The party’s losses will, with Labour’s decline, be the big story of June’s general electionby Peter Kellner / May 8, 2017 / Leave a comment
Just three years ago, Ukip came first in a national election, when its candidates for the European Parliament won more votes than those of any other British party. On 8th June, it will come fourth at best—and it would collapse to sixth place if, as is now perfectly possible, it wins fewer votes than the Greens and Scottish National Party. It will almost certainly have no MPs. This, as much as Labour’s weakness, is the big story of the general election, and the two are connected.
Last week’s local elections make clear the problem. Ukip lost every council seat it was defending, and picked up just one new councillor in Lancashire. Its national share of the vote tumbled from 22 per cent in the same election in 2013 to 4 per cent last week. Labour slipped only one point, from 29 per cent to 28 per cent, yet lost far more seats than anyone predicted beforehand. The Liberal Democrats added 4 points to their vote share (up from 14 per cent to 18 per cent); they might have expected this to translate into a larger number of councillors, but in the event they lost more seats than they gained.
Put another way: if we combine the vote shares for Conservatives (up 13 points to 39 per cent) and Ukip on the one hand, and Labour, Lib Dem and Green on the other, then last week saw an overall 4 per cent swing in votes since 2013 from right to left—but a clear net shift of more than 400 seats from left to right, as the Tories’ 563 gains outnumbered Ukip’s 145 losses.
There is a reason for this contrast between votes and seats, and it will also apply to the outcome of the general election. Under our first-past-the-post voting system, the number of seats a party wins depends not on its total vote, but on its vote, seat by seat, relative to its opponents. Last week, many Labour and Lib Dem councillors were turfed out even though they maintained, or even increased, their own personal vote. This was because local Conservative candidates surged past them, as voters who backed Ukip in the same elections four years ago switched, or switched back, to the Tories.
Much the same will happen on 8th June, even if Labour maintains its 2015 vote share; and the Lib Dems may struggle to gain more than a handful of seats, even if they increase theirs. To illustrate this, let’s suppose that Labour achieves precisely the same vote share in every marginal seat, while four out of ten people who voted Ukip in 2015 switch to the Tories*. (This is consistent with the net shifts detected by recent opinion polls, especially a recent analysis by YouGov of the voting intentions of more than 2,000 voters who backed Ukip in 2015.)
This would give the Conservatives 21 gains from Labour. Theresa May’s majority would rise from 12 to 54. To repeat, that would apply even if Labour maintains the 31 per cent vote share it achieved under Ed Miliband across Great Britain. If, as polls and local voting figures both suggest, Labour’s vote slips below 30 per cent, then of course further seats will go Tory. For example, a 2 per cent swing from Labour to Conservative, on top of Ukip’s collapse, would give the Tories another 27 seats; their majority would climb to 108. That would imply a Britain-wide vote split of Conservative 45 per cent, Labour 29 per cent, roughly in line with the latest polls. And if the Tories’ percentage share climbs to the high 40s, and Labour slips to the mid 20s, then a Conservative majority of 150 or more is likely.
That is not all. Compared with Tony Blair’s landslide twenty years ago, it is not just the overall numbers that are vastly different, but something else. In 1997, Labour could claim to be the only truly national party, leading the field in England, Wales and Scotland, while the Tories had no MPs in Wales and Scotland, and only 17 (out of 162) in northern England.
This year’s general election will give us not just very different numbers, but a very different geography. This year it will be the Tories who can claim to be the sole Britain-wide party, leading Labour in England and Scotland, and possibly even in Wales and northern England.
It is not just that Labour has been run out of Scotland, and large swathes of England. It may not even be able to claim that its support is holding firm in its industrial and urban heartlands. YouGov’s data helps to explain one of the under-reported features of last week’s votes: Labour’s terrible performance in the North East. In recent years, the region has seen some big votes for UKIP and, last year, for Brexit. Now, not only have the modest number of traditional Conservative voters returned home; the Tories have also picked up many one-time Labour voters.
In other words, Ukip, together with last year’s EU referendum, has provided a staging post for many voters on a longer journey from Labour to Conservative. I would not be surprised if, on the night of 8th June, we see the Conservatives winning, or coming a close second, in such traditional Labour strongholds as Hartlepool (once represented by Peter Mandelson) and even Sedgefield (where Blair won 71 per cent of the vote in 1997).
The long-term danger for Labour suggested by these trends is that it is losing its appeal to working-class voters in the Midlands and North (having already lost it in spectacular fashion in Scotland), and is now retreating towards the more liberal pockets of London and metropolitan England. Ukip’s demise is helping Theresa May to a big victory in four weeks’ time, but in its past appeal, together with its years of campaigning on the EU and immigration, it has cracked apart the worker/liberal coalition that was crucial to Labour’s victories under Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair. The question that will face Labour after 8th June is existential and not just psephological: can it put that coalition back together, or is it, like Humpty Dumpty, broken for ever?
* Technical note. Ukip looks set to lose more than four in ten of the votes it won two years ago. Small numbers will switch to other parties; some of their erstwhile supporters will not vote at all. My current estimate is that the net shifts will be equivalent to a straight switch of 40 per cent of Ukip voters (that is, 5 per cent of Britain’s total voting population) to the Conservatives.