The outcome of the general election that took place on the 7th May confounded the expectations not only of all the pundits but of almost everyone else as well. For months opinion polls had been predicting that neither of the two largest parties, Conservatives and Labour, would win an overall majority, pointing inescapably to a hung parliament. Despite the protestation of the two party leaders, Cameron and Miliband, that they were each expecting to form a majority government, it was obvious that neither of them believed it to be within their reach. Serious discussion focussed on computing the likely tallies of seats to be won by the smaller parties – Liberal Democrats, Greens, UKIP, Scottish and Welsh nationalists and a handful of others in Northern Ireland – and how they might align themselves to prop up a minority government. In the end it all turned out to have been a futile exercise. The Tories won the election with an overall majority of 12 seats in the House of Commons.
After May 8 there was much rumination over the results. Why were the polls so wide of the mark? Who, or what, was to blame for Labour’s abysmal failure? What future for the right wing populist UK Independence Party (UKIP) after winning only one seat on the basis of 3.9 million votes? Can the “first past the post “(FPTP) electoral system survive? And, without doubt the most remarkable result of all, the sweeping success of the Scottish National Party in winning 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster parliamentary seats, leaving the Lib Dems, Labour and the Tories with one seat each north of the border, has left a big question mark over the long term future of the UK as a unitary state. The SNP’s victory in Scotland was the only thing the opinion polls got right.
Very quickly the Labour Party seemed to go into melt-down mode. Miliband resigned as leader and disappeared to Spain for a family holiday. The various contenders to replace him couldn’t wait to distance themselves from the policies they had espoused a few days before. Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader also resigned although, unlike the majority of his erstwhile parliamentary colleagues who had lost their seats, he managed to hold on to his. Only 8 Lib Dem MPs out of 57 survived. UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, who failed to get elected to parliament, immediately resigned as party leader as he had promised he would if not elected. But in his characteristically maverick style, by “popular demand” he rescinded his resignation a few days later. As UKIP is essentially a one man band this was hardly surprising. Perhaps the election result should not have come as such a surprise. The polls had also got it wrong in 1992 when until the day of the election they were predicting a Labour victory. As it turned out the Tories were returned with an overall majority of 27 seats.
For everyone hoping for an end to the Tory-led coalition and at least a minority government led by Labour, the outcome of the election was a terrible shock. It is worth considering why, after five years of austerity and the slowest recover y from a recession for 100 years, the electorate nevertheless returned a majority Tory government. Those to the left of Labour, mainly associated with small, marginal groups outside the Labour party, will gain no credit and do nothing to promote understanding of why this happened if they are content to fall back on clichés suggesting that the main reason why Labour lost was because it failed to present a clear and coherent left alternative to the Tories. Comforting though such a belief may be, it rests on the flimsiest of empirical evidence. It is perfectly true that Labour went into the election with far too little to distinguish it from the Tories, committed to deficit reduction and therefore to continuing austerity. There was no unequivocal commitment to repeal the Health and Social Care Act and certainly no commitment to re-nationalise the railways. However, the claim that a radical left-social democratic or even a full-blooded socialist manifesto would have produced a different outcome is wishful thinking.
This particular argument has been used by sections of the left following Labour’s electoral defeats at the hands of the Tories (and such defeats have been many) for the past sixty years. As the Labour party has never really been a socialist party but was until the 1990s a social-democratic party led by its right wing, a logical conclusion that may be drawn from the criticism of the radical left outside the party is that it is forever doomed to lose to the Tories. In fact, after the party was captured by Tony Blair and the architects of New Labour, it ceased, in the traditional Fabian sense, to be a social-democratic reformist party at all and effectively became an exponent of neo-liberalism. Miliband’s attempt to rescue the party from its Blairite embrace was half-hearted and unconvincing. The unrepentent devotees of New Labour were still lurking in the background to remind him that Blair had taken the party to three consecutive election victories, a feat not achieved by any other Labour leader. But whatever spin New Labour’s supporters and apologists may put on the landslide victory of 1997, it was won against a tired, faction-ridden and discredited Tory government by a party that had repositioned itself to the right of both old Labour and the Liberal Democrats with the full support of much of the media and, crucially, of Murdoch’s News International which had hitherto unswervingly supported the Tories.
