Why Labour Will Win the UK General Election in 2015 – and Why a Natural Conservative Wants the Conservative Party to Lose Badly
by Andrew Alexander
The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and may not be construed as in any way representative of the views or policies of Oxford Royale Summer Schools.
The UK election in 2015 is now less than a year away.
A great deal of rot is spoken about the result and how difficult it is to forecast. This seems to me to be the least interesting part of the puzzle. We are most likely facing a Labour win of a magnitude that will come as a surprise to the man in the newsroom, even if it is not so to the man on the street. The real excitement lies in considering what sort of a government this might leave us with.
Firstly, let’s look at why a Labour victory is more than likely in 2015. The first reason is the great hatred which the Tory party and Tory voters share for one another. One of the strangest claims made whenever the next election is discussed is that the lost voters of the right will swing back into the blue corner because they do not wish Ed Miliband to win if it comes to a gun fight between him and David Cameron.
Why many Conservative voters will shun David Cameron
If you’re going to have a socially liberal spendaholic running the country, you may as well go for a bona-fide socialist.
This ignores the reason why such a large proportion of the Tory vote does not back Mr Cameron, which is that to them he is indistinguishable from Mr Miliband. If you’re going to have a socially liberal spendaholic running the country, you may as well go for a bona-fide socialist, after all. On the big social issues there is no differentiation between the pair: they both backed gay marriage, both believe in heavy redistribution from middle earners to the poor, Mr Cameron has achieved record debt numbers and eliminated only one third of the deficit during his time in power – less than Gordon Brown promised to do at the last election. I suspect that if you are fond of these policies, you will find Labour a more authentic home. If not, then you will find no solidarity with the Conservatives.
A consequence of the refusal of the Conservative party to countenance conservative politics is that a large number of its voters have drifted over to UKIP. At the last general election, the majority of these came back to base – the UKIP vote share shrunk from 16.5% at the prior European election to 3.1% at the general election. This will not happen again. Whereas before Mr Cameron would have been able to offer the hope of a conservative government, this time he must stand by a record of soft-left government and incontinence in the very area of public spending to which he claims such ownership.
It is true that a large number of people now find their lives more unpleasant and difficult as a result of cuts to welfare entitlements and an additional stringency in the qualification barriers. However, the UK’s national debt has continued to surge well past the trillion pound mark, and the deficit which was supposed to be eliminated by the election will now be with us until 2018, and even this allows for some fairly heroic assumptions about the incoming government’s willingness and ability to slash public services. Those ex-Tory UKIPers? They are not coming back, and the UK’s largest election study data rather proves the point – 57% of their European voters now expect to stay with the party through the UK election cycle, up from 25% in 2009.
The second reason for a likely Labour win is to be found in the electoral system. This is something which the Conservatives have brought on themselves. Whatever the wisdom of the reforms to the House of Lords to which they agreed in conjunction with the Liberal Democrats — and I suspect they would have been unwise – elected peers would, depending on the timing of the electoral cycle, either undermine the authority of the Commons government or give it authority to ride rough-shod over scrutiny – this was a price they promised to Nick Clegg when negotiating the Coalition’s terms of reference. Refusing to honour that pledge led to the blocking of boundary reform that would have redistributed seats from Labour and cut 50 constituencies for a net Tory gain.
It is impossible to say whether there would have been less honour in the Conservatives going along with the constitutional atrocity of an elected Lords or in reneging on their word to do so. In either case, they are now hamstrung. Under the existing system, the Conservatives need to win by 11 points for a majority, thanks to the distribution of the Tory vote. Labour needs to win by three for a majority. Even with the reforms, a Conservative government would have to have won by at least seven points. The task is unprecedented in British politics; indeed it is impossible, although it does explain why Mr Cameron has spent so much of his time at the helm attempting to forge a coalition of the soft-left – without these voters he believes he cannot win. He has not won these voters, whom experience in the world outside Westminster would have told him hate the Tories viscerally. In chasing them, he has sent around a third of his own members to the polls to vote UKIP. Aren’t UKIP a problem for Labour also? Not really. For a start, Labour lose votes to UKIP in seats where Labour is an unassailable incumbent, whereas the Tories lose seats in marginals. Secondly, the UKIP phenomenon is still one which has a conventional right-left bias – it is a right-wing party taking votes from what is nominally a centre-right party. In 2010, 44% of UKIP voters voted for the Conservatives, only 7% voted Labour – the party’s rise is a secular problem for Mr Cameron.
But if not a Tory majority, what about the working assumption of many of those in Westminster – that there will be another coalition of some stripe in 2015? This is magical thinking. The Lib Dems have performed terribly poorly across a broad array of polls since the Coalition. At present the party has 57 seats based on 23% of the vote. Iain Dale maintains the party will manage to hold 35 of these, but I see it being lower – the twin pillars of the Lib Dem vote are students and barristers or other well off professionals looking to exercise their consciences through the tax system. The former group despise the role of the Lib Dems in increasing tuition fees to £9,000; the latter are under the cosh from rises to the cost of living and may well return to their ancestral pastures in the Conservative party. The most recent poll places the Lib Dems on 15% and sees them with 19 seats in a parliament governed by Labour on a majority of 40. I think this will prove prescient.
