The 2015 general election marked the death of the progressive majority myth, the collapse of Scottish Labour, the failure of slick American pollsters and pundits and an existentialist crisis for liberalism. The next five years will see an EU referendum and the Tories potentially learning all the wrong lessons from their historic victory – so what did we learn from this election?
The notion of the “progressive majority” has been the first victim of this election. The right is insurgent with the combined vote share of all righ-wing political parties rising to 50.5 per cent (Conservative party, UKIP, DUP and UUP) of all votes cast whereas left-leaning political parties gained just 39.8 per cent of the vote (Labour, SNP, Green party, Plaid Cymru and SDLP).
If you include the Liberal Democrat vote (voters who were happy enough with the previous coalition government to recast their vote for the party) you get an even worse result for the Left – with 58.4 per cent of the public voting for the centre-right.
This is a marked difference. In 2010, the “progressive majority” did actually exist with 55 per cent of the electorate voting for either left-of-centre parties or the Liberal Democrats. Now, this has fallen to just 47.7 per cent.
Yet, elsewhere pundits are still triumphing the three point rise in the Green vote against an eleven-fold increase in the UKIP vote.
Conservative commentators and politicians warned again and again that David Cameron’s hard line against the SNP could divide the Union and tip Scotland towards independence. Yet, the reality is the very prospect of the SNP doing a deal with Labour drove voters south of Hadrian’s Wall into the arms of the Tory party.
English attitudes towards Scotland may even be hardening. In a survey of English voters carried out before Scotland’s independence referendum, the majority of respondents called for a ‘tough line’ in future negotiations with Scotland. By a hefty margin of more than five to one, English voters agree that, after a no vote, "Scottish MPs should be prevented from voting on laws that apply only in England". A majority of respondents believed that public spending in Scotland should be reduced to the UK average – even following a no vote.
For all the SNP rhetoric of getting a better deal for Scotland at Westminster, while the Tories have a majority and the low oil price drives a £7 billion hole in Scotland’s finances, the SNP’s hand is extremely weak.
Labour has an England problem, as Nick Cohen writes in the Observer in a must-read column:
"The universities, left press, and the arts characterise the English middle-class as Mail-reading misers, who are sexist, racist and homophobic to boot. Meanwhile, they characterise the white working class as lardy Sun-reading slobs, who are, since you asked, also sexist, racist and homophobic. The national history is reduced to one long imperial crime, and the notion that the English are not such a bad bunch with many strong radical traditions worth preserving is rejected as risibly complacent."
The party failed to make any major advances in England outside the nation’s major urban areas. In key seats the party would have taken with just a one per cent swing since 2010’s electoral disaster such as North Warwickshire, Thurrock, Hendon and Lancaster and Fleetwood, the Tories did even better. Labour even lost seats that Gordon Brown held such as Southampton Itchen, Ed Ball’s Morley and Outwood, Bolton West, Telford and Derby North.
It’s obvious that while a Labour leader to the right of Ed Miliband would have further compounded Labour’s problems in Scotland, it wis unthinkable that Labour can ever enjoy a majority again without a leader winning over England. And this election, like 1997, 2001 and 2005 shows that that leader will need to be from Labour’s right, but...
The right of the Labour party is now divided into two camps: the post-Blairites (convened by Progress) and the adherents of Blue Labour. The post-Blairites are comfortable with globalisation and the free market, pro-European, metropolitan, atheist, quite liberal and like talking about the equalities agenda. Its leadership candidate is Chuka Umunna. The Blue Labour faction – which is similar to Labour’s old trade union right and wants to challenge globalisation by building national champions, is sceptical about Europe, is sceptical about free markets and dislikes cosmopolitanism believing instead in the importance of shared or common identities, finally, it is comfortable with religion.
The Blue Labour faction has no candidate but will do – and as one of the strongest forces in the movement – it is the most likely section of the right of the party to triumph in the leadership selection. It is possible that Andy Burnham will tack right to seize this territory if the NEC decides the leadership election should be a long-one. While the right overall will do well, the next leader of the Labour party may look more like Callaghan than Blair.
Labour has a class problem. According to the Sutton Trust, the number of Labour candidates selected for winnable seats who were privately educated nearly doubled from 2010 to 2015 from twn per cent to over 19 per cent (the Tory figure is a staggering 49 percent). A near-majority of Labour’s candidates worked either in politics, the media, the law or for a trade union.
There is anecdotal evidence to suggest the posh, metropolitan hue of candidates proved a deciding factor in some seats, especially in the South of England. But this played out elsewhere too – just look at the Twitter feed of any Labour candidate in Scotland and see what the SNP were saying about them. Without the party rebuilding its membership and opening up its selection process to embrace open primaries (as I argued before), it is going to be hard to overcome the perception that too many candidates are paid up members of the political class even before arriving in Westminster.
