Voting strategically in 2017

If 188,000 people in just two states had voted for Hilary Clinton rather than for a third-party candidate in the recent US elections, she would be President right now. And if just 1% of the people who chose not to vote at all had voted, she would have won by a landslide.

In the UK, just 98,000 people in 40 constituencies gave the Tories their slim majority at the last election and it only takes this many people to put an end to Tory rule in the UK.

The General Election of 2015 was decided by fewer than 100,000 in just 40 constituencies. In Gower, if just 27 people had voted Labour rather than Green, the constituency would have remained Labour rather than going to the Conservatives. In Derby North, 41 people doing the same would have changed the result there. In Thurrock, if just 536 more Labour voters had turned out to vote at all, the constituency would likewise have gone to Labour rather than to the Conservatives.

This is the pattern repeated over and over in election after election, constituency after constituency, country after country. The Nazis became the largest party in the German Reichstag with only 37% of the vote in 1932 and were only able to take power the following year because the other parties would not work together to stop them. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, for evil to triumph, it is only necessary that good people do not vote strategically!

In 2015, the Conservatives won with 37% of the total votes cast. That was from a voter turnout of 66%, meaning that, in fact, only 24% of registered voters – and an even smaller percentage of total eligible voters – voted Conservative at the last election. The reason they won, and the reason political parties have been winning elections for decades, is that more of their supporters turned out to vote in key marginal constituencies than did the supporters of other parties and the opposition was split, giving Tories overall majorities in constituencies which would easily go to either Labour or LibDems if they, and the smaller parties, were not splitting the opposition vote.

Just to recap what happened at the 2015 election: the Conservatives did not appreciably increase their vote over the previous election. In fact Labour increased their share of votes by 1.5% while the Conservatives increased their vote by only 0.8%. What happened was that in 12 constituencies, a small number of people voting Green or Plaid Cymru meant Labour losing the seat to the Tories. In 15 constituencies, a slightly larger number of people voting Green or Labour gave a LibDem seat to the Tories. And in 13 other constituencies, an abnormally low turn-out in otherwise solid Labour strongholds gave the seat to the Tories.

Without those 40 constituencies going to the Conservatives at the last election, they would not have had a working majority in parliament, even with the LibDems as coalition partners. If Labour and the LibDems can win back those seats on 8th June, the Conservatives would be unable to form a government. That is short of saying that the Labour Party would be able to form a government, since they would gain only 25 seats on top of the 232 they got in 2015 (and the LibDems would gain another 15). Even with the support of 56 SNP, 3 Plaid Cymru and 1 Green, that would still leave Labour eight seats short of a working majority in parliament.

Perhaps if the Conservatives are unable to form a majority government even with LibDem support, the LibDems might be prepared to form a coalition with Labour and the other opposition parties. The Labour Party would undoubtedly prefer to govern without the LibDems, so we will look at where they could aim to win an additional eight seats.

To end Tory rule in the UK, we need only convince 98,000 people in 40 constituencies to vote differently – or to vote at all. For a Labour government supported by SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens but not the LibDems would require convincing an additional 22,500 people in eight more constituencies. Neither of these goals are impossible.

4,879 people in 10 constituencies need to be convinced to vote Labour instead of Green if they want to remove their Tory MP:

1,067 in Bedford
690 in Brighton Kempton
378 in Bury North
165 in Croydon Central
41 in Derby North
27 in Gower
422 in Morley and Outwood
523 in Plymouth Sutton
730 in Telford
806 in Weaver Vale

2,374 people in two constituencies need to be convinced to vote Labour instead of Plaid Cymru if they want to remove their Tory MP:

2,137 in Cardiff North
237 in Vale of Clwyd

10,135 people in five constituencies need to be convinced to vote Lib Dem instead of Green if they want to remove their Tory MP:

3,833 in Bath
733 in Eastbourne
1,083 in Lewes
2,469 in St Ives
2,017 in Twickenham

45,373 people in ten constituencies need to be convinced to vote LibDem instead of Labour if they want to remove their Tory MP, because in these constituencies, the LibDem rather than Labour candidate has the best chance of beating the Tory:

4,914 in Berwick on Tweed
5,102 in Brecon and Radnor
6,453 in Cheadle
5,575 in Colchester
6,552 in Hazel Grove
2,834 in Kingston and Surbiton
5,241 in Portsmouth South
3,921 in Sutton and Cheam
1,495 in Thornbury and Yates
3,286 in Torbay

