Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

So What? – Post-Election Ponderings

So some councillors and MEPs have lost their seats, some have gained or regained their seats. As a result some councils have changed control but there has been little change in the European Parliament. In due course the wheel will turn full circle and some of those seats will move back.

We expected the Liberal Democrats to get a hammering. And they have – councillors and MEPs (including some very good ones) are apparently responsible for all the evils of the Westminster coalition.

We expected UKIP to do dramatically well (much as the SDP did in the early days). And they have, at least in terms of votes; but under First Past the Post, few seats. Sunday was different as across Europe sundry sceptic and reactionary parties won seats.

We expected Labour to come back at the expense of the Conservatives. And in general they have – a bit. Across Europe the Conservatives (both European “Merkel” Conservatives and “Cameron” Conservatives) lost to Socialists and to “Others” – mainly sceptics.

In the UK, the BNP lost its MEPs, but elsewhere in Europe, the BNPs fellow travellers made gains.

Beyond that it is very hard to draw firm conclusions. We can postulate a few soft ones though!

The Results

English Council Elections

Party Vote Share Change +/-  Seats Change +/- Councils Change +/-
Labour 31% +2% 2101 +338 82 +6
Conservative 29% +4% 1360 -230 41 -11
Liberal Democrat 13% -1% 427 -310 6 -2
UKIP 17% -5% 163 +161 0 0
Green ?% ?% 38 +18 0 0
Other ?% ?% 125 +23 0 0
No Overall Control N/A N/A N/A N/A 31 +7

After 160 of 161 results – data from BBC News Website – except Vote Share data from Wikipedia – using BBC data. Change is against 2013 – when a different set of councils were up for election.

Council control shift matrix (Wikipedia)
After →
↓ Before
Labour Conservative Liberal
Democrats
No Overall
Control
Labour 74 0 0 3
Conservative 3 40 0 9
Liberal Democrats 0 1 6 1
No Overall Control 5 0 0 19

Last updated at 21:43:58 on 24/5/2014 (out of sync with results summary above)

European Parliament

Party Group
(GB Party)
GB Vote
(Millions)
GB Vote
%
GB
MEPs
EU Vote
%
EU
MEPs
EPP (not in GB) 24%   -9% 208 -59
Socialists (Lab) 4.0 25% +10% 20   +7 24%  +2% 186   -2
Liberal (Lib D) 1.1  7%   -7%   1  -10  8%   -2% 58  -23
Green (Green) 1.2  8%   -1%   3   +1  7%    -% 46    -9
ECR (Camerons) 3.8 23%   -4% 19   -7 4%  -1% 45  -11
The left (var) 6% +2% 42   +7
EFD (UKIP) 4.4 27% +11% 24 +11 5%    -% 38   +9
Other (var) 21% +7% 117 +88
Other (SNP) 0.4 2%  -% 2 –
Other (Plaid C) 0.1 1%  -% 1 –
Other (BNP) 0.2 1% -5% 0 -2

Data from BBC News Website (Europe-wide) (GB-only) after 740 of 751 Seats declared and 381 GB Local Authority sub-counts complete

UKIP

“The UKIP surge” appears to be “the story”; but why?

  • is it the froth of a protest vote?
    • (I don’t like the government and I don’t like the opposition, so …)?
  • is it a surge of anti-European feeling and a conviction that by voting for UKIP councillors we will be closer to leaving the EU?
  • is it a surge of xenophobic fear but with fewer BNP candidates standing as a home for frightened voters ?
  • is it a surge of anti-traditional parties sentiment?

