But while such changes appear to mark a distinct transformation of British party politics, the election also underscored many continuities and long-standing trends. Here, we emphasize four of these.
These days in the U.K., fewer than a quarter of the 650 seats in any given national election stand any real chance of being taken away from the incumbent party. Indeed, most seats are regarded as “safe.” The key to the Conservatives’ electoral success in 2015 lay in its successful targeting of voters in key marginal seats. While the Conservative vote increased nationally by only 0.8 percent, the party made a net gain of 24 seats (3.7 percent). In contrast, Labour saw its national vote increase by 1.5 percent, but lost 26 seats. A large slice of Labour’s failure to increase its seat share in the House of Commons lies in its disastrous performance in Scotland, but it was its performance in marginal constituencies in England which opened the door for Cameron to return to Downing Street.
Two of the party’s target seats illustrate this well: In Nuneaton, which provided the first indication on election night that the Conservatives were returning to power, the Tories increased their share of the vote and managed a 3 percent swing from Labour. In another target seat, Stroud, the swing from Labour to the Conservatives was 2.9 percent. In short, not only was the Labour party not winning these seats, the Conservatives were actually increasing their share of the vote in them. It appears that the Conservatives largely benefitted from the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote in a number of key marginals as well as the inability of Labour to make significant inroads in their own target seats.
Labour did perform well in its own heartlands. In constituencies such as Sunderland Central and Bootle in Liverpool, votes swung from Conservative to Labour (5.5 percent and 4.5 percent), but under the first past the post electoral system these votes did not matter. A majority of one or a majority of 20 000 delivers the same result: a single MP in Westminster.
A sober reflection on their victory should prompt the Conservatives to realize they still face deep underlying problems. The party pursued a core vote strategy, focused on the key marginal seats and played on the politics of fear by evoking the “nightmare” scenario of a Labour government propped up by the SNP, neatly encapsulated in Cameron’s warning of an “alliance between the people who want to bankrupt Britain and the people who want to break up Britain.”
This is unlikely to be an effective strategy in 2020. Much may depend on developments in Scotland, the appeal and pitch of Labour’s message in the next British general election, and maintaining a semblance of party unity during the tricky renegotiation of the U.K.’s relationship with the E.U. and subsequent referendum. But putting those to one side, Cameron has the challenge of delivering on his manifesto and some of the seemingly contradictory promises made during the campaign such as pledging an extra 8 billion pounds worth of spending on health while eliminating the deficit and freezing tax increases. During the campaign it felt, at times, as if Cameron was overpromising on the assumption that some of the promises would be diluted in coalition negotiations. In the new government, however, there are no Liberal Democrats to blame or use as an excuse for failing to deliver on election promises.
Cameron’s marginal seat triumph masks a deeper challenge. Many observers were quick to point to the regional and national dimension of the results which are often tied to deeper questions of identity. Labour won in London, other major urban areas and in particular the north of England, whereas the Conservatives won the affluent south. These may simply reflect that the south has generally felt the benefits of the economic recovery in the past few years or it may reflect deeper social divisions. More research and number-crunching of the election results is needed, but 2015 may have signalled the return, or even the continuation, of that old driving force of British party politics: class.
Local politics matters
For obvious reasons most pundits, commentators and journalists have focused on the parliamentary elections, but most British voters on Thursday were not just casting their ballots in the general election, but also in local elections. The results of those council elections make even more unhappy reading for the Labour party. Labour lost 184 of its 2,357 seats and control of three local councils, while the Conservatives made net gains of 501 seats to hold 5,256 seats and gain control of another 30 councils. The Conservatives now control twice as many councils as Labour.
The local election results, however, could be more significant for the Liberal Democrats and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). The Liberal Democrats, who suffered a catastrophic night in the general election, lost 368 seats in the council elections. In the aftermath of the loss of 49 of the party’s 57 seats in the House of Commons, many Lib Dems pointed to the need to go back to their traditional strength: “pavement politics” [sidewalk politics] focused on local issues. With a smaller representation in local politics, however, this becomes a harder challenge.
In terms of the share of the vote, UKIP had an impressive election night, winning 12.6 percent of the national vote. As its leader, Nigel Farage, was keen to emphasize UKIP won as many votes as the SNP and the Liberal Democrats combined. Its vote, however, was too dispersed; retaining just one of the two seats they won in recent by-elections. Although UKIP politicians were keen to stress the number of silver medals (i.e. second places) the party won in the general election, the more significant result may be in the local elections where the party increased its representation on councils by 174 seats and took control of Thanet council in Kent.
Much of UKIP’s success in the coming few years will be dependent on the party’s performance in the E.U. referendum to be held in 2016 or 2017. This event will put UKIP centre stage as the only parliamentary party campaigning against continued membership of the E.U. But what will also matter is how well UKIP councillors perform. Once famously derided by David Cameron as a motley collection of “fruitcakes, loons and closet racists,” UKIP has the opportunity, at the local level at least, to demonstrate a degree of competence.
Turnout in the 2015 election increased slightly from 65.1 percent to 66.1 percent, at least showing an improvement from the nadir of 59.4 percent in 2001, but it was notably lower than the 77.7 percent achieved in the close election of 1992. Turnout was lowest in the traditional Labour seats in the north of England and unsurprisingly higher in the marginal seats where the Conservatives targeted their campaign.
It was Scotland, however, which showed the highest levels of participation, where 71.1 percent of the electorate turned out to vote. Although this figure marks a drop from the independence referendum when 85 percent of the electorate turned out to cast their ballots, it is clear that the referendum has left its imprint on party politics. Whether Scottish voters chose to turn up to vote for the SNP to express their dislike of London’s austerity policies, to punish Labour for having taken Scotland for granted for too long or to reaffirm a belief in an independent Scotland remains unclear, but it does underline the impact that can be gained from mobilising the electorate.
One clear takeaway message of the election is that turnout was higher in those seats which were most crucial in shaping the overall outcome. More broadly, the election underscored that despite the much wider palate of parties on offer with UKIP and the Greens running in many more constituencies than five years ago, a third of the electorate chose not to vote. The turnout in the Scottish independence referendum last year suggests that there are many voters who do not normally vote who can be galvanized. One of the major challenges for all British parties, and a possible key to their ability to succeed, therefore, remains crafting a message that can mobilize these non-voters into casting their ballots.