Labour dies again

Ross McKibbin

As the pollsters retire to their attics to discover what went wrong, we can reflect on this historic election. The share of the total vote won by the two major parties changed only slightly, but Ukip replaces the Lib Dems as the third party by number of votes and the SNP is the third party in the Commons by number of seats and will inherit the Lib Dems’ privileges and its office space. This fragmentation favours the Tories. Despite Labour’s catastrophic result in Scotland – it dropped from 41 seats to one; the SNP now has 56 – in Great Britain as a whole its total vote actually rose by 1.4 per cent; the Tory vote was up 0.8 per cent. In England the Tory vote rose by 1.5 per cent and Labour’s by 3.5 per cent. The big winner in England in terms of vote share was Ukip, which won 14.1 per cent of the vote. Turnout across Britain was slightly higher than in 2010, which is largely explained by the higher turnout in Scotland, continuing the trend begun in the referendum. Turnout in major cities remains low. In Manchester Central, which has a large student population, it was only 46 per cent. As ever, Northern Ireland went its own way.

The electoral system was shown to be as perverse as ever. The Tories have a majority although they won just 37 per cent of the vote. (In 2005 Labour got a much larger majority with an even smaller share.) The half of the Scottish electorate that did not vote SNP is effectively disenfranchised, as are Ukip voters. Even the Lib Dems are seriously under-represented. There was a random element to the result, as must be the case with first past the post, though sitting MPs tended to do well, which favoured the Tories.

The Tories gained 27 seats from the Lib Dems and nine from Labour. But they also lost ten seats to Labour. They dominate the South of England outside London, and East Anglia; Labour’s representation is confined to the cities and a few of the larger, rather unrepresentative towns, like Oxford and Cambridge. The Conservatives held on with intact majorities to places like Swindon, Reading and Milton Keynes, where Labour had hopes. Suburban England, where the Lib Dems had been serious competition for the Tories, is now overwhelmingly Conservative. The party also won seats in towns with strong Labour traditions: Southampton, Plymouth, Derby and Bolton, for example. They are a little weaker in the North but not much. The Tories did well in Wales, where they won 11 seats, taking two from Labour and one from the Lib Dems – part of a process by which Wales is becoming assimilated into English politics. And they made remarkable gains in former Lib Dem areas of the South-West. They held their one Scottish seat.

For Labour the result was dismaying, largely because of its collapse in Scotland. In England the picture was much more mixed. In addition to its net gain of one seat from the Tories, it won 12 from the Lib Dems and unseated George Galloway in Bradford. A net gain outside Scotland of 14 seats is disappointing but not catastrophic. Labour did well in London, as expected, winning 45 of 73 seats and gaining four seats from the Conservatives and three from the Lib Dems. The social-ethnic structure and political culture of London seems to make it impervious to the rightward trend of the rest of southern England. Labour also strengthened its hold on the major English cities, again because of their social-ethnic structure. The party is piling up majorities where it does not need them. All the candidates elected with more than 70 per cent of the vote were Labour. The only one to win more than forty thousand votes was Stephen Timms (East Ham), who also had the third largest majority. In the early 1950s Labour had huge and useless majorities in the mining seats; now these majorities are in the cities. The problem is its results outside urban areas: Labour made no serious advance in southern England outside the cities; it made some gains in the North, but not as many as it expected. Here Ukip was probably the cause, though its supporters might, in its absence, have voted Tory rather than Labour, even if they had once been Labour voters.

The Lib Dems lost all but eight of their 57 seats, two-thirds of their vote and almost £150,000 in parliamentary deposits. They won six seats in England, one in Wales and one in Scotland. There is no pattern to the seats they now hold; all that can be said is that they are now emphatically not a working-class party. They lost all but one of the seats in which they are in competition with Labour, most of them with huge swings. From the moment the coalition formed and its terms became clear, Lib Dems in working-class seats were done for. They had usually been elected as a leftish alternative to Labour in constituencies where Labour was thought not much different from the Tories. The only MP who appears to have understood that was Sarah Teather (Brent Central) who was sacked from her ministerial post and decided not to stand again. Unsurprisingly, having reneged on their manifesto promise to scrap tuition fees, the Lib Dems lost wherever students bothered to vote.

The Lib Dem collapse in middle-class England was less predictable. In so far as they had (and have) a base it is in the provincial and rural middle class, especially in western England. There, they thought, they had a number of MPs who would always command local loyalties. But the coalition profoundly altered the conditions by which they would be judged. A striking feature of the last parliament was the silence of Lib Dem MPs. They trudged through the lobbies supporting legislation many of them did not like, despite claiming they weren’t lobby fodder. And Nick Clegg’s assertion that they were proud of what the coalition had done, though they weren’t really full partners in it, yet would probably form another coalition with the Tories even so, was utterly unconvincing. The history of the old Liberal Party suggests that this was never a viable line to take. In circumstances where ‘stability’ is thought indispensable, middle-class electors will vote for the real thing, not for a junior coalition partner with no obvious raison d’être. Some will blame Clegg, who did make many elementary misjudgments, but no one in the party tried to rein him in. The only way the Lib Dems could have remained as a significant parliamentary force was if some form of PR had been adopted or if the Lib Dems had made an electoral agreement with the Conservatives (as the right-wing Liberals did in the 1930s) in anticipation of a renewed coalition. But reform was rejected in the 2011 referendum and neither party was prepared to seek an electoral agreement. For the Tories, the Lib Dems were merely a useful convenience. A measure of Lib Dem desperation was Clegg’s comment that he saw no real problem with holding a referendum on EU membership. After that hardly anything was left.