Liberal Democrat MP Jeremy Browne has said UKIP’s Nigel Farage represents a “big two fingers stuck up… to a hectoring, out-of-touch elite”. Politicians must pay more attention to the “state of mind of quite a lot of people, particularly beyond London”
Jeremy Browne on Question Time 22 May 2014

  • a more positive liking for UKIP – e.g. for Nigel Farage

Liberal Democrat minister Lynne Featherstone has said Nigel Farage’s appeal lies in his “sounding like a human being”.
Lynne Featherston on BBC TV Results Programme (BBC2/News Channel) 22/23 May 2014

But the UKIP vote share dropped compared to last year:

UKIP’s projected national share figure is lower than the 23% it got in council elections last year and despite its gains, UKIP does not yet control any local authorities.
BBC News Website 23 May 201: Nigel Farage: UKIP to be serious players at general election

In the article cited above elections expert Professor John Curtice suggests that this drop is due to a poor performance in London. There were no council elections in London in 2013 – the year against which the “change” is measured. The 2014 elections were therefore fought on less fertile ground (for UKIP) than in 2013.

London is less fertile possibly because it has an ethnically diverse population – more so that in places like Essex or parts of the North of England where UKIP took Labour votes. That probably says something about UKIP’s appeal. Farage has accepted that they are not as well organised in London

And yet UKIP makes a big deal of “Europe” as an issue (even though it is mainly something you address at Westminster), and last Thursday was Euro-election day as well. UKIP has won (and won well) in Euro-elections – so I would expect that this should have helped them increase their vote share when compared to a non Euro-election day.

So is the “surge” a product of lazy or biased journalism – a “UKIP Surge” is the story that the media wants? The media focus is often on seats and councils won (which is what immediately matters) rather than on share of voters’ support (which in a world with a proportional voting system would be more important). UKIP have won more seats (and disrupted more councils) – possibly they are learning to target.

Whatever the reason and whatever the figures actually say, shortly after midnight on Thursday/Friday we had the inevitable Conservative back-bench calls:

  • from Douglas Carswell MP for a pact with UKIP:

“Attacking UKIP – and by extension those who voted for them – makes no sense. A successful business doesn’t blame customers when they walk away,” he adds. And he goes further, saying: “We need a pact with UKIP.”
Douglas Carswell in his Telegraph blog reported on BBC News Feed 22/23 May 2014

  • from Jacob Rees-Mogg MP for a “coupon election” to ensure that small c conservatism (with its desire [apparently] for an exit from the EU) wins the next general election.

The ‘Coupon Election’ was on December 14th, 1918. The ‘Coupon Election’ is so-called as those candidates for the Liberal Party who had supported the coalition government of David Lloyd George during World War One were issued with a letter of support signed by both Lloyd George and Andrew Bonar Law, leader of the Conservative Party.
History Learning Site

These are typical reactions from “the usual suspects” – although there are more interesting options that they have ignored.

We need to understand the reasons for their support (see above) and decide how much their support will “hold” or how much it may “drift back”.

There are two major factors in play here:

  1. UKIP is now the default home for protest votes – I would have liked it to have been the Greens, but UKIP is the media story, so awareness drives protest votes to UKIP.
  2. UKIP is now also gathering support from Labour. There are probably a number of “segments” of support being gathered:
    1. Disenchanted Tribal Labour (see later)
    2. Traditional “Blue Collar Conservatives” who lend their support to Labour out of self-interest
    3. The “reactionary working class” (who may have considered voting NF/BNP/EDL etc.) but who have until recently been voting Labour following class allegiance.

Party support that is dependent on protest votes is usually notoriously soft. However, the BBC (via Jeremy Vine’s graphics) presented some statistics that indicated that at this election many more UKIP supporters intended to “stay with UKIP” come the general election rather than drift back to the Conservatives as has happened previously. We may be close enough to the General Election for those intentions to hold, but it may hold because the support is not the sort of “protest vote” that the Liberals have been good at hoovering up for the past few decades.

There is a disenchantment with “the old politics and politicians” and unfortunately it makes “old reactionary politics with bar-room politicians” attractive. So possibly we should view this as a “disenchantment vote” rather than a “protest vote” – hence UKIP doing better than many expected in (Labour held) Northern wards as well as in (Conservative held) Southern wards. However, if the vote they have attracted is going to stick with UKIP, UKIP have to face growing pains much as the SDP did.

