No swing to the right
One word explains Labour’s defeat, writes Eddie Ford - Scotland
Almost everyone expected a hung parliament - including David Cameron, of course. Until, that is, the sensational exit poll1 showing the Tories inching towards a parliamentary majority.
The ecstatic Tories picked up 331 seats on 36.9% of the vote, giving them a working majority of 15. This made Cameron the first prime minister since 1900 to be re-elected with a larger share of the popular vote (up 0.8%) and the only one since Margaret Thatcher to be re-elected with a greater number of seats (an extra 28). On 30.4% of the vote, Labour lost 24 seats - giving them a total of 232, its worst result since 1987.
As for the Liberal Democrats, this writer is pleased to note that they had an even more appalling night - cut down to a mere eight MPs with only 7.9% of the vote, their worst performance since 1970. Adding to the pain, the party lost nearly all of its big-hitters - though it is a shame that Nick Clegg did not go the same way as Vince Cable, Simon Hughes and Danny Alexander. Once again, the entire parliamentary party can just about fit into a London taxi cab, especially now that the unlamented Cyril Smith is no longer with us. William Hague got it exactly right with his comment about the newly formed coalition government five years ago - “I’ve just killed the Liberal Democrats”. Yes, the Lib Dems got the blame for nearly everything, and the Tories basically got off scot-free. There is now talk of renaming the party the Liberals, though maybe they should think about ‘New Liberal’ - has quite a ring.
The most headline-worthy result, obviously enough, came from the Scottish National Party - scooping up 56 of the available 59 seats and getting 50% of the vote (or 4.7% UK-wide). It almost goes without saying that this is a staggering achievement; the last time any party in Scotland scored over 50% of the vote was in 1955, with the Tories getting 50.1%. Overall, the SNP gained 50 seats, overwhelmingly at the expense of Labour, and is now the third largest party in Westminster. More torture than consolation, the other main parties were left with only one seat each north of the border - Scottish Labour in Edinburgh, the Tories with the largely rural Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale and the Lib Dems in Orkney and Shetland, one of the smallest electorates of any UK parliamentary constituency. Another thing worth noting is that the 20-year-old Mhairi Black, who won Paisley and Renfrewshire, became the youngest ever MP since 1667.
The Green Party received its highest ever share of the national vote on 3.8%, holding on to its only seat in Brighton Pavilion with a significantly larger majority - thus Caroline Lucas, backed by Russell Brand, increased her vote share by 10.5% to give her a strong majority of 14.6%. In the same way, you could say that the UK Independence Party had a ‘purple surge’, ending up with 12.6% of the vote - a rise of 9.5%. But like the Greens Ukip was frustrated by the undemocratic ‘first past the post’ electoral system and still has only one MP, Douglas Carswell in Clacton, after Nigel Farage failed to win Thanet South. Between them the Greens and Ukip got 16.4% of the popular vote yet ended up with just two seats, a major act of disenfranchisement.
Seemingly the fashion these days, both Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg fell on their swords within hours, as did Nigel Farage - only to ‘unresign’ a few days later, when the party insisted he stay on as leader: after all, who else is there?
Unable to control itself, the Daily Mail ran the triumphant headline, “The night England turned blue”, and printed a map that did indeed depict England as a sea of blue - just a few isolated islands of red, in fact.2 However, as geographers know, maps can lie. This map displayed the constituencies geographically, which by definition would result in far more blue, because of the much larger areas covered by Tory-held seats in the countryside.
But if, on the other hand, you were to show a map - as several other newspapers helpfully did - in which all the constituencies were identically sized squares, then you would paint a quite different picture: England and Wales together are still more or less evenly split between red and blue. In fact, it would seem that the May 7 general election represented the revenge of two-party politics - which refuses to die.
It is important to understand that Labour’s popular vote did not collapse - it actually went up 1.4% compared to 2010. Indeed, in terms of the spread between the two main parties, Labour’s share of the vote increased by more than the Tories’ (the two main parties profiting from the collapse of the Lib Dems, of course) - albeit by only 0.6% - even if the Tories were ahead by 6.5% overall. In cosmopolitan greater London, for example, Labour won seven extra seats and increased its share by 7% - not too bad, though you cannot help but think that it should have done better.3
But the explanation for Labour’s poor performance is straightforward - Scotland. Labour’s mass eviction north of the border consigned it to a defeat. The SNP won hands-down because the working class rejected en masse the machine politics of the Labour Party, which arrogantly took Scotland for granted. An arrogance perfectly characterised by the Better Together campaign, which saw Labour get into bed with the Tories, as a scathing Alex Salmond pointed out as often as possible. Better Together, remember, was fronted by the oily Blairite, Alastair Darling - who would not criticise his Tory colleagues on the grounds that party differences were “minor” compared to the wellbeing of the UK state. No wonder Labour was accused of being “red Tories”. The party has now paid the price for its rotten loyalist deal with the Tories over the referendum - quite deservedly.
