UK Election Results: Fear Wins in England, Hope wins in Scotland

In many quarters of US political discussion, the headline "big news" about the UK election that took place on Thursday, 7 May 2015 was that the POLLSTERS WERE WRONG!!!!.

Predictions (for a brief explanation of the parties, see below the fold): predicted, with 323 required to survive a confidence vote:

  • On the right, Tory 278 + DUP 8 + UKIP 1 = 287
  • In the Center, the Liberal Democrats with 27
  • On the left, Labour 267 + SNP 53 + SDLP 3 + Plaid Cymru 3 + Green 1 = 327


  • On the right: Tory with 331, forming a majority government, + DUP 8 + UUP 2 + UKIP 1 = 342
  • In the Center, the Liberal Democrats with 8
  • On the left, Labour 232 + SNP 56 + SDLP 3 + Plaid Cymru 3 + Green 1 = 295

For Economic Populists, the biggest headlines is that the party with the strongest anti-austerity message, the Scottish National Party, won the biggest victory of its political life, just a year after it lost a defeat on its signature issue ... while the traditional main left-of-center party of the UK, the Labour Party, saw pre-election, poll-inspired hope of an "anti-Tory majority" leading to a Labour minority government dashed.

Which is a story of hope and fear, if you join me under the fold.

The players:

  • The Tories, officially called The Conservative Party, the primary party of government in a governing coalition ... most famous in the US for the close relationship between Margaret Thatcher's Tory governments and the Reagan administration in the 1980's
  • also on the right the DUP (the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland), UUP, (the Ulster Unionist Party) and UKIP (UK Independence Party)
  • The centrist Liberal Democrats, formed from a merger of the old Liberal party and the Social Democratic Party in the late 80s and early 90s, who controversially joined the Tories to form the current, and first in the modern UK electoral period, Coalition government.
  • Labour, the other primary UK "party of government", with a center-left lean but which last formed a strong majority on the back of Tony Blair's brand of centrist politics
  • also on the left the SNP (Scottish National Party), SDLP (Social Democrat and Labour Party of Northern Ireland), Plaid Cymru (Welsh Nationalists), and Greens.

Why were the polls so wrong?

After its poor performance on its own in UK elections in 2010, 538 joined with UK based pollsters, and were part of the team with predictions above. But this was not just one pollster getting it wrong ... every single pollster predicted a "Hung Parliament", with neither a Labour nor a Tory majority. And almost every pollster predicted that the Liberal Democratic vote would collapse, but, based on individual constituency polling (a new thing in UK polling), predicted that individual Lib-Dem MP's would outperform the national vote, and anywhere from 20 to 30 would hold onto their seats.

538 has looked at the question of why the consensus of the polls was so badly wrong, and what their forecasts got badly wrong was the performance of the Lib-Dems:

They tend to over-predict the Labour Vote, and under-predict the Tory and SNP vote, but in all three cases not by very much on a seat-by-seat basis. What they got badly wrong was the Liberal Democratic vote. And there hangs much of the tale of the election.

With the Liberal Democrats holding 20-30 of their 50+ seats from 2010, the Tories and Labour would have been beneficiaries of Lib-Dem pick-ups in about equal measure. However, when you go deeper into the Lib-Dem list of seats, almost all of those are in constituencies where only the Tories stand to pick up the seat. So the collapse of the Liberal Democrats was in part a direct "heat shield" for the Tory party, giving them 20+ former Lib-Dem seats, instead of roughly 10.

However, the collapse of the Lib-Dem vote didn't just lead to Tory gains at Lib-Dem expense. There were also a number of Labour marginal seats that were held because the "anti-Labour" vote was split between Tory and Lib-Dem candidates, and when that vote was concentrated behind the Tories, those marginals swung to the benefit of the Tories.

The other part of the story that is hiding in that set of charts is the UKIP vote, which the forecast go roughly correct, but with a very wide dispersion. And its dispersion which seems to have had a partisan bias ... in marginal Tory seats, where a larger share of the UKIP vote would have come from the Tory vote total and could have swung the seat to the Labour party ... the UKIP "polling" vote seemed to shy away from following through, and enough voted Tory to hold the seat. Meanwhile, in marginal Labour seats, where a larger share of the UKIP vote total would have come from the Labour vote ... the UKIP "polling" vote seems to have had no hesitation in going ahead and voting UKIP, swinging the seat to the Tories.