Will UKIP suffer the same (or similar) growing pains as the SDP and if so when will they pay the penalty? Can Farage hold his rag-bag together, or will there be grass-roots demands for a greater say? My guess is that Farage’s opinion of himself is such that he will believe that to maximise UKIP’s chances at the General Election he must hold the reins and crack the whip – he may be right and may be able to hold it together through to the general election.

Labour

I suspect that Labour had privately expected UKIP to take a chunk out of their support. The way that UKIP polled in by-elections in Rotherham and South Shields should have warned them not to ignore the danger.

However it is one thing being aware of the danger and another thing knowing how best to counter it. Do you attack the party, attack its policies or attack what you believe are the reasons for the growth in UKIP Support.

The danger of attacking UKIP is that Labour supporters who are feeling attracted to UKIP may feel that they are being attacked. Not a good idea when one of UKIP’s selling points is that the old parties are out of touch and do not care about their own supporters.

Attacking UKIP’s policies is less effective. UKIP have deliberately kept their “policy platform” thin and simple – and hence attractive to those who do not spend their entire lives considering political issues.  They have “sold” immigration as the cause of many ills, knowing that the Labour intelligentsia will be loath to “attack immigrants”. Labour then has to try to counter with a complex mix of proposals to tackle those ills: new rules for recruitment agencies, enforcement of minimum wage regulations, support of local authorities and health services seeing an increase in population. All things they failed to do when they were in power.

Labour also fail to directly challenge UKIP’s claim that it is “all due to immigration” and only by leaving the EU can we solve all the associated ills. This failure almost legitimises UKIP’s claim.

Attacking the believed reason for your supporters switching to UKIP (disenchantment with politics) means having to accept that you are part of the problem and you have to find a way to show that you are in some way “reforming” and “becoming more relevant” – a tough trick to pull off.

Disenchanted “Labour” people (as opposed to people who merely voted Labour) would almost never have drifted to the Liberals or Conservatives – they have spent generations fighting them. But they have never spent generations “hating” UKIP – and UKIP appears to be addressing problems faced by the disenfranchised working class. The relative “newness” of UKIP’s appeal to the working class offers a new opportunity to the disenchanted Labour voter. If (somehow!) you can ignore the fact that Farage is as much a toff as many Tories, there is no class betrayal in voting UKIP. This is dangerous as it can undermine Labour’s “tribal vote” – in the same way as UKIP has used anti-EU sentiment to undermine the Tory “tribal vote”.

Because it is recognised that UKIP policies on the EU and immigration are similar to the desires of many Conservatives, there is a thought that Conservatives “jumping the broom” and voting UKIP have not emotionally left the Conservatives and may therefore tend to drift back to the Conservatives come the General Election. The same cannot be said for Labour. The policy overlap is minimal and there might therefore be an increased danger that Labour votes have not so much been lent to UKIP, but they have left for good.

An additional factor that may play with previously Labour supporters is the awareness that since the last election, Labour has failed to implement any policies – because they have been out of power, but UKIP appears to have seen a lot of movement on their policies – because the Tories have danced to UKIP’s tune. So does voting UKIP bring results – unlike voting Labour?

Conservatives

The Conservatives seem to have escaped the same sort of serious post-election scrutiny that Labour has experienced. My suspicious little mind suspects that this is because of the media agenda.

However, EU Membership is still a fraught subject for the Conservatives.

The Conservatives have promised to hold an in/out vote in three years’ time after renegotiating back powers from the EU.

Mr Cameron has said he will then campaign for the UK to remain part of the European Union.

But Mr Davis attacked his leadership’s stance, saying: “The government’s insistence that it intends to recommend an “in” vote, without any clear conditions, has robbed its policy of both clarity and credibility.”

He said the government appeared to be “moving crab-like towards a referendum” and had not articulated why the UK should stay in or what will happen if the country votes to leave.

The party needs to “grasp this nettle” to prevent UKIP’s rise, he warned.

Explaining how Conservatives are perceived by voters, he said: “They see us making minimalist promises, often only when under pressure from a pending election or backbench revolt.”
BBC News Website 25 May 2014: David Davis: Voters say Tories lack ‘clarity and courage’

I suspect that when David Davis talks of “grasping this nettle”, he means having a referendum now or at least bringing it forward – presumably without any real renegotiation. Pro-Europe Conservatives will see this as a terrible risk that could lead to an “Out” vote – a result that I expect most Tory Europhobes earnestly desire.

