UK General Election Analysis
Guest Blog by Bill Gidding
Why did Labour and the LibDems do so badly at the polls and why was it such a surprise? At first glance, the answer seems obvious. Scots who narrowly lost the referendum on independence last year decided to give the SNP one last try at gaining more power for Scotland through Westminster. In England, relentless campaigning by the Conservatives and the mass media convinced voters that the Labour Party could not be trusted with the economy and might be tempted to ‘do a deal’ with the SNP that would somehow be against the national interest. Meanwhile as junior coalition partners, the LibDems were unable to distinguish themselves sufficiently in government to stop their supporters voting in droves for the real thing once they were given the choice between a Deputy PM and an actual PM.
A more careful examination of the election results, however, reveals a very different picture. In nearly every case where LibDems or Labour lost seats, it was because people who previously voted for them were this time voting for a more ‘left-wing’ alternative – or not voting at all. The net result of voting for what was in most cases a smaller party meant that the Conservatives were left with a de facto majority even without necessarily gaining a single vote from the other parties.
We cannot know exactly who voted which way and why they did it, of course. But by comparing results constituency by constituency with the results of that same constituency in 2010, some very clear patterns emerge and they lead to some inescapable conclusions.
In terms of seats, the Conservatives gained a total of 8 seats from Labour and 26 from the LibDems (plus 1 that was previously held by an Independent), while losing 10 to Labour and 1 to the SNP, for an overall gain of 24 seats. Out of 650 parliamentary seats, a gain of 24 is not that many. In fact, the Conservatives increased their overall share of the vote by just 0.8% – from 36.1% in 2010 to 36.9% in 2015.
Labour on the other hand increased its share of the vote by 1.4%, from 29.0% in 2010 to 30.4% in 2015, even though it had a net loss of 26 seats. The Liberal Democrats, of course, lost a large number of seats as well as votes, while the SNP gained almost the same number.
The reason why opinion polls of voting intention right up to polling day turned out to be wrong is quite simple. Most opinion polls use a sample size of around 1,000 voters to get a remarkably accurate snapshot of the country as a whole, within a standard margin of error of approximately 3%. So when polls predicted Conservatives and Labour neck and neck on roughly 33% each, what that really meant was that pollsters were reasonably confident (with a 95% likelihood) that they would each poll somewhere between 31.5% and 34.5% of the vote. That in itself was not that far off the mark, although as we shall see the numbers of people who actually voted made a significant difference. But translating those percentages into seats is way beyond what any opinion poll can do with any degree of accuracy when the voting is so close in individual constituencies and there are so many local variables that could swing things in more than one direction.
Of the 110 seats which changed hands in this election, 32 of them did so with such tiny majorities as to make it impossible for any poll ever to predict. The Conservatives won Gower from Labour, for instance, with a majority of just 27 votes. They won Derby North from Labour with just 41 votes. They won Bolton West from Labour by 801 votes and Eastbourne from the Liberal Democrats by just 733 votes. No poll would have been able to reliably predict which way seats like that would go with such tiny numbers of votes involved.
And while the overall turnout for the election was roughly 66.1%, one percentage point higher than in 2010, this figure disguises quite large discrepancies from constituency to constituency. In 181 constituencies, the turnout was above 70%, including many in the 75% range and as high as 81% in Renfrewshire East. Apart from Scotland, virtually all the seats with a turnout of more than 70% were traditionally Conservative ones.
In 100 constituencies, the turnout was below 60%, many in the low 50s and even as low as 46% (Manchester Central). Apart from Northern Ireland, virtually all the constituencies with turnout below 60% were ones where traditionally Labour has been strong.
The size of the electorate also varies from constituency to constituency, but assuming an average size of around 70,000 electors in a constituency, the difference between a 60% turnout and a 70% turnout is about 7,000 votes. Since nearly all the constituencies which changed hands, outside of Scotland, did so with majorities of considerably less than 7,000, we must assume that the people who chose not to vote – or what we might call the Russell Brand factor – are at least as important to the outcome in many constituencies as those who did actually cast a vote.
