Wednesday, 12 August 2015

General Election 2015 - what really happened?

It is now just over three months since the General Election result and the political landscape has been transformed.  From a position of a virtual dead heat the Conservatives are now the dominant force in British politics with no serious opposition, the Labour Party are disintegrating, the LibDems have been reduced to a pile of rubble, no-one quite knows where UKIP are, and Scotland is virtually a one party state.  

In these last few months I have had time to read a lot, think about what has happened and look at the stats.  Not least, I have had a look at some of the things the British Election Study has identified about the motivations of the electorate.  Before the myths and legends of election 2015 take root I wanted to jot down a few things I believe to be true in understanding the drivers for the electorate at this election and where I think our politics are at.

A crucial thing to understand about General Election 2015 is that the Conservative Party did not see a significant increase in their support and there was not a return to 2 party politics.  Nor was there a significant reduction in Labour support from 2010 over the country as a whole.

The key dynamics were in fact the disintegration of LibDem support, the SNP landslide in Scotland and a large anti politics UKIP vote, although to negligible electoral effect. The Greens also had a larger vote than in previous elections, although less than they might have hoped.

 Source: Electoralcalculus

The Labour result was in fact a disaster saved only by defecting Liberal Democrats. This was made worse by the realisation that they were the opposition to not altogether popular government after five years of austerity in a financial crisis struck world.

One of the main features of election 2015 was the SNP tidal wave in Scotland where they won nearly all the seats and 50% of the vote.  The 2010 Labour voters who went over to the SNP were the most concerned by cuts in public spending, the least convinced about the need for deficit reduction, and felt that if we did have to address public spending it needed to be by tax rises and not cuts.

For left of centre inclined voters, the most effective thing to do in terms of electoral positioning was to be apparently centrist, anti-austerity, and economically competent.  This worked well for the SNP.  For Labour on the other hand, having a position which seemed to be austerity-lite did not work.  They probably needed to appear anti-austerity while economically competent to be more successful. 

In Scotland, Labour particularly lost out on not seeming anti austerity enough and the nationalist / anti politics sentiment grew.  

A paradox in Scotland that sealed the SNP rout of unionist parties was that a segment of Independence Referendum No voters voted SNP to take their popular vote to an unprecedented 50%.  This crucial group were partly looking for an anti-austerity proposal and were particularly beguiled by the prospect of a Labour minority administration given what they perceived as back-bone by the SNP. A smaller group were disappointed as they perceived there were not enough new powers for Scotland on offer when in fact significant powers had been brought forward and precisely according to the timetable promised.

In the election campaign there were a mass of contradictory claims, seemingly badly costed, confusing and complex.  Therefore, it was impossible to discern what the best deal was.  When the voting public is hit by conflicting claims of an unclear message they fall back on other simpler things to make up their minds. This means their view on the party leaders.  This was crucial.

The view of party leaders in comparison with Ed Miliband helped David Cameron.  It was also another factor which helped the SNP. 

What the LibDems were offering or what they were even for had become unclear and people had stopped listening to their leader some time before election.

The Greens fell back from a promising pre-election position because of this compounded by credibility of economic competence which unravelled somewhat for them during the campaign.

The Conservatives stuck very narrowly to a mantra of having a long term economic plan.  Economic competence, at least in contrast to Labour and their leader being relatively well thought of, again in comparison with Labour helped the Conservatives maintain and very slightly increase their 2010 support.  While this was not that impressive given 2010 was a disappointing result for the Conservatives as they failed to gain a majority after 13 years of Labour and an economic crisis, it was impressive given the rise of UKIP collecting anti politics support to their right.

The Conservatives were able to tactically cannibalise LibDem seats and squeeze enough LibDem voters and UKIP voters in key seats to win a majority under our First past the Post system.

The British Election Study found limited evidence of a fear of a Labour-SNP coalition driving votes to them.  However, both the Conservatives – who operated some very sophisticated voter modelling – and the LibDems found movement at the end of the campaign in LibDem seats to the Conservatives on this very fear tipping key seats into the Conservative column and ensuring the LibDem meltdown.

Interestingly, the Conservatives had some success moving UKIP supporters their way in key seats.  This did not happen in the north where UKIP were Labour facing.  However, this meant that while UKIP did well they only won one seat even though nearly 4 million voted for them.

So in short, an election where Labour lost on perception of economic competence and their leader but also for positioning themselves as austerity lite.  An election where the Conservatives won no ringing endorsement but won a majority under our system by a narrow message of competence or at least having a plan and a very effective tactical squeeze of LibDems and UKIPers in key seats.

But overall an election where the key dynamics were actually the destruction of the LibDems and the irresistible rise of the SNP.

I leave you with a question.  Is there a parallel between Scottish Nationalists and the Irish Nationalists of 1874 who came from nowhere to get 60 seats and it never went back?