So, the Labour party is having a post-mortem, leaders are jockeying for position and David Cameron has already cracked out the popcorn. We’re seeing senior Labour MPs with their hitherto invisible partners, while commentators have descended from every sphere of Labour party influence, into the BBC’s temporary studio, to insist that Labour lost because the party vision wasn’t similar enough to theirs.
If you’re Owen Jones, Labour weren’t anti-austerity enough, if you’re Peter Mandelson, they ignored the aspirant middle classes; and while such views seem to be mutually exclusive, they may actually be compatible, with the public’s attitude towards these things clearly fractured by region.
But while Labour may not have been in the best shape to fight the election, they were in good enough shape to make it very close. That they failed to do so is for one reason, and one reason alone.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that Miliband was the best leader Labour could have chosen. Of course he wasn’t. And yes, Mandelson was absolutely right that they ignored the middle classes. And no, they weren’t trusted on the economy as a result of the events of 2007-10.
But that was all true three years ago, when Labour were enjoying a consistent 10 point lead over the Tories. I don’t recall anyone complaining then, about Labour ignoring the aspirant middle classes.
All this talk of the wrong policies, the wrong emphasis, and even the wrong leader, are important discussions for improving Labour’s chances next time, but they obfuscate the only reason why Labour lost this election so badly.
Without Scotland, the Tories certainly would not have won a majority, and it’s very possible that Ed Miliband would be in Downing Street right now, despite all those ignored middle class voters.
The surge of SNP support was, in itself, arithmetically, a hammer blow to Labour’s chances. But almost equally important, was the promulgation of opinion polls in recent months, setting out just how well the SNP were doing.
At the start of this year, we knew the SNP were on the rise, but nobody really knew how their support would hold up. Everyone was expecting a hung parliament, and at that time, Labour were widely expected to make significant electoral gains in England & Wales. It was just a question of how many. Nobody I spoke to in Cardiff North (2010 Tory majority of 194) in March, thought Craig Williams had a chance of holding the seat.
But as the campaign got underway, the polls rolled in, and the SNP vote was holding firm. They were set to win 30, then 40, then maybe even 50 seats, and it became increasingly clear that only a landslide victory in England & Wales, could deliver Labour a majority government. There was no chance of that, and with polls also pointing to a significant reduction in LibDem seats, it was obvious that Ed Miliband’s only realistic chance of making it to no. 10, was with SNP backing.
The Tories saw their opportunity, and this subject soon began to dominate the campaign. Tory warnings of a Lab/SNP Government, with the only alternative being another term for David Cameron, was probably the single most effective campaign message in recent UK electoral history.
It’s perfectly possible that the Tories’ tactic hardened SNP support in Scotland and won them a handful of extra seats – after all, few predicted Labour ending up with just one seat north of the border – but suggestions that David Cameron is somehow responsible for the SNP rise, is absurd. He reacted to the events in Scotland; he didn’t cause them.
Fatally for Labour, the Tory “beware SNP” campaign had far more dramatic effects in middle and southern England & Wales, one of which nobody foresaw.
The small decline in the UKIP vote was largely predictable. Less predictable was the extent to which the anti-SNP message held back the expected tide of Labour gains from Conservatives in marginal seats, the net gain being just one. This was a surprise. Even the most confident Tories were expecting to lose at least a dozen or so seats to Labour; most pundits were predicting between 30-50.
But an even bigger surprise was the effect of the SNP fear factor in the marginal Tory/LibDem seats.
We’d all known, ever since the LibDems flatlined in the polls in Autumn 2010, that they would be punished for putting David Cameron in Downing Street, with many disaffected LibDems turning to the Greens or Labour. Everyone expected Labour to make gains from them, and in very tight marginals in the south, we thought LibDem votes seeping to Labour or the Greens might cost Nick Clegg’s party a few seats to the Tories.
But perhaps the biggest shock, of the many that unfolded on polling night, was the mass migration of voters switching directly from the LibDems to the Tories.
The Tories gained 27 seats from their erstwhile partners, and the reason nobody foresaw this, is because it (self-evidently) wasn’t a backlash for the LibDems’ time in coalition, but a result of thousands of LibDem voters believing David Cameron, when he told them the only way to keep the SNP out of Government was to vote for him. Incredibly, this message cost the LibDems almost as many seats as the coalition backlash.
The 2015 Election without the SNP Effect
Let’s imagine, for a moment, that the SNP surge never happened.
They’d have gained a few seats anyway, from the LibDems, benefitting from the coalition backlash, and perhaps a small swing away from Labour, which was delayed in 2010 as a result of Gordon Brown’s popularity north of the border. Let’s be generous to the SNP and say, even without the recent surge, they may have gained 5 seats from the LDs and 2 from Labour.
Without the SNP fear factor, Labour, the LibDems and UKIP would have all fared a lot better in the south of England and Wales. Labour were hoping to make 50 gains from the Tories. That was perhaps optimistic, but even allowing for the “shy Tories” in the polls, 20 LAB gains is a conservative estimate, with Tory gains from the LDs reduced from 27 to 12. Labour’s gains from the LibDems would likely have been unaffected.
So let’s have a look at the change in 2015 seats, without the SNP sweep.
If you remove the overall SNP effect from this election, despite the Tory advantage on leadership and the economy, Ed Miliband gets very close to Downing Street. It’s in the margin for error; he may well have won more seats than the Tories.
Either way, the backlash over Ed Miliband and his campaign, would not be happening to anything like the same extent.
So in a sense, Owen Jones is closer than Mandelson, to being correct. Anti-austerity was a major factor in the SNP surge, and if Labour had campaigned on a similar agenda, the SNP gains, while perhaps inevitable to some degree, may well have been much less calamitous for Labour.
Of course, an anti-austerity ticket might have alienated the south of England, and seen Labour punished to some degree, but it’s hard to imagine it being worse for them in England/Wales than the eventual result. The LibDems, meanwhile, would have ended up with a seat tally much more in line with expectations.
This Labour soul-searching is all well and good, but to re-establish themselves as a major force in 2020, Labour need to ask themselves just two questions. How did we lose Scotland? And is there any way back?