Too many members of the British political class look to Washington DC rather than closer, more politically important capitals such as Berlin, Brussels or Paris. Our infantile obsession with US politics, from pouring over Robert Caro (yes, I have) to reciting the West Wing, has led the British left to believe it could emulate the success of Barack Obama’s presidential left-of-centre triumph in a parliamentary democracy.
As Janan Ganesh of the FT observes:
"Our politicians hire American electoral advisers as though Washington and Westminster were comparable polities. When they arrive, they see they cannot buy television advertising, or raise serious sums of money, or treat the election as a two-party race, and they quietly recede."
Labour reportedly paid former Obama aide David Axelrod a £300,000 fee for advising the Labour party, yet he visited only a few times and didn’t even have a pass to enter Labour’s HQ. Obama’s presidential win could not be replicated in a parliamentary democracy. Even golden boy Nate Silver got it wrong. Can we move on now please?
The quick tack to the right in the first days of this government – the revival of the Snooper’s Charter, the repeal of the Human Rights Act and the ban on fox hunting – all show the project by the Tory modernisers is long over.
Upcoming challenge for the Tories will be how to deliver on a manifesto designed for compromising in coalition negotiations..— Ali Goldsworthy (@aligoldsworthy) May 11, 2015
This suggests the Tories have learned all the wrong lessons from their success. David Cameron won a convincing victory, but he still took 2.76 million fewer votes than John Major did in 1992. Thirty-eight per cent of the popular vote is respectable, but arguably, against such an ineffective opposition with a more centrist message the Conservatives could have driven further into Labour’s territory. With UKIP a busted flush, it’s unclear why the party is still dancing to the UKIP agenda. This will be shown to be a major strategic error if Labour is capable of electing a popular, centrist leader (which is by no means certain).
The failure of the Tory modernisation project will become clear as Cameron’s backbenches become restless over Europe once again. It is frankly impossible for the Commission or the 28 EU member states to offer anything but minor concessions to the British Prime Minister – and nothing that would undermine either the Lisbon Treaty or the even less comprehensive Maastricht Treaty. To do so would be to built a three-tier Europe at the moment where the EU is still fire-fighting sovereign debt crises in Greece, Portugal and Italy. It isn’t going to happen.
The EU referendum vote will take place in this context. The anti-politics mood of the nation will grip both the right, and the left (who will sense a moment for mischief). The vote will be closer than expected and could leave both the Conservative and the Labour party divided with UKIP uniting anti-European voters behind it in the same manner the SNP monopolised pro-independence voters.
The referendum is a major error of judgement by the Prime Minister. It will divide his party and potentially lead to a UKIP surge. Yet the next Labour leader will have no choice but to back the referendum.
Scepticism about Europe from progressives will recede at the point at which popular discontent over the EU rises. A number of totemic issues including the Human Rights Act, employment legislation and financial oversight will see to this.
Even if the Tories abandon the Human Rights Act, the UK will still need to take heed of its judgments due to the embedding of the European Convention into the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. If Britain stays within the EU, it will still need to obey judgements by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) which pays close attention to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. It’s possible that human rights groups could get around the end of the Human Rights Act by going straight to the ECJ instead.
The likely outcome is a further splintering of opinion: with Eurosceptic Tories moving closer to EU exit and progressive opinion becoming increasingly pro-European. The splintering of opinion in the Tories will be tough for Cameron to mend. He has two years with a majority, followed by three years of pain as his Eurosceptic MPs deliver defeat after defeat as revenge for Cameron leading the ‘Yes’ (stay in) campaign during the referendum. It won’t be easy for the new leader of the Labour party either with an increasing number of Labour MPs displaying Euroscepticism, if not calling openly for Brexit, as the UKIP vote surges just three years before the next general election. Expect Simon Danczuk to lead the Eurosceptic grouping within the Labour party.
The division in the Labour right is mirrored by the division in the Conservative party - with the minority of those comfortable with liberal values, multiculturalism, Europe and globalisation increasingly similar to the same faction of the Labour party. The EU referendum will see wider divisions in both parties than is currently expected, especially if the UKIP vote continues to surge - with the 35 per cent of Britons voting for Brexit both organised, angry and as determined as the SNP to “have their voices heard”. This will drag many parliamentarians away from progressive politics, towards a regressive anti-globalisation nationalism. Anti-politics is here to stay. Conversely, this will stir a reaction at the centre of politics to embrace major reforms of Westminster and its institutions (before they are engulfed by a wave of populist discontent). What is crystal clear is the status quo in Westminster is now unsustainable, the Lords, the voting system, the infantilisation of local government, even how political parties operate is now all up for grabs. The question is will a populist surge make Britain less open for good, or can the defeated center-left once again inspire the country? The next two years will define politics for a generation. I’m less than hopeful.