35,236 Labour supporters in thirteen constituencies who did not vote at the last election need to be convinced to vote this time (Labour) if they want to remove their Tory MP:

3,340 in Blackpool North
2,774 in Carlisle
4,270 in Dudley South
3,082 in Halesowen and Rowley
3,733 in Ipswich
1,443 in Lincoln
4,590 in Morecambe and Lunesdale
3,793 in Northampton South
1,925 in Peterborough
1,026 in Plymouth Moorview
2,316 in Southampton Itchen
536 in Thurrock
2,408 in Waverley

And for a Labour coalition government without the LibDems, we need to convince another 22,438 people in eight more constituencies to vote Labour who did not vote Labour (or at all) in the last election:

801 in Bolton West
2,412 in Corby
3,620 in Crewe and Nantwich
3,584 in Erewash
3,053 in Keighley
3,245 in Northampton North
2,750 in Warrington South
2,973 in Warwickshire North

To further strengthen a Labour coalition government, we would also want to remove Tory-supporting MPs in Northern Ireland, by convincing:

798 Greens in Dumfrieshire Clydesdale and Tweedale to vote SNP
530 Greens in Fermanagh and South Tyrone to vote Sinn Fein
3,837 SDLP voters in Upper Bann to vote Sinn Fein
2,597 Green, Sinn Fein and SDLP voters in Belfast East to vote Alliance

To be fair to Greens and Plaid Cymru, who would be giving up votes in up to 20 constituencies, Labour voters in two of their strongest constituencies could be urged to switch their votes to Green or Plaid Cymru to give each party one additional seat in parliament:

5,500 Labour voters in Bristol West to vote Green
229 Labour voters in Ynys Mon to vote Plaid Cymru

Assuming all other seats remain unchanged, which if of course a big assumption, the above results would give us a Labour government in coalition with, or with the working support of, the SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru. This would radically alter the political landscape of the UK and put an immediate brake on the disastrous policies of the present government.

To achieve this will take sharply focused effort of many people from across the country, dedicated to seeing a Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn while also recognizing that this can only be achieved with cooperation from Green and Plaid Cymru voters – and from more progressive LibDems who do not want to see another Tory-LibDem coalition.

It may be a particularly hard sell to convince Labour voters in ten designated constituencies to vote LibDem, since voting LibDem is tantamount to voting Tory under present circumstances. However, by voting Labour in those constituencies, they are guaranteeing a Tory MP who will vote with the Tories. By voting LibDem, they can remove their Tory MP and at least with a LibDem MP, there is a chance they might vote against certain Tory legislation or even join a coalition with Labour if the circumstances are right.

The bottom line to all this is that in a first-past-the-post electoral system, with only two major parties realistically able to form a government, we can either vote strategically or we can let the Tories rule indefinitely. Surely, for those who believe in a different kind of society to the one which the Tories are giving us, voting strategically makes a lot more sense…

Making sense of the US Elections 2016

As in the UK, the US presidential election actually hinges on a relatively small number of votes in a few ‘marginal constituencies’. In the US, these ‘marginal constituencies’ are states where the result could go either way, and in this particular election, there were only 10 out of the 50 states which were at all ‘marginal’ in this sense. In other words, there were 16 states which were all but certain to vote Democrat (Clinton) and 24 states which were all but certain to vote Republican (Trump).

Because of the US ‘electoral college’ system, however, not all states are equal. Big and populous states have many more votes than smaller and less populous states. Florida, with 29 electoral college votes, was the most valuable ‘prize’ among the marginal states up for grabs in this election. As you may remember, in the year 2000, Al Gore lost this state – and thus the entire election – after numerous re-counts and finally a Supreme Court decision that decreed George W Bush had won Florida by just 537 votes out of nearly 6 million votes cast in that state.

In that 2000 election, Ralph Nader ran as a Green Party candidate and got almost 100,000 votes in Florida (and nearly 3 million across the whole country). If Nader had not run as a third candidate, the chances that Al Gore would have won in Florida, and thus in the country, are quite high. The same holds true in 2016 in relation to the Libertarian candidate for president, Gary Johnson, who got nearly 4 million votes nationally. In Florida, Johnson got over 200,000 votes, or nearly double the difference between the vote for Clinton and the vote for Trump. In other words, if Johnson had not run in Florida, there is a good likelihood that Clinton might have won in Florida.