This does not lend much support to the assertions of those on the left who argue that Labour can only defeat the Tories with radical leftist policies. In the May election the 135 candidates who stood for the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) on a solidly socialist anti-austerity platform, polled 36,327 votes, little more than the combined vote for the Tories and UKIP in the largely working class Thurock South constituency that Farage failed to win. Until 2010 it had been regarded as a “safe” Labour seat. The TUSC vote averaged 286 per candidate. Only one, Dave Nellis in Coventry North West, polled more than 1000. In Bradford West the mercurial George Galloway, standing for the avowedly left wing Respect party, managed to have an 18,000 majority wiped out by his Labour opponent.
The electoral system – an affront to democracy
Most attempts to explain the election results have avoided looking too closely at the electoral system itself. But in this election more than in any earlier one the outcome has exposed the inherent unfairness of a system that is not fit for purpose. It may be starkly demonstrated by comparing the popular vote with the distribution of parliamentary seats.
Ten parties in the U.K. took 96.3% of the popular vote. Of these, five, the SNP (Scotland), Plaid Cymru (Wales) and the Democratic Unionists, SDLP and Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland only stood candidates regionally. The SNP won 56 of the 59 Scottish seats with 4.7% of the UK vote while the Northern Ireland and Welsh parties won 18 seats (2.1% of the UK vote). Sinn Fein refuses to take up its 4 Westminster seats. Thus, between them the regional parties won 74 seats based on 6.8% of the vote. The other 5 U.K. parties (Tories, Labour, Liberal Democrats UKIP and Greens) polled a total of more than 27 million votes (91.6% of the popular vote). The Tories won an overall majority, the first since 1992, with 11.3 million votes – 36.9% of the popular vote. This gives them 321 seats, a majority of 12 over all other parties in parliament. Thus, the Tories claim a popular mandate despite the fact that more than 63% of the electorate didn’t vote for them. About 45.6 million electors are on the register. In fact, only 24% of the registered electorate voted for the Tories. Labour polled 9.3 million – 30.4%, around 20% of those registered to vote.
The “first past the post” electoral system is blatantly undemocratic and increasingly recognized to be so. It is a reasonable assumption to make that people’s votes should not only be counted but should count for something. The first past the post system should more properly be called “the winner takes all system”. It is based on the single member constituency. However many candidates may stand for election, whichever one polls more than the runner-up is the winner no matter what the combined votes of his/her opponents may be. All the others lose and the votes of all who voted for them account for nothing. The most striking examples of this are evident in the fortunes of the smaller parties. In some cases they suffer severely; in others they are generously rewarded.
The Liberal Democrats, with 2,415,862 votes (7.9%), won 8 seats; UKIP with 3,881.099 won 1 seat. The Green party with 1,156,149 (3.8%) held on to the single seat it already had. In Scotland, the UK electoral system supported by Labour saw the party almost completely wiped out. Here, the system had worked against all three of the established British unionist parties. Tories, Lib Dems and Labour were left with one MP each despite the fact that although the SNP won 56 of the 59 Scottish seats, only 50% of Scottish electorate had voted for them. There is an irony here. Elections for the devolved Scottish parliament are conducted under a form of proportional representation – the Additional Member System. When adopted it was assumed that this would always result in coalition government for the Scottish parliament but in 2011, contrary to all assumptions, the SNP won an overall majority. Neither the Tories nor Labour are in any position to complain about the nationalists’ triumph in the May general election as it was achieved under a system they both vigorously defend.
As long as British elections were based on what was essentially a two party system, as was the case for most of the twentieth century, FPTP could be defended as providing “stable” governments. It was usually contrasted favourably with PR systems such as those prevailing in Weimar Germany in the 1920s and 30s, which was blamed for helping the Nazis to achieve power, and in France during the Third Republic in the 1940s and 50s, which was blamed for chronic political instability and frequent changes of government. But as Britain is now far from being a two party system the deficiencies of FPTP can no longer be ignored. If democracy is supposed in some meaningful way to be representative of the popular will, it is impossible to accept the outcome of the 2015 election as democratic.
Of course, according to a radical socialist critique of what used to be called “bourgeois democracy”, all representative parliamentary systems are designed to preclude any fundamental change in the balance of class power. Whether or not this is so may still be debated, though the election of radical leftist governments in parts of Latin America and more recently in Greece, and plausible claims to have initiated a transition to “twentieth century socialism” in Venezuela, suggest that doctrinaire rejection of “bourgeois” parliamentary democracy as a viable route to systemic change should not be accepted uncritically. In Britain, arguments in favour of FPTP, whether from Labour or Tories, are unconvincing. Both defend the electoral status quo on the grounds that it produces stable governments and obviates the likelihood of coalitions. Quite apart from prioritising stability over democracy, this argument is no longer valid in terms of its own claims. Britain now has a multi-party system for which FPTP is wholly unsuited. The denial of a voice in government to the millions who voted against the winning party is unsustainable for much longer. It is no more convincing when coming from the left than it is from the right. Tony Benn used to argue in favour of FPTP on the grounds that its replacement by any form of PR would, because of the near inevitability of permanent coalitions, make it impossible for a genuinely socialist Labour government to legislate for socialism. This betrays a similar authoritarian “top down” view of parliamentary government as that held by the right.