Apart from that, his prescription is minimal, but his diagnosis is probably correct – “making minimalist promises, often only when under pressure from a pending election or backbench revolt”. This has probably left many anti EU Conservative voters thinking that you might as well vote for the real thing – the “real Tories” being UKIP.

Cameron’s “Re-negotiate and put the result to the British People” strategy has always lacked credibility as it is so dependent on other EU Governments being willing to devote resources and time to pandering to anti-EU sentiments in Britain. Many may feel that there is little that they can give to satisfy the anti-EU factions, and others may actually feel that they are better of without us – in either case, why negotiate?

There is also a strong argument that the next British Government has better things to do after the next election than fruitless negotiation with the rest of the EU. We still have economic recovery to address (might the housing market and confidence collapse when interest rates inevitably rise?) and whatever the result of the Scottish Independence Referendum there will be the need to negotiate a new settlement with the Scots.

Some signs of economic recovery and a forthcoming General Election (when voters tend to punish parties that are perceived as “split”) may dampen down Conservative grumbles about the leadership stance. Senior Conservatives are saying their will be no pact (with UKIP) and I suspect that will be the case (officially).

However structurally, local Conservative Associations, have a degree of autonomy and can be bloody minded. Therefore it is quite likely that there will be secretive negotiations between some Local UKIP and Conservative Associations trying to agree things like “forms of words” to be used in Conservative election literature to ensure that any UKIP candidate is little more than a “paper candidate” (where apart from nominating a candidate little or no campaigning happens).

Where Conservative Associations will not enter into such negotiations with UKIP – or where the defending Conservative MP is pro EU, UKIP will target those seats.

Liberal Democrats

The Liberals were expected to suffer for a number of reasons:

  • They are part of the Government so are no longer a repository for “protest votes”
  • They are disliked for “breaking election promises” – apparently they have broken more promises than the other parties
  • They are disliked for their pro-EU stance

Politics is not fair – and it has not been fair to the Liberals: tough, as you sow so shall you reap. However, intruding into private grief is interesting.

Getting into power has been a shock for the Liberals; they have always claimed that they might one day hold the balance of power – and set their strategy accordingly. Unfortunately they did not take the same considerations into their policy deliberations, manifesto writing and electioneering. This would not matter except they got into power – and had made one very public promise regarding university tuition fees that probably won them a number of seats in University seats.

It is probably true that the electorate should be sophisticated enough to take all election promises (from all parties) with a pinch of salt labelled “provided we form a majority government” and should understand that sometimes circumstances change so that some promises should not be kept. This particular promise however was aimed at students – first time voters and idealistic.

UKIP, who plan to unveil a comprehensive policy platform this summer might like to take note – just in case they end up in a coalition after the next general election.

What is a surprise is that the “Party of IN” strategy has failed so spectacularly. Liberal support at 7% is probably merely their core tribal vote – in as much as they have one. Opinion polls have indicated that support for membership of the EU (whilst a minority view) is well above 7%. As the only “party of IN”, the Liberals must be disappointed that the pro-EU support is so very soft that it either stayed at home or stayed with Labour and the Conservatives despite their tepid support for EU membership.

Party Leader, Nick Clegg said:

Uniquely in British politics, the Liberal Democrats decided to take on UKIP and argue for the things we believe in: a generous-hearted, open-minded, internationalist Britain, …

It didn’t work but it is right that we stood up for the values that we believe in.
BBC News Website 26 May 2014 Under pressure Clegg defiant after Lib Dem election losses

Party president, Tim Farron remained defiant, and praised his party for standing up to UKIP’s Eurosceptic stance.

Somebody had to have the backbone to stand up to UKIP and take them on, …

“I’m proud. I want to win elections, but I want us to do the right thing even more.
BBC News Website 26 May 2014 BNP leader Nick Griffin loses North West Euro seat

Clearly an agreed line! However it is, in many ways, disappointing that the electorate is quite so visceral in its voting and that the minority who did vote for them is quite so small.

