“All politics is local…”: attrib. to Speaker Tip O’Neil.
Can it only be a year ago Labour lost the UK general election?
It was a short night for me after a three hour stint at the polling station. I went to the pub and then went home – not quite forlorn since as a lifelong Labour supporter I have sat through many disappointing election nights.
It was nevertheless quite a defeat. In the process of losing the election Labour lost all but one of its 40 odd Scottish constituencies. In Wales Labour also lost seats to the Conservatives and lost votes to UKIP. In England Labour managed to gain a few seats and votes and therefore in terms of total votes cast the total was somewhat better than at the nadir of 2010. In London alone was there was a swing to Labour – one of almost 3%.
The Liberal Democrats who had enjoyed a long period of electoral success from the early 1990’s until the 2010 General Election suffered a humiliating setback as devastating as Labour’s collapse in Scotland. Both their total vote and their seats fell dramatically. They were left with a rump of 8 MPs – quite eclipsed by the SNP with more than 50 MP’s.
The Conservative Party benefited from the LibDem collapse and from Labour’s collapse in Scotland and its failure to make headway in England. Their national vote increased by a fraction – and they gained a small overall majority of 12. Small it maybe but in effect it was a large working majority given that the Official Labour Opposition Lab had 232 seats that was almost almost a hundred seats behind the Conservatives. As Mrs Thatcher found in the mid 1970’s it is very hard for any opposition to cobble together enough votes to bring down a government. It is even harder these days since the constitutional changes wrought by the Coalition after 2010. The first past the post voting system had once more permitted the Conservatives to divide and to rule. Nevertheless, this was only the first Conservative government since John Major’s in 1992.
In 2015 in England the main beneficiary of the election was UKIP. Although they ended up with no more than one MP because their vote was spread evenly over England – and to some extent in Wales – nevertheless they won over 12% of the total votes cast and in that sense they were clearly established as the UK’s third party.
The Conservative government immediately set about pursuing its carefully hidden radical agenda of further economic reform – the planning reforms for example will make it easier for developers to make fast cash – combined with a further fire-sale of public assets and a fresh assault upon organised labour. Its ‘devolution’ revolution epitomised by the “Northern Powerhouse” is in reality a means whereby public expenditure is cut by central government but local government will carry the can….
These days party leaders who lose elections do not get a second chance. Since Neil Kinnock resigned the day after losing the 1992 election losing party leaders have followed his example. In 2015 this meant that neither Labour or the Liberal Democrats had a leader after early May 2015 until the autumn. This inevitably meant that – as after 2010 – Labour (and this time also the Liberal Democrats) were not in a position to offer a coherent political critique of new government’s policy. This has the unfortunate effect of permitting a government to readily establish a narrative for their actions and policies. That can seriously hamper effective opposition later in a Parliament.
There had been a strong case for both losing parties to leave their respective leadership elections until after the EU referendum. However, heedless as headless chickens the two parties pursued their internal leadership elections. This left the door open to the SNP who with their usual elan took the opportunity presented them. It doomed any small chance the Labour Party in Scotland had of taking a long cool look at the causes of its precipitate decline and perhaps being in better position to defend their seats in Holyrood this year. But as hindsight is all knowing calamities create their own political momentum.
In the end the Liberal Democrats chose Tim Farron as their new leader. He has since struggled with his Media profile. He lacks the charisma of say a Paddy Ashdown or even a Nick Clegg.
Labour – after what was without doubt an ugly divisive campaign – and operating what at its best might be called a flawed electoral system bequeathed to it by Ed Miliband – elected the left wing and political outsider – Jeremy Corbyn as its leader. Corbyn’s election drew in a large new membership to the party in its wake. This Peasant’s Revolt against a well-heeled leadership used to having things mostly its own way since 1994 left the commentariat as bamboozled as the old guard were concussed.
Following from Corbyn’s election there was a counter-revolution in the Parliamentary Labour Party as a number of leading figures refused to serve in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet. The PLP is most alarmed at the rapid move to the left and Labour’s abandonment of the politics of the ‘middle ground’. The tension between the PLP and the Party leadership has since then been acute and at times rancorous.
The vastly enlarged membership has since moved in the opposite direction. The claim from their side is that the tens of thousands of new members will bring in hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of new Labour voters if only the party holds to corbyn’s vision. There have been cries of “traitor” off stage and the term ‘Blairite’ is hurled with words like scum or Tory to those who disagree.
