The 2015 election is done. We have a new Tory government – and one that gained about 25 seats. And much is being made of the Tories gaining 25 seats and the Labour losing 25. That happened, and it’s important. But from the perspective of the election (as opposed to the future) it’s a side effect. There are four stories to the election which are probably in reverse order of importance:
- How a party without a vision other than “We’re not as bad as the other guys” makes no inroads (The net change between Labour and the Tories was a two seat swing to Labour (eight Labour went Tory and ten Tory went Labour)).
- That the rise of UKIP soaked up a lot of disaffected voters who’d otherwise have voted “Kick the bums out” in favour of Labour (particularly in the North of England)
- The rise of the SNP (taking 40 seats off Labour and 10 off the Lib Dems)
- The disintegration of the Lib Dems who lost almost all their seats to whichever the competing party was as the party faithful had a real chance to make its opinions on the leadership known. The apparent Tory gain was caused by the disintegration of their coalition partners.
The Labour/UKIP issue is the simplest. Thanks to Ed Balls, all Labour were offering was “More of the same but not quite as hard”. Labour were running in favour of cuts and continuing Tory policies – and Ed Milliband was literally telling moderate Tories he’d be their champion. People unhappy with the current situation aren’t going to be inspired by that. Which means that Labour were seen as part of the Establishment. The Scots therefore all ran into the arms of the SNP as both competent and talking the anti-austerity talk even if not as left wing as Sturgeon was portraying them. It sure as hell beat the Balls-authored Tory Lite Labour Party that was running. It will increase nationalism – but wasn’t a vote for nationalism so much as one for Not Another Set Of Tories. In Scotland, left wing people used the method they had to hand to tell the Labour Party they weren’t interested in being pro-austerity.
The rise of UKIP was similar. With Labour being in harmony with the Coalition, people cast votes for “Kick the bums out”. UKIP picked up a lot of natural Labour voters as well as a fair chunk of ex-Lib Dems – they were the protest vote of choice. And with Labour having no vision the protest votes and the idealists both didn’t go their way. Labour actually gained many more votes than the Tories (despite the SNP wipe-out) but First Past The Post is a terrible voting system. The coalition was rejected and the Lib Dems were destroyed. Cameron’s majority is tiny.
But what actually happened to the Lib Dems and why did the Tories win so many seats? This takes first understanding where the Lib Dems come from. I’ll handle why the Tories won so many seats afterwards.
The Liberal Democrats I remember were lead by “Chatshow Charlie“. They were a party of the soft-left but that put them to the left of New Labour. They were the only party right about the Iraq War – and knew their base and were against tuition fees. This meant they picked up a lot of votes from idealists. Their base was on the left. And then they were taken over by a right wing coup from within the party.
In 2004 the right wing of the Liberal Democrats got organised. They produced the Orange Book as a manifesto. The next thing to do was remove the left wing leader – you may remember the extremely messy resignation of Charles Kennedy. And that his replacement, Ming Campbell, lasted 18 months. The coup took time.
It was the 2007 general election where the Orange Book faction took over. The election was between Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne – both authors of the Orange Book. Clegg, of course won, but when the choice was between two of the authors of the Orange Book (and the deputy leader, Vince Cable, was a third). Clegg became leader of the Lib Dems after two years in parliament.
So the extreme right of the party launched a coup in the Lib Dems, either not knowing or not caring that between Charles Kennedy and the student vote, the Lib Dem base was left wing.
And Clegg, being a near-Tory, jumped at the chance to form a coalition with the Tories. Having only been in parliament for one tem he didn’t understand his voters and that a lot were students. He was also running under a campaign of “say goodbye to broken promises” – and didn’t think that personally signing a pledge and then almost immediately breaking it when something tempting came along was important. And he then went on TV to give a notpology in the vein of “I’m sorry you were offended”.
What of the other authors of the Orange Book? Nine were members of the House of Commons after 2005. By 2015, two had resigned in disgrace (Chris Huhne and Mark Oaten). The other seven were, when parliament dissolved all Ministers (or Deputy PM) – Susan Kramer being in the House of Lords after losing her seat.
After the coup, the Lib Dem leadership was thus diametrically opposed to the ideals of most Lib Dem voters and irrespective of any loyalty built up, two thirds of Lib Dem supporters either walked away from the party or moved to punish them for selling out.
So, given that approximately 15% of the electorate rejected the coalition hard (hence the Lib Dem showing), why did the Tories win seats?
In Britain, like in America, we have an urban party (Labour) and a rural party (Conservative) – compare a land area map to a population map. The Lib Dems were a middle class party, able to compete in some of the country both in towns and in the countryside. But there are very few three-way marginals. With the Lib Dem activists barely turning out, the Lib Dems themselves lost fifty seats to the nearest competing party, wherever they were. That’s approximately ten seats in Scotland to the SNP, 15 urban seats in England to the Labour Party, and 25 rural seats in England to the Conservatives.
15% of the electorate turned its back on the coalition despite any personal loyalty built up by Lib Dems over the past thirty years. The Tories gained 0.3% of the vote, and most of that probably from ex-Lib Dems preferring honest enemies to traitors and people who launched a coup. But due to the inanity of First Past The Post they won half the Lib Dem seats and they and the press have spun this as a crushing victory.
And if anyone doubts the inanity of First Past The Post I’m not the only person to have produced a chart like this – I just couldn’t find where I saw it. (Feel free to steal if you need one).
We need proportional representation. And a system where Lib Dem supporters have a better way of registering their complete rejection of the selling out of their party than letting the Tories win 25 seats off them.