No, the reason for Labour’s defeat has nothing to do with its supposedly wildly leftist programme - more its inability to retain its traditional support in Scotland because of its social conservatism, not radicalism. Yet now, obscenely, the Blairites and Labour rightwingers are queuing up to denounce Ed Miliband for abandoning the centre ground and moving too far to the left. Those whom the gods wish to destroy …
Paradoxically or not, the SNP has become a powerful factor in Westminster politics. While in Scotland it represented the politics of (illusory) hope, in England it represented the politics of fear, thanks to Lynton Crosby, the Tory front bench and their allies in the media - which relentlessly banged on about the possibility of a “dangerous alliance” between the SNP and a minority Labour government. A vote for the latter was a vote for the former, raising the dreaded prospect of ‘Scottish rule’ over the overtaxed English and the looming prospect of Scottish independence. Hence the Tory campaign poster showing Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket.4 A propaganda line that obviously had an impact on conservative-minded voters south of the border.
Anyhow, Nicola Sturgeon is currently playing down talk of another referendum. But it is clear that another referendum is on the cards. She would be mad not to go for it. Just look at the potential hurdles facing David Cameron - namely Europe and the in-out referendum due for the end of 2017, if not earlier. It is not hard to imagine Sturgeon opposing any deal struck by Cameron, which could call into question Scotland’s position in Europe - for example, new restrictions on EU immigration (assuming Cameron was able to get them) would not go down too well with some in Scotland with its stagnant population.
It is surely obvious that the SNP leaders will be looking for any opportunity to push independence, and the occasion will come - the proposed new tax-raising powers will not make it less likely. Whatever the Tories come out with, in fact, will not be enough. Under such circumstances, it is not unfeasible that the SNP would declare UDI at some stage - maybe after it has swept the board in next year’s Holyrood elections, which is all but guaranteed. You can almost hear the declaration now - we have a clear mandate from the Scottish people to carry out our historic mission. We will not be forgiven if we delay or prevaricate. Those on the left who thought a ‘no’ vote in the September 2014 referendum would see a welcome return to the economistic politics of ‘normal’, or at least see the national question kicked into the long grass, were sadly deluded - the exact opposite is the case.
As the Weekly Worker has argued, the SNP has just secured the perfect result in terms of its programme - in its wildest dreams it could not have hoped for anything better. It now has a much larger presence in Westminster than expected and a Tory government - further fuelling the argument for independence.
Yes, tabloid euphoria aside, the Tory majority is very thin and it would not take too much for it to be eroded - the party has been hit in the past by both sex and financial scandals, for example. And there are problems with Cameron’s programme. He has pledged to cut £12 billion in welfare, but in practice this will prove to be very difficult to implement - the Tories do have constituents to please, or at least not drive away.
The Tories will do everything possible to manoeuvre themselves into a better position for the next general election. Principally, this will take the form of boundary changes, which the Lib Dems sabotaged in revenge for being shafted over the hasty 2011 alternative vote referendum. Naturally, this would hugely benefit the Tories, bagging them about an extra 30 to 40 seats - possibly the vital difference. Needless to say, the Tories will drone on interminably about ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’ to justify a more even population distribution between constituencies, but this is nonsense. Take inner London, for instance. A lot of people come and go fairly rapidly, meaning that a large proportion do not appear on the electoral rolls. In other words, there is bigger discrepancy between the actual population and those officially registered to vote than in the more rural areas - which tend to be Tory, of course. Here we have one more way in which the Tories will shift the goalposts in their favour - another one obviously being ‘English votes for English laws’.
The fate of Ukip is unclear. By their very nature, populist parties need the wind in their sails in order to thrive. In terms of what they were expecting, Ukip activists and supporters must be disappointed by the result - far from gaining more MPs, they lost one. Any momentum that Ukip has generated could easily dissipate. Then again, maybe the build-up to the EU referendum could revitalise the party’s fortunes, especially if it senses betrayal from the Tories. Traitors who have sold out yet again to the Brussels bureaucracy.
Interestingly, if the election had been conducted under the D’Hondt version of proportional representation that is used for European elections, then the result would have been like this: Tories 244 seats, Labour 201, Ukip 83, Lib Dems 52, SNP 31, Greens 25, Plaid Cymru 3, DUP 3, Sinn Féin 3, UUP 2, SDLP 2 and Alliance Party 1.5 Or, to put it another way, under the current electoral system it takes 100 times more votes to elect a Ukip MP than a Tory one - a clearly monstrous state of affairs.6 But there is not a chance in hell that the Tories will allow any reform to an electoral system that so clearly benefit them.
1. Conducted by John Curtice, the UK’s most pre-eminent psephologist.