The electoral system distorts awareness of political realities
A look at the political map of Britain after May 2015 gives the impression that there has been a tidal wave of support for the Tories. Vast swathes of England are coloured blue. Much of the media reinforces this illusion. The Tories were elected with a very slender 12 seat majority, yet it is possible to follow a path through England from Land’s End in Cornwall to the Scottish border without ever leaving a Tory constituency. Yet actually, in Cornwall for instance, where the once dominant Liberal Democrats have largely been decimated, only 43% of the electorate voted Tory. 56.8% chose other parties. Nationally, the Tories increased their percentage of the vote by 0.8% but won 28 more seats. Labour increased their percentage of the vote by 1.5% but lost 24 of their seats. The percentage swing to UKIP was the biggest for any political party for a generation, but most UKIP voters are unrepresented. The success of UKIP must be a matter of serious concern for everyone worried about the rise of racism and anti-migrant sentiment, not least amongst working class voters. Some on the left have expressed delight that UKIP finished with the single parliamentary seat they started with. This is an understandable reaction, but it doesn’t alter the fact that nearly four million people voted for them. In terms of the popular vote UKIP is now the third largest party in the UK yet it is represented at Westminster by a single MP. For those who do not bother to give the subject much thought, the electoral system promotes a distorted awareness of the realities of political representation.
One needs to be equally realistic about the SNP. As long as we avoid the illusion that the great majority of Scots have endorsed the party (and fortunately the SNP’s leaders entertain no such illusions) there are still grounds for applauding the party’s success. It is the one unmistakable example of a real swing to the left and, most encouraging, a rejection of austerity and the deluded neo-liberalism espoused by Labour as well as the Tories. Why this happened in Scotland and not elsewhere in the UK is a very important question which requires serious consideration, but it is outside the scope of this article. The SNP and the Greens were the only parties to take a firm stand against the dangerous nonsense of the so-called independent nuclear deterrent. It is interesting to speculate about what some of the consequences of the SNP’s success might turn out to be in the short term future. The Cameron government is now committed to an In/Out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. The SNP has made clear that Scotland will not feel bound by the results of any referendum that does not allow a separate national vote there. If this is not conceded by Westminster, it will enormously strengthen the SNP’s demand for a new In/Out referendum on Scotland’s continued membership of the United Kingdom. The SNP seems increasingly confident that in such changed circumstances, on the back of their success in the UK election, Scotland may yet vote to secede.
The British press and the election
Why is it that so little is made of the impact of the media on political opinion and voting behaviour? There is a prevalent view to the effect that in a digital age people’s sources of information have become so diverse that newspapers and television no longer play much of a part in influencing opinion, whether about politics or anything else. While there may be something in this, it is probably truer of younger people than of the public as a whole. In Britain those in their late teens and twenties are far less likely to vote than older people. While newspaper sales have steadily declined in recent decades, it doesn’t necessarily follow that their political influence is negligible. The decline in print sales has been more than offset by the huge expansion of digital news media resulting in huge online readership for many titles. Most national newspapers in Britain are politically aligned. This alignment is fairly consistent, though there have been times when allegiances have shifted. Prior to the 2015 election the sixteen main national newspapers in Britain had combined sales of about 13 million. Of these, eleven, with a circulation of about 9.1 million, supported the Tories. Two (circulation 900,000) supported UKIP. Five (circulation 2.5 million) supported Labour.
Corporate ownership Eleven titles (see list below) are owned by billionaire press barons, including a pornographer (Richard Desmond) and a Russian oligarch (Alexander Lebedev.) Despite recent setbacks involving widespread criminality associated with two of his most popular tabloids, the most powerful of these remains Rupert Murdoch, an Australian-born US citizen who lives in the USA. Four of his newspapers have combined sales of 4.9 million copies. Lord Rothemere lives in France and the Barclay brothers are tax exiles in the Channel Islands.
