General Election 2015: Business as Usual or New Departure?
May's General Election brought an unexpected Conservative victory alongside significant gains for formerly fringe parties. John Curtice analyses the results and finds the old certainties of British politics fast disappearing.
In some respects the outcome of the 2015 UK General Election represented a dramatic break with the past (see figure 1). For the first time in over 90 years the Liberal Democrats were displaced as the third biggest party, both in terms of votes and of seats. Labour's 50-year domination of Scotland's representation at Westminster was shattered. Meanwhile, nearly 23 per cent of the vote in Great Britain was cast for parties other than Conservative, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, easily smashing the previous all-time high of just under 10 per cent recorded five years earlier.
Figure 1. 2015 Election Result in Great Britain
Note: Speaker counted as Conservative.
Yet none of this came as much of a surprise. All these developments had been presaged by the polls. What did come as a shock was the one feature of the result that might be thought to have represented a return to normality. In 2010, no one party had managed to win an overall majority, and Britain found itself being governed by its first peacetime coalition since 1945. This time, however, the Conservatives managed to secure an overall majority and the country returned to its familiar pattern of single party majority rule. But because poll after poll had suggested the race between the two largest parties was neck and neck and the country heading for another ‘hung’ parliament, it was this restoration of normal service that left the country wondering just how such a development had occurred. (Figure 1.)
So we are left with two key questions to address. The first is why voters voted in unprecedented numbers for what had hitherto been relatively small parties, while abandoning the Liberal Democrats? Second, how did the Conservatives manage to emerge sufficiently far ahead of Labour that they were able to secure an overall majority?
The End of ‘British’ Politics?
While Conservatives and Labour fought it out in England and Wales, the results in Northern Ireland and Scotland were very different. We have long been used to the fact that electoral politics in Northern Ireland runs on entirely separate tramlines from the rest of the UK. As figure2 shows, this pattern continued. In 2010 the Conservatives had nominated candidates jointly with the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), but that had failed to bear any fruit. This time the two parties went their separate ways. In fact the UUP agreed an electoral pact with the Democratic Unionists (DUP) in four seats, a move that helped the party regain some representation at Westminster, while the Conservatives were left with just a handful of votes. Two other British parties, the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) and the Greens, also tried their luck but equally received relatively little reward. Rather than being about who should govern Britain, the battle in Northern Ireland was once again a contest between the local forces of unionism and nationalism, with the former having more to celebrate. (Figure 2.)
Figure 2. How Northern Ireland Voted
Note: The Ulster Unionists and the Conservative Party fielded joint candidate in 2010. Their vote is thus combined for the purpose of calculating change in vote share since 2010.
This time, however, Scotland also went its own way. It had been doing so to some degree for a while. Back in 1997 the Conservatives not only slumped to third place but lost all of their MPs, a defeat from which the party has never really recovered. In 2010, Labour gained votes and held all of its seats when the party south of the border was suffering one of its worst ever defeats. But this time (see figure 3, page 7), the link between Scotland and the party system in the rest of the UK was well and truly broken. The SNP won half of the vote and 56 seats.
In contrast to the position in England and Wales, both the Conservatives and Labour fell back north of the border, the Conservatives to their lowest share of the vote ever and Labour to its lowest since 1918. Equally, neither Ukip nor the Greens were as successful in Scotland as they were in England and Wales. Only the Scottish Liberal Democrats' performance could be said to echo what was happening in the rest of the UK. (Figure 3, page 7).
The SNP enjoyed its spectacular success even though the previous September it had failed to persuade a majority of Scots to vote for independence. Nevertheless, the referendum was the launch pad for the SNP's success. Following the record high turnout in the referendum, voters in Scotland turned out in significantly higher numbers than in the rest of the UK. And nearly every one of the 45 per cent of Scots who voted ‘Yes’ was determined to follow up that choice with a vote for the SNP.
According to a large internet panel study undertaken by the British Election Study (BES), the major academic survey based study of voting behaviour, no less than 90 per cent of those who voted Yes in September, and turned out again in May, backed the SNP. This body of Yes voters included one-third of those who voted Labour in 2010, and thus this pattern inevitably proved disastrous for Labour Far from settling the question of Scotland's constitutional status, holding the referendum ensured the question of how Scotland should be governed influenced electoral choice in Scotland to a greater extent than ever before.
Ukip and Greens
If the likely success of the SNP only became apparent in the final few months before the election, Ukip's challenge had been in evidence since the middle of 2012. By 2014, the party was doing well enough to come first in the European elections. The proximate foundations of the party's success lay in its ability to link the issue of immigration, where the coalition government was struggling to meet a promise to reduce net annual migration to less than 100,000, to that of Britain's membership of the European Union. This link was widely recognised. No less than 72 per cent of BES respondents said that immigration was a priority for Ukip, while no more than 13 per cent said the same of any domestic issue. A poll conducted by Lord Ashcroft in February 2015 found that Ukip was even more likely to be regarded as the best party on immigration (31 per cent) than it was on Europe (16 per cent).
Disproportionately consisting of older, less well-off voters with relatively low levels of educational attainment, Ukip supporters are especially concerned about the economic and cultural consequences of immigration. According to the BES no less than 74 per cent of those who eventually backed Ukip said in March that they thought that immigration was bad for the economy, while no less than 80 per cent said they thought it undermined the country's cultural life. The equivalent figures amongst voters as a whole were just 40 per cent and 54 per cent, respectively.