That collapse of the Lib-Dem vote, combined with the bias of tactical UKIP voting against Labour and in favor of the Tories, explains how the polling got the result wrong as far as the ability of the Tories to form a government. But the other dramatic election result was the Scottish National Party taking all but 3 seats in Scotland, leaving just one Labour seat, one Tory seat, and one Lib-Dem seat. This hurt the Labour party the most, the Lib-Dems after that and the Tories very little ... because in the 2010 result, the largest party in Scotland was the Labour Party, followed by the Lib-Dems, followed by the SNP, with the Tories coming last.

The SNP Victory of Hope over Fear

The SNP suffered a defeat in the 2014 Referendum on Scottish Independence. The referendum was a surprise to many onlooker in that it was a close as it was, with about 45% of Scots voting for Independence and 55% voting for Union. But for the SNP, the primary leader of the Pro-Independence fight, with Labour, the Lib-Dems and the Tories all supporting the Union side. Image from Wikimedia, CC-Attribution-Share Alike, by Alphathon, based on a blank mpa by Maix

But the SNP came out of the loss as a quite different party than the one that entered the fight. It quadrupled its membership, recruiting a large grass roots activist base. And many Scots looked on the arguments and tactics of the Labour opposition to Independence as essentially the same as Tory arguments, opening the Labour party up to the charge of being "red Tories".

This is a sea change in Scottish politics. When the Scottish parliament was first established, the first First Minister of Scotland was from the Scottish Labour Party. And at the time of the referendum, over 2/3 of the Scottish MPs were from Labour.

However, since the founding of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, there has been an evolution of political power within Scotland ("+" members of the governing coalition):

  • First Parliament (1999): LP+ 56 seats (43%), LD+ 17 (13%), SNP 34 (26%), Tory 18 (14%)
  • Second Parliament (2003): LP+ 50 seats (39%), LD+ 17 (13%), SNP 27 (21%), Tory 17 (13%)
  • Third Parliament (2007): SNP+ 47 seats (36%), LP 46 (35%), LD 16 (12%), Tory 16 (12%)
  • Fourth Parliament (2011): SNP+ 69 (53%), LP (29%), Tory 15 (12%), LD 5 (4%)

Over the course of four Parliaments, Scotland has moved from Labour+Lib-Dem coalition government, then with a declining majority, to an SNP minority government, to an SNP majority government. An element of regional proportional representation ensures that the Scottish Labour Party will not be entirely wiped out in next year's election (delayed a year to avoid clashing with the UK election) ... but it seems likely to continue its slide. And any hope for a return to government hinges on its former coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, earning forgiveness for entering into Coalition with the Tories ... in the last election, it did not win a single constituency seat, with all of its members elected in the proportional regional system that adds members if the number of seats from constituencies is less than the proportion of vote in the region.

The Leader of the SNP that led the party into this Westminster election was not someone standing for election to Parliament, but Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, leader of the SNP party in the Scottish Parliament.

And in Scotland, while the almost total sweep of Scottish seats may have been somewhat of a surprise, the rise of the SNP was widely covered in the last weeks of the UK election campaign. The Guardian: Nicola Sturgeon, the working-class woman Scots will listen to:

It speaks volumes that, just two months before a hugely important UK general election, the most interesting politician in these isles appears to be the leader of a party that has hitherto made little impact within the Westminster bubble. It also says a lot that Nicola Sturgeon, just over 100 days into her role as Scotland’s first minister, has swiftly established herself.

The SNP ran a campaign against austerity and against continuation of the Trident nuclear weapons system, in both cases placing itself to the left of the Labour party. And it took the Labour Party by surprise.

Now, the Labour Party has nobody but itself to blame for being taken by surprise. In a first past the post system, 45% support for Independence may not be enough to win a referendum, but its more than enough to win a massive number of seats, when the 55% Union vote is split three ways.

Labour Party complacency regarding Scotland between the referendum and the start of the election campaign would have to have rested on an assumption that a substantial share of the Independence vote were "Labour Party voters" who would surely come home for a Westminster election. But they seemed to have been out of touch with how defining the Independence campaign was for so many. The Scottish Labour Party which was the focal point of Scottish resistance to the brutal Tory governments of Margaret Thatcher become, over the course of the campaign, seen as accomplices of the Tories ... of being "red Tories".