In this same febrile atmosphere Labour has undertaken a fundamental review of Defence Policy – even reconsidering the UK’s membership of NATO – long a Corbyn bete noir – and restoring old guard left-wingers like Ken Livingstone and Diane Abbott to places of influence. At the same time these same left-wingers found themselves skewed in the ‘hostile’ Media for their on-going associations with so-called ‘friends’ in organisations like Hezbollah. Just before voting in these elections this exploded into a toxic row over ‘anti-semitism’ within the party.
The EU referendum:
Whilst the opposition has been consumed by its own fight the government has been desperately trying to get the EU referendum – a sop to its rightwing membership – out of the way. This has led to a series of quite extraordinary missteps by the Conservative government. The EU renegotiations – such as they were – and the politics of the referendum have consumed the Conservative Party in its own brawl and perhaps lulled by Labour’s disarray the anti-EU faction have increasingly felt at liberty to stick rhetorical knives into the pro-EU majority in the government. .
None of the main UK opposition parties have been able to take much advantage from this largely Conservative civil war for a variety of reasons: Labour because its own political house is not yet in good order after the devastation of last May; UKIP like the government is consumed with the EU referendum; and the SNP has been similarly preoccupied with the politics of the EU and how it might steal advantage for their primary political cause – Scottish Independence.
The Elections of 2016:
This then provides the context for the recent elections.
Cognoscenti of the political commentariat predicted Labour would receive a drubbing – losing perhaps 200 seats. The polls had said so and so they framed the narrative for election night. The Scottish results were first in and Labour’s further collapse in Scotland to third place – losing yet another swathe of constituency seats – seemed to conform to the story. However, very soon it was apparent that local results In England saw Labour retaining control of most of its councils; whilst in wales it lost a single seat in the Assembly despite a drop of 7% in its vote..
The mismatch between the voting reality and the doom-laden predictions if anything have subsequently strengthened Corbyn’s position and the loyalty of his supporters in the party. Corbynite naysayers see only the light of justification by survival alone; and the Media doomsayers read the runes of political disaster for Labour as set forth in the Scottish play.
Neither side has yet seem the true significance of the results – partly because the results themselves came in three parts over as many days – and partly because the disaster for Labour in Scotland – where is became the third party in Holyrood behind the all dominant SNP and a mildly resurgent Conservative Party – set the tone which fitted the doomsayers narrative – and partly because neither side of the argument are much inclined to take into account any facts that do not fit their prejudicial prejudgement.
Therefore it might be helpful to look at the facts and then try to figure out what is going on rather than figuring what you think has gone on and finding the facts to fit the argument.
The last time the elections were run was 2012. Then the turnout was around 35%. The turnout this time was much higher – around 45% but in the mid 50’s in some places.
In 2012 this translated into a PNV ( Percentage of National Vote)
Labour 38%; Cons: 31% LibDem: 16%
2013 in the first election where the PNV calculation inlcuded UKIP
In 2015 the Local election PNV was:
Labour: 29% Cons: 35 % LibDem: 11% UKIP: 13%
This compare with the General election result – votes as it happens cast on the same day:
Labour: 30.5% Cons: 36.8% LibDem: 7.9% UKIP: 12.4 SNP: 4.7% Green 3.6% Plaid 0.6%
In 2016 the PNV ESTIMATES are:
Labour: 31% Cons: 30% LibDem: 15% UKIP: 11%
In 1996 – the first year of Blair
Labour: 46% Cons: 25% LibDems 24%
2006 – first year of Cameron
Labour 24% Conservatives 36% LibDems 26%
Source for PNS
The gain and loss of either seats or of councils are a less helpful guide simply because the Labour vote is well down on 2012 – the last series of elections before the dramatic rise of UKIP – and the Conservative vote this time has dropped since last year’s election. For the record Labour lost only 18 seats and the Conservatives lost 46. Labour gained Bristol but lost Dudley; the Conservatives gained Peterborough from NOC ( No Overall Control) but lost two other councils and the LIbDems gained Watford from NOC.
In Scotland Labour lost another tranche of seats in its Strathclyde heartland – mainly to the SNP although it was second in the overall number of constituency votes cast. However, Labour the under-performed in the Party list supplementary vote and this permitted the Conservatives to emerge as the second party in Holyrood and thus as the official opposition.
Wales was a repeat in the minor key of Scotland’s major disaster for Labour. although Labour emerged with 29 seats – largely because its constituency dominance – its total vote fell from just over 40% to just under 35%. Again its performance in the regional list, as in Scotland , was worse than its polling in the constituencies.
By way of contrast both in London and in Bristol Labour made serious progress. It not only gained both mayoralties it also retained control of the the Assembly in London and gained Bristol from NOC – indeed in London it fell less than a 2000 votes short of taking 13 seats in the Assembly – a result in the Greater London area akin to the SNP in Scotland. Though there is much talk about London being a ‘Labour city’ – akin to Scotland in the 1980’s – this is now rather a region that is taking a definite turn away from the Conservatives. This will have long term and important consequences for both Labour and Conservative parties.