Indeed, the real winner of this election was ‘none of the above’, since 33.9% of all registered voters did not vote at all, while only 23.8% of all registered voters actually voted Conservative, 19.9% for Labour and 22.4% for other parties.
This does not take into account those who were eligible to vote in this election but did not even register to vote. Because of changes in the voter registration process which took effect in 2014, it was estimated that as many as 7.5 million people who were eligible to vote were nonetheless not on the electoral register. While more than 2.3 million people registered to vote in the final days leading up to the deadline for voter registration in April, there are as yet no accurate figures available for the number of people who were eligible to vote but not registered, and therefore not able to vote on polling day.
Labour lost 40 seats to the SNP in Scotland. That much is clear. And in most of those seats, turnout was high and the SNP majority was high, overturning previously ‘safe’ Labour seats with swings of 30% and more. The only possible conclusion that can be drawn from the result in Scotland is that huge numbers of previously loyal Labour voters switched their allegiance to the SNP.
The exact same pattern occurred in LibDem seats in Scotland, with the one exception of Berwickshire, where the Conservatives had been the second largest party and almost gained the seat as a result of the LibDem vote going to a much smaller third party (ie SNP) while the Conservative vote remained intact. In the end, the SNP took that seat with a majority of just 328 over the Conservatives.
In the one seat which Labour retained in Scotland, Edinburgh South, the incumbent MP, Ian Murray, fought a strong anti-Trident, anti-austerity campaign, deviating sharply from national Labour policy and campaigning strategy on those issues. His narrow escape from the fate of his 40 Labour colleagues in Scotland is illustrative of the reasons why the SNP took so many votes away from Labour in Scotland.
Whether or not the SNP can be considered a party of the ‘left’ is open for debate. However, they clearly fought on a campaign of opposing Trident, opposing austerity, and challenging the Conservatives across a whole range of issues on which the Labour Party was seen as being very soft.
Since a clear majority of Scots voted against independence in the referendum only last year, it does not make sense to conclude that they voted SNP in this election in order to further the cause of Scottish independence per se. It is much more likely that large numbers of Scottish voters were incensed that the Labour Party so closely aligned itself with the coalition government not only on the referendum issue, but also on many other issues of particular concern to Scots, such as the renewal of Trident and the austerity cuts.
Labour could hardly have expected to hold onto many of its seats in Scotland after Ed Milliband said he would rather give up the chance to govern than to go into any kind of coalition arrangement with the democratically-elected MPs from Scotland. Nevertheless all the opinion polls were already suggesting that the SNP would sweep the board in Scotland and at least in that one instance, the polls were right.
Voting for alternatives on the left
What about in England, then? Did the Labour Party lose out to the Conservatives because they were too left-wing for the English electorate? The Conservatives took a total of 8 seats from Labour and lost 10 seats back to Labour, so the net result was 2 seats gain for Labour. In 4 of the 8 seats lost to the Conservatives, the resulting majority for the Conservatives was smaller than the total number of votes for the Green Party in those seats. In other words, if the Labour Party had managed to appeal to voters opposed to, for instance Trident and the austerity cuts, they might well have kept those seats. In Vale of Clwyd, there was no Green candidate, but the Plaid Cymru candidate in this case polled 10x more votes (2,486) than the final Conservative majority turned out to be (237). And in Plymouth Moor, the Green vote plus a small number of TUSC party votes added up to more than the Conservative majority of 1,026.
The final two seats which the Conservatives took from Labour (Bolton West and Southampton Itchen) also involved very small majorities that are almost entirely accounted for by votes going to the smaller left-wing parties.