The future of the Lib Dems is unclear. Their effort to be a party of government has clearly failed. Although much attenuated, they still have a base, and their future might be their past: as a party whose political function – an important one – is to absorb and express popular dissatisfaction. At the moment neither Ukip nor the Greens seem able to do that. But to do this the Lib Dems must keep their distance from the two major parties. Holding the balance is one thing; being obliged to take sides is another.

Outside Scotland, inner London and some of the major cities Ukip polled respectably everywhere. Although it won only one seat it came second in 120 more. It did well in constituencies feeling social and economic pressure: the Thames estuary towns, ports and seaside towns, the declining industrial communities of the North-East and the North, places like the east coast and Cambridgeshire where there are large numbers of agricultural workers from EU countries. Ukip does well where levels of tertiary education and income are low, and its voters tend to be older and white. They are people who not unreasonably feel abandoned by the Conservatives and New Labour, and who cannot easily adjust to modern Britain, and to its new ethnic composition in particular. Not all Ukip’s parliamentary candidates, however, were old and white. Several of them were of Asian origin, which might seem to support Ukip’s stated view that if you are in this country legally, you are British. Lots of Ukip members, and candidates, don’t really believe that, but it’s important to the party because it stops it from looking like the BNP. Its future, like that of the Lib Dems, is unpredictable. Insurgent parties usually have short lives and much depends on what success the Conservative Party has in its attempts to liberate Britain from its EU obligations, especially concerning the free movement of labour. Even so, the circumstances which created Ukip show no sign of disappearing.

In some respects the SNP’s victory is similar to that of the Irish Parliamentary Party under Parnell in the 1880s. But everyone knew that when the franchise was widened in Ireland it was likely to achieve a spectacular victory. Southern Ireland was still a rural and pious society. Scotland isn’t and the vanquished party, Labour, had won comprehensively under a democratic franchise only five years before. Until 7 May the SNP’s best parliamentary performance had been in October 1974. The Conservative Party was the first of the major parties to lose its Scottish base. It won more than 50 per cent of the vote in Scotland in 1955, but its decay began as secularisation undermined its standing as the Protestant party. From then on Scottish political loyalties increasingly diverged from England’s, and the beneficiary was usually Labour. Its problem was that the more successful it was the more it resembled a Tammany party: rather lazy, a little corrupt and very self-satisfied. Its best people continued to go to Westminster, even after the Scottish Parliament was set up in 1999; the early death of Donald Dewar, who went in the other direction, robbed the Scottish party of one of its few heavyweights. Over the last decade Labour has lost control of events: the formation of the first (minority) SNP government in 2007; then the SNP’s success in winning a majority in the Parliament in 2011; the mobilising effects of the independence referendum; David Cameron’s decision (presumably well prepared) to use the result as an excuse to push for ‘English votes for English measures’, which allowed the SNP to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. From that moment, as Scottish MPs knew, Labour was finished – not least in its own heartlands. The SNP had created a cross-class, quasi-social democratic alliance, anti-Union and anti-Tory, for whom the Labour Party, which had allied with the Conservatives in the Better Together campaign, was no better than the Tories.

For Labour the loss of Scotland was a genuine catastrophe. Only under the most exceptional circumstances can Labour now win an outright majority in Parliament without Scotland. To do so it will have to win scores of seats in England and Wales. The evolving social structure of England and Wales, though not without possibilities for Labour, is working against that possibility. Above all, the drastic decline in the industrial working class and in union membership has greatly weakened a political culture that once strongly favoured Labour. The loss of seats like Gower and Nuneaton, both former mining areas, is a reminder of that. Similar declines have affected social democratic parties across Europe; the Labour Party’s difficulties are not all Ed Miliband’s fault and it has not lost support because it is too left-wing. Other than this structural crisis Miliband’s main problem was not his geekiness, but Labour’s very poor performance in England in 2010 – for which New Labour must bear much of the responsibility. He at least stopped the rot, though the Blairites in the press and in Parliament give him no thanks.