Would Clinton have won the election if she had won Florida by a very small margin instead of losing it by a very small margin? Probably not, although there would have been no result announced in the 24 hours following the election, because at this point Trump only has 279 electoral college votes (9 over the winning line of 270). Without Florida, Trump would only have 250 electoral college votes, still 20 short of victory.

The next biggest prize among the marginal states is Pennsylvania, with 20 electoral college votes. Trump won this state by just 68,000 votes. Johnson pulled in just over 140,000 votes, so again about double the difference between Trump and Clinton. If Clinton had won Florida and Pennsylvania, she would in fact right now be the next president of the United States, with 277 electoral college votes. In fact, across the whole country, Hillary Clinton got slightly more votes overall than Trump did, as was the case with Al Gore in 2000. But it’s not total votes but the electoral college system that decides who is president in the US, and without Florida and Pennsylvania, Clinton cannot be president.

There is more to this story than just the 200,000 or so people in those two states who chose to vote for a candidate who had no chance of ever being president. Voter turnout for the 2016 election was about 55.6% overall, which means that over 100 million eligible voters did not vote. That’s 40 million more than voted for either Clinton or Trump. This is down from 57.5% in 2012 and 62.3% in 2008. It is too soon to see a full breakdown of voter turnout in different states and electoral precincts. However we know that Obama won in 2008 and in 2012 largely by bringing out the Black vote an unprecedented numbers. In just two largely Black precincts in Detroit and Milwaukee, voter turnout in 2016 was substantially lower than in 2008 or 2012, suggesting that at least in some parts of the country, Clinton failed to bring out the Black vote and she might have paid a high price for this – losing two more key marginal states, Michigan with 16 electoral votes and Wisconsin with 10.

Like voting for minority parties who have no chance of winning the election, not voting at all is, at least for some, a statement of discontent with both of the two main party candidates. Despite Trump’s sexist and misogynist remarks about women, his claim that Mexicans were ‘in many cases’ criminals, drug dealers and rapists, his crude mocking of a disabled journalist and many other examples of alienating whole sections of the American public, the truth is that Hillary Clinton also managed over the years to alienate herself from many sections of the American public as well.

According to the exit polls conducted across the country by a consortium of national news media, 20% of the people who voted for Clinton did not think she was honest or trustworthy (compared to 5% of the people who voted for Trump not thinking he was honest or trustworthy). A whopping 39% of Clinton voters said they voted for her because they didn’t want Trump to get in rather than because they ‘strongly favoured’ her as a candidate. These figures indicate a rather lacklustre support for Clinton even among those who did vote for her. They also suggest why many who voted for Obama in previous elections – and may even have voted for Bernie Sanders in the primaries earlier this year – did not, in the end, vote for Hillary or for anyone else.

In fact, numerous polls right up to polling day showed that Bernie Sanders had a better chance of beating Trump than Hillary Clinton did in some of the key states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Had Bernie Sanders been the Democratic candidate for President, he may well have beat Trump in an even more astounding political upset than we had with Trump beating Clinton.

Sadly, we will never know if that would have happened. Instead, we are now faced with four years of Trump in the most powerful position on earth. Because the Republicans also retained control of both houses of congress in the election, Trump will also have (more or less) a free hand to implement his policies – something Obama could only dream of.

Those policies, in case anyone needs reminding, include a massive increase in military spending and pressure to force other countries, particularly in NATO, to increase their military spending as well. They include a promise to “bomb the shit out of ISIS”, to increase the use of torture and to allow Israel to move its capital to Jerusalem. They include using nuclear weapons if necessary ‘because otherwise why do we have them?’ and encouraging both Japan and South Korea to start building their own nuclear weapons.

Trump has said he will deport 6 million illegal immigrants from the US and ban Muslims from entering the country. He has said he will build a 1900-mile wall between the US and Mexico and that he will force Mexico to pay for it. He has described climate change as ‘fictional’ and has promised to pull out of the Paris climate treaty, abandon all Obama’s efforts to reduce US carbon emissions and return to coal as the major source of power for the US.

Trump wants to raise tariffs to stop the huge flow of Chinese imports and to cut taxes even further for big businesses (like his!) to create more jobs in the US. He is committed to ‘making America great again’, but he can only do that by making other countries less great. He has no interest in the UN, in international treaties, in international law, or in compromising with other countries. He is only interested in making sure the US gets what it wants from the rest of the world.