Table 1: Labour seats lost to the Green or Plaid Cymru vote
||Green/Plaid Cymru vote
|Morley and Outwood
|Vale of Clwyd
Source: The Guardian, election result supplement, 9 May 2015
The Liberal Democrats lost a total of 49 seats. The nine lost in Scotland to the SNP and the 12 lost to Labour in England can easily be explained by the fact that the Liberal Democrats, even more than Labour, were associated with the Conservative agenda on austerity, Trident and many other issues which LibDems had previously fought against. But how do we explain the 26 seats that went to the Conservatives?
When not voting LibDem means the Conservatives win
The fact is that in many of the (previous) LibDem strongholds, particularly in the Southwest of England, the Labour Party has been very weak to virtually non-existent. These have been straight two-way contests between LibDems (ie Liberals) and Conservatives for many decades.
What happened in this election was that large numbers of LibDem voters, dissatisfied with their party’s alignment with the Conservatives, instead voted Labour (or Green). But with Labour having no chance of winning many of those seats, the Conservatives ended up winning – without increasing their share of the vote to any significant extent. In five of the LibDem seats which were lost to the Conservatives, the Green vote was greater than the resulting Conservative majority, so in those cases it was LibDems voting Green who gave the constituency to the Conservatives.
Table 2: LibDem seats lost to the Green vote
Source: The Guardian, election result supplement, 9 May 2015
In 10 other constituencies the increased Labour vote, or a combination of the two, lost a LibDem seat to the Conservatives.
Table 3: LibDem seats lost to the Labour vote
|Berwick on Tweed
|Brecon and Radnor
|Kingston and Surbiton
|Sutton and Cheam
|Thornbury & Yate
Source: The Guardian, election result supplement, 9 May 2015
Results from a high turnout of Conservative voters
In the remaining 10 seats where LibDems lost to the Conservatives, the total votes for Labour, Green and other small parties do not add up to enough votes to explain how the Conservatives were able to achieve such sizable majorities from the collapsed LibDem vote. In Chippenham, for instance, Conservatives gained a 10,000 majority from a fall in the LibDem vote of less than 8,000 from 2010. Some of the LibDem vote clearly went to Labour and to the Greens. Perhaps some even went to UKIP and to the Conservatives, but it still doesn’t add up to as many votes as the Conservatives gained.
Here, I believe, we must start looking at the pool of non-voters and the level of turnout, which in this case was quite high at nearly 75%. As noted above, high turnouts, at least at this election, are associated with strongly Conservative seats while low turnouts are associated with strongly Labour seats. If Conservatives were able to increase turnout from their core supporters across the board – for instance using the fear of a Labour-SNP ‘deal’ to get out the core Tory vote – that could explain the voting numbers in a number of constituencies that follow the pattern of Chippenham.
In this case, the drop in the LibDem vote can be accounted for by increases in Labour and Green votes, with perhaps some of it also going to UKIP and Conservatives. But the increase in the Conservative vote needed to achieve a majority of that size can only have come from an increased turnout of largely Conservative voters.
In constituency after constituency, I believe the evidence suggests that the increase in the Conservative vote, as well as in the UKIP vote, came largely from people who did not vote at all in 2010, while the fall in the LibDem vote went largely to the Labour Party, the Greens and back into the pool of non-voters.
When it comes to the seats which Labour had been hoping to take back from the Conservatives at this election, the level of turnout again becomes a crucial factor.
If more Labour voters had bothered to vote in Blackpool North, for instance, where turnout was only 63%, they almost certainly could have taken that seat from the Conservatives, since the Conservative majority was 3,340 while a turnout of 73% instead of 63% would have brought out at least double that number of additional voters.
This pattern is repeated in at least 55 marginal seats across England and Wales, where the Conservative majority is very small relative to the lower than average turnout. Not all those non-voters would have necessarily voted Labour, of course, but just imagine how different the result would have looked if that many seats had changed hands from Conservative to Labour, in addition to the seats which could have stayed Labour or LibDem as described above.
Why did more Conservatives than Labour voters bother to vote?