Labour could have done better in England, even so. It did badly in marginal seats, but it almost certainly did not lose them because its timidly redistributive programme was too left-wing, as the Blairites are now claiming. As far as we can tell there were three reasons for Labour’s poor performance in England. One was Miliband’s personality. People agreed that he had a good election, but he still seemed somehow not ‘prime ministerial’, the fate of many opposition leaders. More damaging was the reputation of the last Labour government for economic incompetence. Although Labour’s supposed overspending did not cause what happened in 2008, the Conservatives have succeeded in making people believe their version of events. The third reason was the desire for stability. The Tories always play to this even when they have failed to provide it. In this election, after the opinion polls suggested a hung parliament and the possibility of a Labour government dependent on SNP support, stability as against chaos really did become an issue and the triumphalism of the SNP didn’t help. The fear of chaos (drummed up not just by the Tory press), together with a suspicion of the SNP, threw Labour very much on the defensive. The scare tactics worked, affecting Labour both directly and indirectly. Indirectly because the predicted electoral landslide in Scotland was probably one reason for the fall of the Lib Dems in England: former Lib Dem voters voted for stability, which meant voting Tory.

The press treated Miliband even more viciously than they did Kinnock in 1992. Most of the Tory papers became propaganda sheets designed to protect the interests of their owners. Rupert Murdoch certainly seems to have thought that his media interests would not survive a Miliband government intact. Miliband hasn’t been forgiven for his attitude to phone hacking, press regulation, monopoly ownership and non-dom tax status. Much of the abuse will have been discounted, and the overkill excited some sympathy for Miliband (the #milifan craze on Twitter was one unlikely development). It is unlikely, however, that all of it was discounted. Any reader of the Tory press would have concluded that Miliband was a ridiculous figure who couldn’t be trusted in government. It’s also true that what the press doesn’t say is as damaging as what it does. More important, the press and television were responsible for deficit fetishism: the almost universal belief that the elimination of the budget deficit is essential for the well-being of the country and should therefore be the first task of any responsible government. This view justifies the Tories’ insistence on austerity. In seeking ‘expert’ opinion, as Simon Wren-Lewis pointed out in the LRB of 19 February, the media turn to City economists who ‘have a set of views and interests that do not reflect the profession’ and who cheerfully support deficit fetishism. I doubt that Cameron or Osborne care two hoots about the deficit; nor do the editors of the financial press. Cameron and Osborne use the deficit to justify a drastic reshaping of the welfare state; the editors to ensure that their kind of people stay in charge. Unfortunately, the Labour Party nervously acquiesced in deficit fetishism, and so gave the game to the government. Miliband and Balls should never have allowed the Tories’ claims to go unchallenged.

Where do the two major parties go from here? Even though the Tories have only a small majority, they face a fragmented opposition. They have a formidable political machine and a secure base in the South of England. But the next five years contain many traps. As prime minister, Cameron has always been a man for the short term, and in putting things off he has given several hostages to fortune. He must now begin his negotiations with an exasperated EU. The best he can hope for is some cosmetic agreement which he can present to his party and the country as victory. But he is very unlikely to get any concessions on the free movement of labour and that is what concerns his Eurohaters above all. These negotiations could be a nightmare, as could the subsequent referendum, from which there is no escape.

What the government will do about the Union no one knows. The semi-destruction of Labour in Scotland is not good for Britain. Labour was the only real party of the Union; the only party that could and did win a majority in Britain’s three constituent parts; the only party that really believes it should be preserved. Within the Conservative Party there has always been tension between the party of the Union and the party of England. Its conception of the Union always was Anglocentric and it has become even more so. Many Conservatives would be happy to give Scotland its independence. That, however, would be fearsomely difficult, and the SNP probably doesn’t want it. Independence would mean the return of conventional party politics to Scotland, to its likely detriment. The Tories and the SNP have a mutual interest in keeping Labour down and out in Scotland. What could emerge is some fudged agreement on fiscal autonomy well short of independence, which leaves the SNP with a useful source of complaint. Those negotiations could be nightmarish too.

And the government has committed itself to another £12 billion in cuts in welfare benefits, which the victims (probably many of them Ukip voters) will not like. Their mandate for all this comes from just 37 per cent of the vote (even John Major got 42 per cent in the miraculous victory of 1992), most of it from a large and flighty middle class that has much less instinctive loyalty to the Tories than the old middle class had.

Labour’s position is much shakier. Only with real difficulty can it win an outright majority in England and Wales alone; and a minority government dependent on the SNP would be unpopular in England. The best that Labour can hope for is a minority government which should immediately introduce some form of PR (without a referendum). It must also make much more effective use of television and digital media if it is to limit the influence of the Tory press. What it should not do is turn itself back into New Labour. The New Labour ‘project’ was finished by the 2005 election: its creative energies were exhausted and its failures increasingly apparent. That New Labour’s paladins claim Labour lost because it forgot the ‘aspirational middle class’ – a moth-eaten concept known only to journalists and New Labour politicians – exposes its intellectual poverty. They are right, however, that in some sense Labour must become a middle-class party. That is a demographic truism. But the term means very little: the middle class today has little shared opinion or culture. It is the absence of commonality that in the long term gives Labour its best hope.