Wednesday, May 13, 2015

UK Election Post-Mortem

David Cameron is now poised to go down in history as one of the UK’s greatest political leaders of the last century.  No really, he is.  In the wake of winning a surprising majority in Parliament complete with a new 5 years in office, the Cameron record after about a decade and counting as leader of the Conservatives (half of that time spent as Prime Minister) is objectively reaching these levels.


For the first time since Lord Salisbury, fresh off the Boer War, in the 1900 general election, a Prime Minister’s party has won a new term in power with a higher percentage of the popular vote than they won the previous election.  Baldwin never did it, nor did Churchill, Attlee, Thatcher, or Blair: only Cameron, now, can claim this achievement.  And since 1900, only Thatcher in 1983 increased her party’s number of seats after a full term in office…until Cameron and the Tories added 24 seats Thursday.

In two election cycles in the UK, the Conservatives have gained 133 seats in Parliament with a 4.5% increase in their national vote share.  The Tories have retaken the solid majority of English seats, are at their strongest position in Wales since the height of the Thatcher era in 1983, and while still holding just 1 seat in Scotland they’ve actually strengthened their position in Scottish countryside and borderland constituencies to the point that just a slightly less historically massive surge by the Scottish National Party could’ve resulted in several Conservative gains there as well.  Cameron’s 2-0 as leader in Parliamentary elections, a notch below the 3-0 records Thatcher and Blair can boast but at the same time a record achieved from a much lower starting point than the other unbeaten leaders of recent history inherited when they became party leaders.

With both Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg resigning as their party’s leaders, the litany of former rivals that Cameron has outlasted just continues to grow.  Miliband, Gordon Brown, and the waning years of Tony Blair have all come and gone on the Labour front benches during Cameron’s tenure as Tory leader.  Charles Kennedy resigned as Liberal Democrat leader just a month after Cameron became Conservative leader, and he has seen Sir Menzies Campbell and former coalition partner Nick Clegg come and go as leaders of the LibDems.  Alex Salmond stepped down as leader of SNP after the failed independence referendum last year, Farage has been UKIP leader, stepped down in favor of Lord Pearson, returned as UKIP leader and most recently had his resignation as leader rejected by the party, and witnessed the old guard of Welsh nationalism depart when Ieuan Wyn Jones stepped down as Plaid Cymru leader.  With another five years in power, who knows how many other vanquished political careers will be added to the Cameron throne of skulls.

All this is made more impressive by the variety of challenges Cameron has navigated.  From a 2010 result many (myself among them) saw as an underachievement in terms of seats won, to the far more governmental challenge of trying to oversee spending reforms after excessive borrowing by his Labour predecessor while also working to promote economic growth after recession, and the series of referendums on electoral reform, Scottish independence, and the looming shadow of an inevitable EU referendum, Cameron has survived them all through some combination of luck and skill (how much of each comprises it is up to much interpretation).  Cameron seems to have become a master of brinksmanship, repeatedly staring into the abyss of political disaster just before finding a way off the cliff again. 

This mastery of brinksmanship will be needed if Cameron is to navigate his 2nd term as PM successfully.  331 seats is still a smaller majority than the one John Major had after the 1992 election, and Major found himself having to head a minority government for the final year in office after a series of by-election defeats.  He’ll also have to make peace with the more (small ‘c’) conservative elements of his backbenches to push through his legislation, that or be forced to the even less appealing task of striking vote by vote agreements with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party or the remnants of the Liberal Democrats to narrowly squeak by.  And Scotland’s future, fresh off electing SNP MPs in 56 of their 59 constituencies, remains a deep and looming question for the UK.

