Why Werenâ€™t Labour Routed?
In common with, I suspect, most readers of this website, I expected Labour to suffer a defeat every bit as bad as 1983, if not worse, on May 6th. This was based partly on Labourâ€™s dire poll ratings, but also on the utter despair that was emanating from the Party.
Anonymous Cabinet Ministers were briefing newspapers that they were in trouble in seats like Harrow West, Stretford and Urmston, Streatham, and Wrexham, all of which they held, in the end. Perhaps this was all an elaborate campaign of disinformation, but I think itâ€™s more likely that Labourâ€™s insiders were telling the truth as they saw it, particularly as they would have had a good idea of how the postal votes were going, days before polling day.
In the event, the Party won 258 seats, a loss of 98 compared to 2005, but a good deal better than might have been the case.
It is probable that the pollsters were correct in showing how unpopular Labour were, but enough voters swung back to the Party, in the end, to prevent a rout. Any attempt to explain why must be tentative, at this stage, but I shall attempt to give my reasons.
Firstly, the economy. Even at their highest point, the Conservatives never opened up a truly commanding lead on economic issues, over Labour. Indeed, up until the start of the Credit Crunch, the Partyâ€™s leaders seem to have accepted that Brown really had abolished Boom and Bust. This helped Labour, once the economy began to show tentative signs of recovery, from the start of 2010. Indeed, during the course of the election campaign, Labour relentlessly narrowed the gap with the Conservatives, on economic competence, until the parties were almost level-pegging. Yougov regularly asked which of Conservatives and Labour would handle the economy best, and who would people trust to raise their standard of living, Cameron/Osborne, or Brown/Darling. On the first measure, the Conservative lead fell from 36:30 on 5th April to 37:36 on 3rd May; on the second, from 30:24, on 25th March, just after the Budget, to 32:31 by 30th April. While this fell well short of the commanding lead on the same questions that Labour had held in 2005, I donâ€™t doubt that, in the end, a sizeable minority of swing voters decided to stick with Labour, as the devil they knew.
Secondly, the radical Left stayed loyal to Labour; indeed, people who had voted for radical Left parties in 2005, switched back to Labour. The Greens fielded 137 more candidates than in 2005, yet their overall vote only increased by 1,000. In almost every seat that the Party contested in both 2005, and 2009, the Partyâ€™s vote fell sharply, usually to the advantage of Labour. In London Boroughs where the Greens are strong, such as Islington, Haringey, and Camden, the party was typically only retaining 20-25% of the vote, at Parliamentary level, that it got in local elections that were held on the same day. Respect lost 35,000 votes compared to 2005; the Scottish Socialists and Socialist Labour Party lost 58,000 between them, and failed to retain a single deposit. Iraq no longer caused such voters to turn against Labour, while real fear at the prospect of a Conservative government made them vote for Labour. In all likelihood, this decision was only made in the last days of the campaign.
By contrast, support for the radical Right surged. UKIP, English Democrats, and the BNP, put on 700,000 votes between them, compared to 2005. In all likelihood, this helped Labour by hitting the Conservatives. Such voters tend to be more anti-Labour than they are anti-Conservative, and in the absence of their preferred choice, would probably vote for the Party best placed to defeat Labour, usually the Conservatives. Itâ€™s not entirely clear why such voters should have opted differently to their counterparts on the Left. My guess is that they thought a huge Labour defeat was assured, and so, didnâ€™t have to consider tactical voting.
Thirdly, Conservatives did not vote tactically for Liberal Democrats. I had expected the Conservative vote to fall away rapidly in seats where they were in distant third place, like Rochdale, Islington South, Chesterfield, Durham, Oldham East, and Oxford East, to the advantage of the Liberal Democrats. On the contrary, it rose, often sharply, and cost the Liberal Democrats several seats that they could have expected to win or retain from Labour. I do not know why this occurred, but perhaps, the tabloidsâ€™ attacks on Nick Clegg resonated particularly strongly with core Conservatives in such seats.
Finally, there was Scotland. Polls had indicated that Labour would perform very well there, but I doubt if anyone expected Labour to push up their vote by 3.5% and to retain every one of their seats. I would have expected Labour to lose perhaps half a dozen seats to the other parties, yet the Mediaâ€™s relentless attacks on Brown only seemed to strengthen the Scotsâ€™ admiration for him.