The GLC area was first created in the 1960’s to ensure the Conservatives were competitive in controlling the metropolitan area through its dominance in the leafy suburbs – from places like Croydon and Bexley to Richmond and Bromley – but from election to election the Conservative party is becoming less and less competitive. Merton which changed hands to Labour this time around and Croydon and Havering are all now very close. Were Labour to gain one of these it would repeat in London the exact feat the SNP has achieved in Scotland. It must be remembered that again – as in Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland – the electoral systems in each of these regions was designed to prevent single party dominance. Devolution was designed to be inclusive and multi-party. Indeed the unspoken ambition was to create a system where Labour and the LibDems might hope to divide the spoils of office on an ongoing basis.
Since the local elections a firestorm of comment has spread across the Social Media much of it fuelled – on the many sides of the party debate – by false statistics and very unrealistic comparisons with the past.
The following conclusions may be considered:
1. UKIP’s explosion into the political scene after 2013 makes proper comparison with earlier local elections almost impossible – but both the rise of UKIP in England and of the SNP in Scotland themselves reflect at least partly a long term failure of Labour – but it equally also reflects upon the failures of the LibDems in more recent times; and upon the continuing decline in the Conservative Party since 1992 in the UK’s largest conurbations.
2. Local elections are not a transferrable indicator of party performance in the a General Election.
3. There is no evidence of a Corbyn bounce for Labour. Beneath any churn in the composition of the Labour vote – the party has been broadly left in % terms where it was at the GE of 2015. The Parliamentary by elections showed no rise in the Labour vote.
4. No opposition party with 32% share of the national vote in local elections has gone on to win a General Election.
5. The situation of Labour in Scotland is worse than in comparable elections in 2012 but it may now have stabilised. However, Labour cannot win a UK election with only 1 Scottish seat – this would require a swing of 13% – that is 3 per cent more than it achieved in 1997 and previously in 1945. Landslides of this scale do not come around that often.
6. The reason Labour held on to so many seats in England was due to the sharp drop in the Conservative vote.
7. The London region – where Labour was also up on its good GE result last year – continues its steady move away from the Conservatives. It might well be that London will do for Labour what Scotland did for it in the long wilderness years of the 1980’s and early 1990’s – provide it with a source of new political talent.
7. UKIP has displaced the Conservatives in much of the Labour heartland in the northern conurbations.
8. There was a mild recovery in LibDem performance in its old heartlands of the South and South West of England; it took control of the three way marginal of Watford; but remains a toxic brand still in Scotland and the cities of the North of England – although there is a single LibDem in Manchester now.
9. There has been no substantial decline in the UKIP vote.
10. Labour’s vote in Wales dropped by around 7%. It’s dominance in the Assembly was secured because the principal opponents in the constituencies were unable to take electoral advantage of this decline in Labour’s vote.
11. In Scotland, Wales and London Labour does less well in Party List vote shares than than in constituency votes. This is another problem for the party and is the reason the Conservative Party displaced them in Holyrood as the principal opposition.
These safe conclusions leave the Labour Party somewhere around the bottom of the mountain it has to climb. Corbyn has certainly not yet made things worse for Labour in terms of its electoral performance. All the by elections and now this much wider test show the party to be in much the same place as it was in the last 6 months of Ed Miliband’s leadership. whether is is possible to win an election from this position is a matter of conjecture.
If the Conservative Party were to fracture after the EU referendum – and its choice of new leader – were to further divide it – then it is perfectly possible to construct a scenario where a party with 33% of the vote could emerge as the governing party in a subsequent election. How much authority such a government could wield or how radical it could be is entirely another matter. however the problem with this scenario – akin to the LibDem votes coming over to Labour scenario of 2010-2015 Parliament – is it is no more than a scenario. It is perfectly possible for the Conservative Party also to win an election on a similar 33% or less if the Labour vote erodes to UKIP in the North and Midlands.At the end of the day scenarios are a parlour game for election buff and political junkies – strategies are what gives a party direction and persuades voters to elect them.
Here Sadiq Khan’s mayoral election offers a reasonable template for electoral success for Labour. Whether the leadership is minded to use it is entirely another matter. In the short term it seems more likely the template will be set aside and that Labour will pursue the broad aspirational political agenda of the left wing of the1980’s who have come into their own. At what point they decide there are too few votes in that strategy is unknown. It is quite possible that this season of political discontent will lead – as with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the USA – to a populist upheaval over-turning every aspect of the old order.
But revolutions like country busses do not come along that often…