all of these parties may retain their current popularity.  Nationalist parties tend to do well when economic times are hard, and both UKIP and the SNP have probably reached their peak.  But they're not going to go away.  People are no longer tribally loyal to the two big brands.  They also seem to need a protest party or parties, and it is probably not a coincidence that the rise of UKIP and the Greens has a fairly close statistical correspondence with the decline of the Lib Dems.

The trend away from a two-party system is a long-term one and goes back as far as the 1950s.  The weird result of the 2005 election, the hung Parliament in 2010, and today's diminutive majority won from barely a third of the vote - these can no longer be written off as isolated aberrations.  They are the new normal.

The big problem, of course, is that the voters rejected electoral reform in the 2011 referendum.  And in a democratic system, the voters are never wrong.

A lot of people still don't care enough to vote

The turnout level was 66.1%.  The Apathy Party beat both the Tories and Labour.  The turnout was about the same as last time, and markedly higher than the low point of 2001, which produced a figure of 59.4%.  Having said that, the Tories effectively chose not to contest the 2001 election, so that figure is misleading.  Even war-torn Iraq managed a 62.1% turnout in the legislative elections last year.

This is worrying.  People congratulated themselves when the Scottish independence referendum last year produced a turnout of 84.6%.  Another way of seeing that figure would be that one in six Scots didn't even care whether or not their country was abolished.

No-one knows what the solution is.  There is something to be said for compulsory voting (or at least compulsory bothering to turn up at the polling station - some people do have principled reasons for refusing to cast a ballot).  But that does smack of treating the symptom rather than the disease.  What the cure is, is anyone's guess.