Front and center on any list of 2nd term challenges for PM Cameron will be the EU referendum he campaigned extensively on holding before the end of 2017.  Since the waning days of Thatcher, the Conservative party has been deeply divided on the question of involvement in the European community and European Union.  I think few honestly doubt that Cameron supports continued involvement on some level in European affairs, but his public persona during the referendum will need to be a delicate balancing act.  Just as Labour’s late, active push against the Scottish independence referendum last year helped push a sizable chunk of their traditional vote to SNP, so too could an overly active Conservative effort in support of the EU galvanize what in British terms are the ‘Euroskeptic’ Tories toward UKIP and Nigel Farage’s waiting arms.  It’ll be yet another high wire act in the tenure of David Cameron.

But Cameron’s triumph and the challenges his government will face the next five years isn’t the only noteworthy takeaway from Thursday’s election.

UKIP’s Unexpected Impact

In the buildup to the election, the conventional wisdom on the rise of UKIP was that it represented a profound threat to Cameron and the Tories’ hopes.  After all, their foundational political tenant (withdrawal from the EU) strikes at the heart of an internal Conservative divide that dates back to the last days of the Thatcher era, and their ranks are filled with a variety of high profile Tory defectors.
But a review of the results indicates that the opposite was actually the case.  UKIPs vote share proved to be slightly higher in safe Labour seats than had been expected before the election, and slightly lower than expected in safe Conservative seats.  But the clearest evidence of the role UKIP played can be found in the key Conservative-Labour battlegrounds that held the balance of power.  Labour won just 9 of their top 50 pickup opportunities over the Conservative (plus Ilford North, which was a real outlier at 71 on their target list of Conservative seats), while the Tories won 8 of their top 50 Labour targets. 

The UKIP share of the vote proved to be a reliable indicator of each party’s successes.  UKIP ranged from 3.78% to 12.40% of the vote in the 10 Labour pickups, reaching double digits in only 2 of the 10.  In contrast, the UKIP vote share fell between 11.16% and 21.48% in the 8 Conservative gains over Labour.  In only 1 Labour pickup did UKIP’s vote share exceed their share in any of these Tory pickups, and likewise only the lowest total among the 8 Conservative pickups from Labour was a smaller percentage than the 10 Labour wins. 

There was also a stark contrast when comparing these victories to the missed opportunities each party had in these vulnerable seats.  UKIP averaged 8.02% of the vote in the 10 seats Labour took from the Tories.  In the 41 top-50 targets where Labour failed to gain ground, UKIP was nearly four and a half percent stronger on average, 12.49%.  Given that 7 of these targets plus Peterborough (Labour’s 66th Tory target) were lost by less than 2.4%, this increased UKIP support may well have kept Labour from at least denying the Conservatives a majority of seats.

The UKIP difference in Conservative target seats was far smaller, but no less important.  UKIP averaged 15.47% in the 8 Labour seats won by the Tories, but a smaller 14.56% in the 42 top-50 targets Labour held.  It’s a small dropoff, but 4 of the 8 winning margins referenced above were 0.87% or smaller: less than the 0.91% that differentiates the strength of UKIP in these wins and losses.

So how did polling seem to misinterpret the effect of UKIP, even as they fairly accurately estimated the party’s national vote share?  In large part, I think we’ve seen the birth of a ‘Shy UKIP’ factor in elections.  Cameron’s definitive late appeal to UKIP voters on the issue of an EU referendum may well have worked in bringing some of the right Tory base reluctantly home in the final days, but these defections were offset by a group of voters who publicly claimed to be supporting Labour yet were really UKIP supporters.  Farage’s anti-EU, anti-open immigration message came with a populist appeal that resonated with the kind of industrial, blue collar voter that has long been the backbone of Labour’s electoral math.  And while a traditional Tory voter would tend to find it easy to tell a pollster they’ve moved allegiance to a party just off to the right of where they were, a Labour voter openly stating they’ve shifted to UKIP is a far greater psychological threshold. 

This phenomenon was on display in the by-elections of 2014: UKIP polled fairly accurately in seats that had been Conservative, but in the Heywood and Middleton by-election (a Labour seat) UKIP’s candidate was 19 points down in 2 polls released in the final 10 days yet lost by just 2.2%.  The hidden UKIP strength that this alluded to I believe has been confirmed by the results from Thursday across the UK.  UKIP now poses as big of a threat to Labour’s support as it does to the Conservatives, if not more. 