It is a reasonable assumption to make that Conservatives were more successful in general at bringing out their core supporters to vote than the Labour Party was, based on turnout in safe Conservative seats as compared with turnout in safe Labour seats. This corresponds to the opinion polls which under-predicted the Conservative vote and over-predicted the Labour vote based on people’s voting preferences before knowing whether or not they would actually vote. This also chimes with the campaigning strategy of the Conservatives (and much of the media) which was to alarm (Conservative) voters with the prospect of a Labour-SNP government that might jeopardise the interests of middle England and thus motivating them to get out and vote. The Labour Party on the other hand, struggled to make its mark as a definitive and inspiring alternative to the coalition government and fought a campaign that was trying to appeal to ‘middle England’ rather than to its traditional core supporters.
By extrapolated that general trend to individual constituencies, we can safely assume that if more Labour supporters had turned out to vote and had voted Labour, the Labour Party might indeed have won a number of additional seats. This is by no means an exact science but it is a pointer as to the direction in which the Labour Party would have to move in order to win seats such as these:
Table 4: Seats Labour may have lost due to low turnout (of Labour voters)
|Halesowen & Rowley
|Morecambe & Lunesdale
Source: The Guardian, election result supplement, 9 May 2015
Ironically, the seat of Thurrock, which almost went to UKIP, could have gone to Labour if just 537 more Labour voters had turned out to vote. This is because UKIP split the Conservative vote putting Labour into a close second place.
Implications for Labour
One of the most alarming features of this election for the Labour Party is the number of additional seats which they could have easily lost – and could easily lose at a future election – if many more of their core voters decided not to vote. In other words, if turnout were to fall by a further 10% in constituencies currently held by Labour, they could lose up to 100 seats to the Conservatives – without a single Labour voter choosing to vote Conservative instead of Labour!
Table 6: Labour seats most vulnerable to a further reduction in turnout
|Barrow & Furness
|Brentford & Isleworth
In summary, what is most likely to have happened at this election is that disaffected LibDem voters voted for Labour and disaffected Labour voters voted for the Green Party, SNP and other smaller left-wing parties. A large number of traditionally Labour voters did not vote at all. The net result of these disaffected voters voting (or not voting) as they did was to give the Conservatives a working majority in parliament because:
- In LibDem strongholds the second largest party in most cases has always been the Conservatives, so by voting Labour instead of LibDem the existing Conservative vote was sufficient to win.
- In Labour strongholds where there was a viable alternative to Labour, such as in Scotland, sufficient numbers of Labour voters either voted for the alternative or did not vote, giving the SNP a clean sweep.
- In marginal seats where the left-wing alternative to Labour was insufficient to overtake the Conservative vote, voting for Green or other smaller parties again meant that the existing Conservative vote was sufficient to win.
In none of these cases did LibDem or Labour voters switch their allegiance to Tories. On the contrary, they voted for more left-wing parties and if Labour and/or the LibDems had offered a real alternative to the Tory Party, they may well have retained the seats they lost and gained many others.
The final irony of this election is that UKIP split the Tory vote in a number of constituencies which could have gone Labour as a result, had Labour been offering more of an alternative to its own voters.
What this election has shown is that by joining a government with the Conservatives, compromising on their principles, breaking their promises and supporting policies which were previously anathema to Liberal Democrats, the LibDems lost the faith of their core constituency and lost their votes. The Labour Party, by acquiescing to the Conservative agenda, by accepting austerity, by not challenging the narrative that blamed the last Labour government for the recession, the Labour Party also lost the faith of their core constituency and lost their votes, both in Scotland and in England.
It is a well-known principle of political science that people rarely change their political stripes very much or very radically, even when their own circumstances change or the party they support changes. What causes political change, especially in a first-past-the-post system like ours, is the degree to which political parties are able to appeal to their core constituencies and inspire them to get out the vote. And when they fail to do that, people will turn to smaller parties with broadly similar values in order to register their discontent – or will simply not vote at all rather than vote for a party they, and their family and friends, have opposed all their life.