Support for the Greens was markedly different. Only 19 per cent of Green voters were concerned about the cultural consequences of immigration and just 15 per cent the economic implications. Polling conducted by Lord Ashcroft indicates that, in contrast to Ukip, as many as 10 per cent of 18–24 year olds voted for the Greens, while the BES suggests that as many as seven per cent of graduates did so. Far from representing a similar diffuse sense of protest, Ukip and the Greens drew their support from sociologically and ideologically very distinct sections of the electorate.
Garnering a protest vote has traditionally been the forte of the Liberal Democrats. But that role was placed at risk when the party decided to enter into coalition with the Conservatives, while the party itself became the object of protest when in the autumn of 2010 it backed a substantial increase in university tuition fees after having promised to abolish them, a pledge that had enabled the party to do particularly well amongst students. The party had never shown much sign of recovering from the backlash against this about turn. According to the BES as many as 39 per cent of those who voted for the Liberal Democrats in 2010 but then switched in 2015 to one of the opposition parties, thought the increases in tuition fees had gone much too far, compared with just 19 per cent of those who remained loyal.
The party had anticipated avoiding the worst consequences of the drop in its support thanks to the presumed popularity locally of its incumbent MPs, which it hoped would help these MPs retain their seats against the national tide. But this was to ignore the fact that in suffering a 16 point drop in support, the party was arithmetically bound to lose more ground in places where it had previously been strongest – after all, there were no less than 170 seats where the party did not win as much as 16 per cent in 2010. In the event, while the party's vote did fall by less in those seats that were defended by an incumbent MP, at 14.3 points the average drop in these seats was only little less than the drop the party suffered across Britain as a whole. As a result it lost all but eight seats, leaving it weaker than at any time since it re-emerged as a nationwide party in the early 1970s.
This collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote was integral to the Conservatives' success in winning an overall majority. The Conservatives won no less than 27 of the 49 seats lost by the Liberal Democrats. There would not have been a Conservative majority without those gains.
Still, that could only be the case because, contrary to the expectations of the opinion polls, the Conservatives enjoyed a substantial lead over Labour. That (together with an above average performance in its most marginal seats) meant the party suffered a net loss of just two seats to Labour. So, how do we account for this surprise success?
One possibility is that there was a ‘late swing’ to the Conservatives, occasioned perhaps by the party's insistence that the polls foretold the allegedly unwelcome prospect that Labour would be reliant on support from the SNP, giving the nationalists undue influence in the country's affairs. However, there is little evidence to support this proposition.
Those polls and surveys that since the election have reinterviewed those whom they contacted before polling day, have found little or no difference between how people said they would vote and how they eventually did. The BES, for example, puts Conservative and Labour neck and neck in how people said they voted after recording a one point Conservative lead during the campaign. Three other recontact exercises all put the two main parties within a point of each other, while a similar survey conducted by Survation has uncovered no more than a three-point lead.
Meanwhile, there is little sign of a swing to the Conservatives amongst those who were persuaded during the campaign that the SNP might have influence on the next government. According to the BES, there was a 10-point increase in the proportion who thought there was some chance the SNP would be part of a coalition. Yet, at 38 per cent, the level of Conservative support amongst those who came to that view during the campaign was no greater on polling day than it had been in March.
In short, the polls were probably always wrong, and to understand the Conservatives' success we need to look at the party's underlying strategic advantages rather than the tactics deployed during the campaign. These did not necessarily lie in its policy platform. According to Lord Ashcroft's post-polling day poll, Labour actually outpolled the Conservatives (by 31 per cent to 22 per cent) amongst those who said they were voting for the party whose promises they liked most. The BES shows that voters put the Conservatives well to the right of themselves (and Labour only somewhat to the left) when asked whether the government should reduce the level of income inequality in British society.
Rather, the Conservatives' advantage lay in those staples of any electoral success – leadership and competence. Ed Miliband had never been a popular party leader. The BES found that even during the campaign Ed Miliband was liked less by those who eventually voted Labour (they gave him on average 6.9 out of 10) than David Cameron was by Conservative supporters (7.5).
Meanwhile, according to Lord Ashcroft's postelection poll, no less than 67 per cent of those who said they were voting for the best Prime Minister backed the Conservatives, while only 21 per cent supported Labour.
At the same time, after having endured the longest recession since the 1930s, voters were now relatively optimistic about the future of the economy. As many as 44 per cent told the BES in March they thought the economy was getting better, while only 26 per cent thought it was getting worse. Unsurprisingly, the former group proved to be most inclined to vote Conservative (57 per cent), while the latter were more likely to support Labour (55 per cent). But given there were considerably fewer pessimists than optimists, Labour needed to win over more just over half of this group. However, even amongst those who thought the economy was getting worse, only 40 per cent thought it would get better under Labour. Persistent doubts about the party's economic competence seemed not only to have hindered the party's ability to appeal to those who believed in economic recovery, but also amongst those who did not.
Figure 3. 2015 How Each Nation Voted%
In some respects the 2015 election was electoral politics as normal, with the battle between the two largest parties seemingly primarily determined by questions of who was better able to provide the country with effective government. It is just that the outcome of that judgment did not fit most people's prior expectations.
Yet the election cannot simply be dismissed as just another routine contest. Scotland went its own way, creating continuing doubts about its relationship with the rest of the UK and making the question of who governs Britain one that in effect was answered by England and Wales alone. After securing their first taste of power since 1945, the Liberal Democrats were consigned once again to the political fringe, yet even in England and Wales this did not herald a return to traditional two-party politics. Instead, two ideologically and sociologically distinct political parties enjoyed unprecedented success, with Ukip ensuring that Britain will now revisit the question of its membership of the European Union. Competence may have won the day for the Conservatives, but the contest has left a country in which questions of identity and ideology have come to matter much more.
John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University and president of the British Polling Council.