Inevitably for Liberals, defeat is followed by various councillors and local party “big-wigs” (“leading party members” – who we have never heard of) calling for a change of leader – Vince Cable most often being mentioned as the preferred successor. Wasn’t Vince the minister who took the tuition fees policy through the Commons?

Greens

The Greens got next to no coverage – the media preferring to cover UKIP. But they made progress with one extra MEP and 18 extra councillors. In Britain they out-polled the Liberals at the Euro-election.

If disenchantment could be more focused on how the current political and economic system is not serving the country or the planet, the Greens are the obvious alternative. But they also need to demonstrate that the “old parties” are incapable of reforming un-reformable systems.

But they do not have major supporters in the media – who prefer to promote UKIP as the home for the disenchanted – presumably because they are less of a challenge to the status quo than the Greens.

BNP

Out, thank goodness, and I think we need to thank UKIP for providing a home for racists. UKIP may not be actually racist, but if you are racist, UKIP with its ability to put the wind up the other parties in respect of immigration offers far more than the BNP ever did.

The Media

I think the media’s role in this election will over time be discussed in greater detail. They (almost irrespective of their political stance) have taken UKIP as “the story” and given Farage a lot of coverage with very little critical analysis. This has then got the other party’s dancing to UKIP’s tune.

The Scots have, with some possible justification, complained that the UK coverage of what is mainly an English and Welsh phenomenon, has artificially pumped UKIP support in Scotland.

Share Change
GB (proxy for England)  27.49  +10.99
Scotland  10.46  +5.23
Wales  27.55  +14.76

Data from BBC News Website UK European election results (After 381 Local Authority counts complete)

A 10% share in Scotland is not quite as earth-shattering as the media claims – they came fourth.

Likewise the Observer carried the front page headline:

Triumphant Ukip draw up hitlist of 20 key seats to storm Commons

Does 20 MPs – assuming total success – amount to a “storming” of a 650 seat chamber? It would be enough to be a pain, but well short of the number required to take over – which is surely what “storming” must mean.

Coverage after the results started coming in has been strange – particularly on the BBC. Questioning seemed to centre on saying to the old parties, over and over again, “you’ve lost, so how are you going to change your policies?” One of the problems we seem to suffer from is parties cutting and trimming their policies with every change of the wind direction. This leads to value-free politics. Policies should be consistent with a party’s principles and rooted in the party’s values. Thus the Liberals are internationalist and tolerant in terms of their values – for them to advocate the sort of policies promoted by UKIP would lack authenticity. If you find that policies that are consistent with your values are no longer attractive, you should either fold or be prepared to fade into the background until the county’s mood changes. If you don’t, you are effectively saying you will prostitute your beliefs for power. That will not reduce disenchantment.

Late through Thursday and Sunday nights too many politicians (particularly Labour and Conservative) peddled the “we are listening line”, seemingly not realising that we have heard it before and know that the implication that “listening will lead to change” is false. Perhaps they were tired, but they should have the honesty to say “this is what we believe, naturally we are disappointed that so many do not agree with us” – and then possibly shut-up. Heseltine’s interview on Newsnight on Monday evening was a master-class in responding sensibly to election results.

Even in Europe we see some strange reactions. For instance, in France:

French President Francois Hollande has called an urgent meeting of his cabinet, as Prime Minister Manuel Valls promised tax cuts a day after the results which he described as “a shock, an earthquake”.
BBC News Website 26 May 2014 Eurosceptic ‘earthquake’ rocks EU elections

Again they give the impression of being driven by events.

But failure to do anything looks like complacency and arrogance, so possibly our political leaders are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. The right answer may very well be “steady as she goes”, but in the light of even modest advances by a variety of disruptive parties “no reaction” feeds into these parties accusations (amplified by the media) of being remote and out of touch.

How can we get a new settlement between the media, the consumers of that media and the politicians being reported on by that media?

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