It is easy to be despairing about the American people at times like this. How could they choose to elect such a person to the highest office in the land and in the world? While there are many reasons to ponder over as to why those who voted for Trump may have done so, let us remember that less than a quarter of the US adult population actually voted for Trump. Let us remember that of the people who did vote, more of them voted for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump across the country.

But let us also remember that unless we work together, join forces, collaborate, cooperate more across the ‘left’ of the political spectrum, we leave wide open the space for people like Trump to slip into. He absolutely would not have won the election if third party candidates like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein had chosen to swing their support in behind Hillary Clinton instead of standing against her. He probably would not have won if the Democratic Party machine had not stacked the odds in favour of Hillary and prevented Bernie Sanders from being nominated as the Democratic candidate. And he might not have won if just a few more voters in a few key places had been motivated enough to vote in the belief that it would actually change their situations for the better.

These are all lessons that apply equally to the UK. The reasons Hillary Clinton lost this election are almost identical to the reasons Ed Miliband lost in 2015. They were both trying to appeal to an imaginary ‘middle of the road’ voter while losing the very support their party could always count on. We still have our Bernie Sanders in the form of Jeremy Corbyn, but he also has no chance of beating the Conservatives unless the left pulls together more effectively and puts aside our differences in order to make real political change possible. The alternative is very scary indeed.



Labour’s Love Lost


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.


Voter Turnout

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

Constituency Conservative majority Green/Plaid Cymru vote
Bedford 1,097 1,412 (G)
Brighton Kemptown 690 3,187 (G)
Bury North 378 1,141 (G)
Croydon Central 165 1,454 (G)
Derby North 41 1,618 (G)
Gower 27 1,161 (G)
Morley and Outwood 422 1,264 (G)
Plymouth Sutton 523 3,401 (G)
Telford 730 930 (G)
Weaver Vale 806 1,183 (G)
Cardiff North 2,137 2,301 (PC)
Vale of Clwyd 237 2,486 (PC)

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

Constituency Conservative majority Green vote
Bath 3,833 5,634
Eastbourne 733 1,351
Lewes 1,083 2,784
St Ives 2,469 3,051
Twickenham 2,017 2,463

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

Constituency Conservative majority Labour vote
Berwick on Tweed 4,914 6,042
Brecon and Radnor 5,102 5,904
Cheadle 6,453 8,673
Colchester 5,575 7,852
Hazel Grove 6,552 7,584
Kingston and Surbiton 2,834 8,574
Portsmouth South 5,241 8,184
Sutton and Cheam 3,921 5,546
Thornbury & Yate 1,495 3,775
Torbay 3,286 4,166

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)

Constituency Conservative majority Turnout
Blackpool North 3,340 63.1%
Carlisle 2,774 64.7%
Dudley South 4,270 63.3%
Halesowen & Rowley 3,082 59.1%
Ipswich 3,733 65.4%
Lincoln 1,443 63.2%
Morecambe & Lunesdale 4,590 65.0%
Northampton South 3,793 63.5%
Peterborough 1,925 64.9%
Plymouth Moorview 1,026 61.6%
Southampton Itchen 2,316 61.8%
Thurrock 536 63.9%
Waveney 2,408 65.1%

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

Constituency Labour majority turnout
Barrow & Furness 795 63.3%
Birmingham Edgbaston 2,706 62.9%
Birmingham Northfield 2,509 59.5%
Blackpool South 2,585 56.5%
Brentford & Isleworth 465 67.8%
Bridgend 1,927 65.8%
Cambridge 599 62.1%
Chester 93 70.8%
Clwyd South 2,402 63.8%
Copeland 2,564 63.8%
Ealing Central 274 71.4%
Halifax 428 62.1%
Hove 1,236 71.0%
Ilford North 589 62.6%
Middlesbrough South 2,268 64.2%
Newcastle-under-Lyme 650 64.4%
Stoke-on-Trent South 2,539 56.9%
Wakefield 2,613 60.9%
Walsall North 1,937 54.9%
Westminster North 1,977 63.4%
Wirral West 417 75.6%
Wolverhampton SW 801 66.6%
Wrexham 1,831 64.2%



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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


Addition sources