With a majority government in its home nation, under a confident new leader, and with many Independence supporters having adopted the view that it is not a matter if whether, but when, Scotland achieves independence, the SNP ran a confident campaign, and the Scottish electorate rewarded them. Indeed, while their win was massive, it was within a modest swing of being more massive still, as the sole Tory borderlands seat was on a 1.5% majority over the SNP, and the Lib-Dem Orkney and Shetland Isles was on a 3.6% majority. Only the Labour Edinburgh South seat on a 5.3% majority would be considered to be a relatively safe seat for the next Westminster election.

A UK Election Decided By Fear of the Scots

South of the Border, in England, the projected big SNP gains became the main target of the Tory campaign. The Tories pushed the message that a minority Labour government dependent upon vote by vote support from the SNP would be a weak, uncertain government, unable to rule effectively.

This is something that the Tories have had recent experience with, with the slender majority of the Tory Major government after Margaret Thatcher's retirement constantly having to work at placating their nationalist right wing, which kept interfering their major multinationalist wing getting on with the regular Tory system of running government of the benefit of wealthy individuals and large corporations.

And it seems to have worked. In particular, it worked among former Lib-Dem voters, especially in London and the South of England, who were willing to hold their nose and vote for a Tory to avoid the greater evil of a weak minority Labor government having to pander to the SNP. The result was that in the Southwest of England, where the Lib-Dems went into the election with over 10 MPs, they were completely wiped out, and for the most part to the benefit of the Tories. And at the same time, the collapse of the Lib-Dem vote in the Southwest also handed marginal Labour seats to the Tories.

Of course, the Tories also had to see to their own right flank, with the UK Independence Party aiming to take what would at worst be "right wing Tory" seats and turn them into the foundation for the growth of UKIP as an electoral force to be reckoned with. The UKIP vote had been substantial in the last European Parliamentary election, with the largest single block of Euro MPs from the UK representing a party insisting that the UK leave the EU. And the Tories had every reason to be afraid, with UKIP polling at over 10% of voters.

So Cameron had promised that there would be a referendum on the UK's membership in the EU, with a vague promise of winning concessions from the EU, to be taken into account. But the SNP bogeyman was also effective with the UKIP vote, since the UK leaving the EU, but leaving Scotland behind as a member of the EU, is not the outcome that UKIP is aiming for.

Set against the Tory campaign of fear mongering ... was a Labour party with a muddy message. The Labour Party manifesto has many "small p" progressive elements, but it seemed to essentially concede the necessity of some austerity, promising reduced deficits over time, just not so fact and without quite so many negative impacts on the poor as the Tory manifesto.

But where the SNP took the boldness to imagine an independent Scotland, and crafted a confident campaign as to what SNP MP's would be pushing for when they went down to Westminster ... the Labour campaign seemed to lack the emotional firepower to stand up to the Tory scare campaign.

Indeed, Labour MP Jamie Reed has argued, they ran a "message disciplined" campaign in part because they were increasingly out of touch with an important part of their former base:

Party unity was not a hard won achievement; it was the symptom of a parliamentary party incapable of rebooting itself to meet the changed environment in which we found ourselves.

For me, nowhere was this more visible than in the emerging relationship between the party and traditionally Labour non-metropolitan areas. In our rugby league towns and lower league football cities, in the places most people have heard of, but never been to. These areas need Labour (ever more so as the state retreats) but a cultural divide has been allowed to open up between the party and for too many of those people for whom it exists to serve. The same happened with the Democrats in the US. Once the party of the working class in the southern states, millions of working class Americans in these states now vote overwhelmingly against their own economic best interests by voting Republican in every US election. Why? Because they connect `culturally' with the Republicans in a way in which they no longer do with the Democrats. It's a toxic development but an avoidable one.

This cultural divide does not exist in Scotland within the SNP ... at the moment, the SNP unites big city and small town and countryside, working class and university educated. But in England, it is opening up the way for UKIP to take traditional Labour votes away, especially in the North and Midlands which are the largest electoral bases of the English Labour Party.

Conclusions and Conversations

I have no grand sweeping conclusions to offer, but if you have something to add to the picture, by all means, feel free!





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