Labour is working
Neither of these arguments – internal dissent in the Tory party, the rise of UKIP, the failure of the Liberal Democrats – make a positive case for Labour government. In a sense this does not need to be done. The strength of the Labour brand, the lack of credible alternatives (the Greens are a party of the upper-middle class unable to make purchase in Labour heartlands), the loyalty of the immigrant vote even through into the third generations, and the deep class enmity many of their voters – particularly those in the North – feel towards the Conservative party means that unless they are seen as actively poisonous to the country’s wellbeing, like Gordon Brown’s government was, then they can simply kick back and watch the votes roll in. They also have a powerful advantage in terms of the female vote, which will be hard for the Conservatives to reverse under Mr Cameron given his bad press in this area. Winning the female vote was the key to the Tory hegemony in the last century – they held a majority amongst women in every election until 1997. Canny use of women in the public arena has established Labour as the party of opportunity for women and has kept it in this place – a Mumsnet poll in 2013 found a 42% to 29% split between the parties in voting intentions. In short, Labour’s advantages are entrenched and influential. It is a testament to Mr Brown’s exciting style of politics that he managed to surrender government for the party in 2010.
But there is a positive case for Labour government based on actions in opposition, even from the perspective and pen of a natural conservative. Mr Miliband as party leader has displayed a degree of honesty and bravery that is incredibly unusual in contemporary Westminster. I feel he has the potential to be a great Prime Minister.
This is not a statement that even Labour supporters make very often, so I suppose it requires some clarification. I have been impressed by his stance on the EU referendum being pushed by Mr Cameron, something the majority of commentators see as a weakness. Mr Miliband has not pronounced on this issue. At the time it was raised, there was a great kerfuffle urging him either to fall in behind Mr Cameron’s idea of a 2017 pledge, neutralising an electoral threat, or to campaign for one in 2015, thus gazumping Mr Cameron’s land claim. These were ideas pushed heavily by the chattering classes in their newspaper columns. A less thoughtful, more opportunistic politician would have adopted them. One who cared for Britain and not only his own self-glorification would have ignored them, as Mr Miliband did. Why? To have gone along with them would have been tremendously irresponsible. Going late in 2017 would have had the effect of ruining the investment climate for half a decade as businesses shied at uncertainty. Going early in 2015 would have made any kind of renegotiation impossible. Neither move would have been for the benefit of the British people.
Under Mr Miliband, Labour have also shown an impressive ability to zero in on those points at which politics intersects with the world occupied by most Britons. There is a cost of living crisis in the UK. The economic policies pursued by the last two governments in conjunction with the Bank of England have seen inflation, severe asset price inflation, wage stagnation and a growth in stratification. This has all been by design. It is hitting those renting now and it will hit homeowners as soon as interest rates rise after the next election. The failure of the Conservative party to cut the tax burden significantly except, oddly, for Labour voters through amendments to the lower rate threshold, and their refusal to rebuke the Bank of England for its ‘take from the poor to give to the rich’ approach to financial management has severely exacerbated this crisis. I am not sure what Mr Miliband proposes to do about it, but it is a good sign that he can recognise that the present system is iniquitous and miserable for many.
For the Labour Party, this time it’s different
Every election is preceded by very serious men explaining why things will never be the same again, and proceeded by something which looked remarkably like what went before. In the last century only the elections of 1945, 1979 and 1997 have really marked the start of a new era. Will this time be different?
For Labour, the answer is possibly. The party has turned away from even the suggestion of governing in the interests of the British worker, who still represents its median voter, since 1997. In doing so, it has deprived the urban poor of a voice in British politics. It has done this because it has preferred progressivism to parochialism and many of the parochial interests of the working class are not progressive – they would benefit from much lower immigration, lower basic taxes and a transfer of government funding from areas like international development to areas like housing. Mr Miliband, I think, cares deeply enough about his core vote to see these things. He has shown bravery and principle so far. There is a small chance that he may return in 2015 at the head of a Labour government run in the interests of traditional Labour voters.
For the Conservatives, the answer is no. The party has no Thatcher or Major anywhere near the top; no one who pretends even to like their own voters, let alone understand them. The party will lose in 2015 and, seeing Labour in power, draw the message that it needs to be more progressive, not more conservative. As I have explained in the past, there are enough voters on the right of British politics for perpetual Tory government, but the Tories themselves do not believe this. The next parliament will see them continue in their meandering path towards becoming a duplicate of the Lib Dems.
For the Lib Dems? They have always had fluctuating election results. A spell on the backbenches howling at the moon will do them the power of good. Expect their coalition of students, barristers and others insulated from the concerns of the real world to come ebbing back in time for a solid show in 2020.
And UKIP? Their presence will destroy any Tory chances in the marginal seats, costing them government. UKIP will not win any seats themselves, but for the majority of their voters – sorry, abandoned Conservatives – the death of the old party at their hands will probably be enough.
Editor’s Update – The 2014 UK Local Election results are in and they support the author’s view that UKIP is demolishing the Conservative Party: