As the dullest and most weirdly static election campaign of my adult life drags to a… hold on, let’s check that. 1979 was a historic disaster; 1983 was all the fun of having our faces rubbed in it, with the added piquancy of some terribly nice middle-class people splitting the Left down the middle and doing Thatcher’s dirty work for her. 1987 wasn’t all that dramatic, Kinnock: The Movie apart – Labour did well, but it would have been surprising if they’d done well enough to win. It left the Tories with quite a small majority, though, and felt like a step in the right direction. 1992, on the other hand, was a crushing disappointment: lots of us thought that Labour could at least manage a hung parliament – which would lead to an alliance with the Lib Dems, which would necessarily (ha!) lead to PR, which would give the Left its own voice in Parliament and generally shake things up big time. 1997, well. In retrospect 1997 was a bit like the SDP coming back from the grave and actually achieving the kind of mould-breaking mind-wipe they threatened to bring off in 1982; if you weren’t swept along, it was quite strange. Dull it wasn’t, though. I don’t remember much about the 2001 election, but this may be because my father died a few weeks afterwards – to say nothing of what happened a couple of months after that. Then there was 2005 – the election of ‘Backing Blair’ and the mobilisation of the anti-Iraq vote – and 2010, which was anything but dull.
So yes, this is the dullest and most static, etc. And, perhaps, the oddest. The other thing that jumps out from that quick retrospective is that the two least interesting elections in the last 40 years – 1987 and 2001 – were the ones where there was least at stake (reasonably enough): nobody really expected Labour to win in 1987 or the Tories in 2001. On paper the situation we’re in now is more like what we faced eighteen years ago in 1997, or (oddly) eighteen years before that in 1979: an exhausted governing party with no new ideas, beset by internal rivalries and dependent on deals with minor parties to get legislation through, is faced by a united opposition party with an untried but confident leader. And yet voters don’t seem to be abandoning Cameron as their predecessors abandoned Callaghan and Major respectively, and there’s no sign of a Thatcher- or Blair-scale swing to Miliband. In fact, nothing seems to be happening at all. Well, perhaps not nothing; I’m as fond of psephological close-reading as the next geek, and it is the case that – although the last crop of polls wasn’t obviously favourable to Labour – every one of them represented either an increase in Labour preferences or a drop for the Tories relative to the previous poll from the same polling organisation. Zoom out a bit, though, and it’s hard to deny that very little has happened since January.
(Chart c/o UK Polling Report.) Feel the stasis! A few Kippers have drifted back to the Tories and a few Greens back to Labour and the Lib Dems, but otherwise we are still pretty much where we were.
Which is to say, we are still facing a post-election impasse that will make the arithmetic of 2010 look like child’s play. All the projections point to a hung parliament, and one that can’t be turned into a stable majority by simply putting two parties’ MPs together, as Cameron and Clegg did in 2010. What’s more, it looks as if these conditions are here to stay. Look at this chart:
(The last column is a projection, but everything up to there shows what actually happened.) Look, in particular, at what happened along the top of the chart in February 1974, 1983 and 1997. Although there were Ulster Unionists in each of the parliaments prior to 1974, it was only in February 1974 that they stopped automatically voting with the Tories; from that point on they could be filed under ‘Others’. The Liberals also got a boost that year – getting into double figures for the first time since 1950 – while the first SNP surge took them to 11 MPs in October 1974. In 1983, following the number the Gang of Four had done on the Labour party, the SDP/Liberal Alliance doubled the Liberals’ previous number of MPs – from 11 to 23. Then in 1997, with the collapse of the Tory vote, the Liberal Democrats had another leap forward, taking 46 seats; the same year, the SNP took 6 (having previously fallen back to 3).
What’s particularly striking is that, despite the ebbs and flows in particular parties’ representation (and the Lib Dems are headed for another ebb this year), the direction of travel is fairly constant: 1974, 1983 and 1997 weren’t turning points so much as inflection points in the gradual disintegration of a parliamentary duopoly. Plurality voting in single-member constituencies is notoriously slow to register shifts in public loyalties, but they get picked up eventually – and once they’ve been registered they aren’t entirely forgotten. People get out of the habit of voting either Labour or Tory – at different times and for different reasons, but once it’s happened it remains an available option. And once it’s happened on a larger scale, it remains an option available to a larger number of people. The process never seem to go into reverse for very long or by very much. The picture’s clearer in this simplified version:
The 1945 Parliament had an unusually high rate of representation of small parties, particularly on the Left – Independent Labour Party, Common Wealth, Communist. Even then, the combined parliamentary strength of the Labour and Tory parties amounted to over 96% of the House of Commons; between then and 1974 it only dropped below 98% once. (And no, I’m not excluding Northern Irish seats: there was little or no Nationalist representation in this period, and the Unionists took the Tory whip.) The Labour/Tory figure fell to below 95% in 1974 and continued to fall, dropping below 94% in 1983, below 90% in 1997 and falling to 85.8% in 2005. Unless something very unusual (relative to current poll data) happens on May 7th, the figure in the next Parliament will be similar – which is to say, Labour and the Tories between them will have around 560 MPs total, out of 650 (the 2005 figure was 554 out of 646).
What this means is that, over time, a ‘small party’ group of MPs has been developing, which can’t be ignored in the way that the six Liberals in the 1959 parliament could be. In 2015, for the third election running, that group looks like numbering 85-90. This in turn means that thinking about overall majorities has got a lot more difficult. In 1964 Labour took 51% of those seats that were either Labour or Tory and gained an overall majority, with 50.3% of all seats. In 2010 the Tories took 307 seats – 54.3% of the Labour/Tory bloc but only 47.2% of all seats. You can see how the two ratios – largest party / total and largest party / largest + runner-up – have diverged over the years here:
The gap between the red and blue points in 2010 – the difference between an overall minority and a substantial majority of Labour/Tory seats – is the result of a ‘minor party’ bloc of 85 MPs. If we hold those 85 seats constant, the only way for the Tories to gain an absolute majority would have been to raise their share of the Labour/Tory bloc to 57.7% – and, while this kind of domination was achieved by Thatcher and Blair in their time, it was clearly beyond Cameron’s reach. The projection I’m using for 2015 has Labour as the largest single party, with 295 seats – 52.9% of Labour or Tory seats, but only 45.4% of the total; again, only a huge victory over the Tories would give an overall majority, and this doesn’t currently seem remotely likely. The same goes for the Tories, mutatis mutandis; while we don’t know which of the two will be the largest party on May 8th, by that same token we can be reasonably confident that there are no landslides in the offing.
This isn’t to say that major-party hegemony is a thing of the past – on the contrary, the hegemony of the major parties is alive and well. But these figures do suggest that the major parties’ duopoly is (a) gone and (b) not coming back: from here on in, nobody gets to form a government on their own. In that context, Labour has an enormous advantage over the Conservatives: from the radical leftists of the Green Party to the reactionaries of the DUP, everyone wants to work with them. The only party that has overtly expressed a preference for a Conservative-led government is UKIP, and that’s an endorsement which the Tories might prefer to be without. (To be fair, Nick Clegg on behalf of the Lib Dems has said something similar through the medium of nudges and winks – but he’s also said he rules out working with UKIP, which would make a blue/orange/purple rainbow alliance a bit problematic.)
The SNP in particular is going to be a major presence in Parliament after May 7th; they have made it quite plain that they’re ready and willing to work with Labour, and that they’ve got no interest in working with the Tories. It’s a major weakness for the Tories, and a major asset for Labour. So why are the Tories currently working so hard to advertise this weakness as if it was a strength – and denouncing Labour’s strength as if it was a weakness? And why on earth is Labour letting them?
(Some answers in part two.)