Newspapers. Political stance Sales Ownership
The Sun. Tory 2,000,000 Rupert Murdoch News UK
The Sun on Sunday Tory 1,900,000 “
The Times Tory 396,621 “
The Sunday Times Tory 1,000,000 “
Daily Mail Tory 1,688,000 Lord Rothermere DM&G Trust
Mail on Sunday Tory 1,587,000 “
Daily Telegraph Tory 494,675 Barclay Brothers Press Holdings
Sunday Telegraph Tory 429,285 “
Daily Express Tory/UKIP 458,000 Richard Desmond. Northern & Shell
Sunday Express Tory/UKIP 430,000 “
Financial Times Tory/Lib Dem 291,444 Pearson PLC
Independent Tory/Lib Dem 61,338 Alexander Lebedev. Ind. Print Ltd
The Guardian Labour 185,429 The Scott Trust
The Observer Labour 200,000 “
Daily Mirror Labour 942,235 Trinity Mirror PLC
Sunday Mirror Labour 948,754 “
The People Labour 374,000 “
There are fairly obvious reasons why the leaders of Britain’s main political parties have been reluctant to discuss the overwhelming pro-Tory bias in the national press or to admit that the news media influence the voting preferences of the electorate. The fact that they are very much aware of the power wielded by billionaire media moguls is clear from the awe in which Rupert Murdoch has been held for decades by members of the Westminster elite. Before the 1997 election Murdoch switched his support from the Tories to New Labour. He never liked the idea of backing a loser and he knew that the tide had turned against a Tory government that was riven by internal feuding and falling apart. But he was also satisfied that New Labour under Tony Blair’s leadership posed no threat to the corporate power of which he was a prime representative. The mass circulation tabloid, The Sun, with its largely working class leadership, withdrew its support from the Tories. Blair stepped into the favoured place previously occupied by Margaret Thatcher. Stupidly, this led his successor, Gordon Brown, to delude himself that he could continue to enjoy the Godfather’s favour when it was clear by 2010 that it had been transferred back to the Tories. Leading Labour politicians have long been reluctant to admit that in terms of media bias the cards are stacked heavily against the Labour party and the Left in general. It has always been so. But because they are not prepared to take on corporate power they accept that there is nothing they can do about it. They have to pretend that the playing field is level when it is not. Complaining about it only leads to charges of sour grapes by the Tories and accusations that the Left poses a threat to “freedom of the press.”
Tory character assassination of Labour politicians and trade unionists
In the past the Tory press has vilified Labour party and trade union leaders they chose to treat as dangerous leftists. In the 1940s and 50s there were vicious personal attacks on Aneurin Bevan; in the early 1980s Michael Foot was subjected to the same treatment with an additional dose of ridicule thrown in for good measure. Then between 1983 and 1992 Neil Kinnock had to endure the most scurrilous character assassination, particularly by Murdoch’s tabloids. Engineering trade union shop steward, Eric Robinson, was hounded by the tabloids during the industrial disputes in the motor industry in the 1970s, when he was vilified as “Red Robbo.” And, since he was elected leader of the Labour party in 2010, Ed Miliband, pilloried as “Red Ed”, has had to deal with a sustained personal onslaught of the most scurrilous kind.
Ed Miliband is no leftist; he is a middle-of-the-road social democrat by nature. But he is a decent human being. The Tories and their media friends pulled no punches in depicting him as a “geek”, a “weirdo”, a “north London intellectual” with a nasal speech impediment, son of an “ungrateful” continental immigrant who “hated Britain”; an incompetent who couldn’t manage to eat a bacon sandwich, and a treacherous rival who “stabbed his brother in the back.” Then, in the final days of the election campaign, his opponents and their media associates unleashed an orchestrated campaign warning that he would try to “seize power” at the head of a minority government dependent for its majority on the SNP which was hell-bent on “breaking up Britain.” In a Tory and media campaign which was pitched at an infantile level it was claimed that only the Tories could be trusted with the economy and that Labour would reduce the country to chaos and disintegration.
This scaremongering worked. But, in rubbishing Miliband and Labour the Tories and their media friends have also had to rubbish the Scottish Nationalists. The road ahead for this government does not promise to be smooth. Intensified, ideologically driven austerity is on the way throughout Britain and it is very unlikely that this can be imposed for much longer without fomenting serious social discontent. Then, there is a real prospect that Britain may be headed for the exit from the EU. A prolonged and bitter conflict with the SNP and the people of Scotland is looking more and more likely. All this could very well produce the very chaos that the Tories warned would occur if Labour were to come to power.