By Stephen Fisher
The election outcome was a shocking defeat for Labour and a remarkable victory for the Tories, both relative to expectations from the opinion polls and considering that you have to go back to Salisbury in 1900 to find an instance of a Prime Minister increasing their share of the vote after being in power for more than 18 months. Overall Labour will be just a point up on the abysmal 30% of the GB vote that Gordon Brown achieved in 2010. Moreover Labour are down from 258 seats to 232 (-26).
So how did why did Labour do so badly and how did the Tories manage to increase their vote share and seat tally after five years of cuts and practically zero growth in GNP per person, even if there has been debt stabilisation and some relative good headline growth and jobs figures over the last year?
Ultimately the main answers are to do with the collapse of Labour in Scotland inadequately compensated for by modest net gains in England and Wales. On a smaller scale the Conservatives have benefited disproportionately, on seats if not on votes, from the collapse of the Liberal Democrats. The rise of UKIP that was expected to disproportionately hurt the Tories, but in fact seems to undermined the Labour performance more.
Plugging in GB shares and Scotland shares of the vote into the May2015.com seats calculator yields Con 321, Lab 241, LD 11, UKIP 0, SNP 55, Grn 1 Others 3. The actual result was Con 331, Lab 232, LD 8, UKIP 1, SNP 56, PC 3, Grn 1. Pretty close.
So the overall levels of support for the parties in England and Wales on the one hand and Scotland on the other are the main factors in understanding the outcome on seats. Why the parties did as they did is a big and difficult question to answer satisfactorily. But there are important features of the constituency results that tell us both about why the parties came where they did in the overall share and they won and lost seats in the way they did.
It looks like when all the results are declared Labour will be on 31% of the vote in England, up 3 points on 2010 levels. But this has yielded a net gain of just 15 seats for Labour in England. Partly this is because the Conservatives were also up in England, by about a point. So a 15 seat gain for a one point Con-Lab swing is not bad by historical standards.
But it wasn’t primarily a case of Labour seats off the Tories. Labour won 10 seats from Tories but lost 6 so them, making a net again of just 4. The other 11 came from the Lib Dems, 27 of the 35 seats they picked up came from the Liberal Democrats. Once you offset their 10 losses to Labour it is clear that the Conservative majority came entirely from the Liberal Democrats.
So why did Labour not do better at converting their 1 point swing in England and Wales into more seats from the Tories?
One of the key reasons is that they were fighting against first-term incumbent MPs that won their seats from Labour in 2010. It is a well-known phenomenon that new incumbents build up a personal vote and so buck the national trend. In the US this is known as the sophomore surge. On average new Conservative incumbents went up by 4 points more than other Tory candidates, helping them hold on to some key marginals against the E&W swing.
Even with this challenge it was widely expected that the rise in the UKIP vote would disproportionately hurt the Conservatives and so deliver seats to Labour.
But actually it seems that the UKIP rise hurt Labour more than the Tories. Where Ukip were up by less than 7 points the Conservatives were up by 1.5 points on average; Labour up 6.9. Conversely, where Ukip was up by more than 14 points the Conservatives down 0.9 points and Labour were up only 1.6. So the Labour were up 5.3 less where UKIP did well but the corresponding difference for the Conservatives was just 0.6.
Another way of looking at this is that the Tories lost 6 seats to Labour where UKIP were up less than 7 points. But Labour were not taking any seats off the Conservatives where UKIP were up by more than 14 points.
Ukip did better where there were fewer people with degrees, more economically depressed areas with more pensioners, routine manual workers and those with no educational qualifications. Whereas the polls have been showing that UKIP support is overwhelmingly drawn from 2010 Conservative voters, often they are the kinds of anti-immigration, Eurosceptic and socially conservative voters who are from a working class or other socio-economic background that suggests they might expected to vote Labour on economic left-right issues. Rob Ford and Matt Goodwin have long been warning that UKIP support such groups would end up hurting Labour. That seems to have happened.
There was also some regional variation within England as Labour did better in Yorkshire and the Humber but relatively poorly in the East Midlands. Labour further strengthened their base in London as they did relatively well there and UKIP relatively badly, especially in constituencies with higher levels of non-white voters. Not all of this will have helped Labour. Building up support where you are already strong doesn’t win seats and the change in the Labour share is positively correlated with their prior share in England and Wales, but the effect is weak.
To be continued … and better edited! Too tired!