The Death of the LibDems

Perhaps the most decided long term political consequence of what we just witnessed is that the Liberal Democrats are dead as a political force.  Every forecast knew they were to be dealt a major setback, but 8 seats?? Nick Clegg’s agreement to be junior partners in coalition government five years ago proved to be the political equivalent of a cyanide tablet.  In over half of the seats where they fielded candidates (334 of these 632), they couldn’t even reach 5% of the vote: an embarrassing loss of £167,000 in ballot deposits.

The even bigger problem for the party’s hope it might regroup and rebuild is that this is just the latest disastrous election result they’ve faced in the era of coalition government: indeed, it has been 5 years of crushing setbacks at every level of government throughout Great Britain.  The LibDems went from winning 11 seats to European parliament in 2009 to just 1 last year.  From a height of over 4,200 local council seats after 2008, they’ve lost over 2,500 of these seats since with the latest blow of over 500 lost seats in council elections Thursday.  They won 16 seats in the Scottish Parliament in 2007, just 5 in 2011.  Everywhere the LibDems look, their party is being routed. 

On a personal note for this, this result is frustrating because my early modeling for the election saw such a result coming, but waves of constituency level polling of LibDem incumbents by Lord Ashcroft and others showed their MPs retaining support at a rate that seemed to validate their party’s assertion that they could retain a large portion of their seats even in the face of plummeting national support.  But the same math that, months ago, told me a fall into the 10 seat range was likely won out, as math always does.

So how do they recover?  Quite simply, I don’t think they can.  Now they will surely continue to exist for years to come, in a sense still too big to fail entirely.  But just five years ago this party was very nearly the equal of the Conservatives and Labour.  Now, those days and the dreams of power that came with it are a taunting ghost of what might have been for the remnants that remain.

Labour’s Identity Crisis

Thursday was widely expected to be the return of Labour to power.  Granted, no one really believed they would win an outright majority, but through some kind of alliance of left wing parties it seemed probable that Ed Miliband would become the next Prime Minister.  The loss of the election and a net loss of 26 seats was more than just an unexpected setback, it will prove to be the catalyst for a battle for the very soul of their party.

Miliband’s election as Labour was part of a general refutation of Tony Blair and New Labour, the repositioning of their party into the political center taken in the mid-1990s.  But this latest defeat simply underscores the decades of failures Labour has faced when moving left.  It has been over 50 years since a Labour leader other than Blair won a general election with a sustainable majority, and Labour’s lowest standing since 1987 is just the latest rebuke of their party base’s desire to win from the British left. 

They also have to deal with threats to two critical components of their traditional electoral base.  SNP’s monumental surge in Scotland has taken Labour from 41 seats to just 1 in Scotland, and from 42% of the Scottish vote to just under one-fourth.  Meanwhile, in England and Wales, the aforementioned encroachment of UKIP’s brand of populism into the kind of working class voter Labour relies upon in key marginals leaves them ill equipped to build the kind of vote share needed to build waves of red onto their list of target seats. 

Labour is about to undergo yet another leadership battle, one that will undoubtedly be a showdown between a new generation of reformers not unlike Blair and John Smith in the 1990s and traditional left Labour voices demanding an even more uncompromising nature.  It’s unclear which side will win out, but decades of largely failures demands a more nuanced approach in the build to the next election like the one that led Blair to electoral landslide. 



Even as the widespread expectations of an election that flipped the British political landscape on its head didn’t quite come to pass, extensive uncertainty across the spectrum has resulted from a result every bit as unexpected as the surprise Conservative victory of 1992.  Cameron has not only survived, but achieved a victory that leaves much of his opposition scrambling to regroup, rebuild and redefine themselves in the eyes of the British people.  Luckily for them, a lot can happen in five years before a 2020 general election.

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