Wednesday, April 28, 2010

UK election: A battle for the left

With the rise of Cleggophilia, the potential has been raised as to whether this election will actually be a lot more than just a hung Parliament, but a seismic shift in the fortunes of the two major explicitly leftwing political parties.

Almost all polling in the last two weeks shows Labour coming third in opinion polls of voter preferences. Notwithstanding the vagaries of polls (and the possibility that respondents may be less likely to admit to voting for the encumbents under the current circumstances), if translated into votes it will be a devastating blow. Given the allocation of current support across constituencies, and the UK having a first past the post electoral system, it would still mean the Liberal Democrats would come third in terms of number of seats.

In 2005, Labour received 36.1% of the vote and 349 seats, the Conservatives 33.2% of the vote and 210 seats, the Liberal Democrats 22.6% of the vote and 62 seats, whilst a bunch of smaller parties received 8% of the vote and 29 seats, in a Parliament of 650.

The latest poll of polls puts the Conservatives on the SAME proportion of the vote as in 2005, with around 33%, the Liberal Democrats skyrocketing to 30% and Labour slipping to 28%.

However, what this means is, with the swing spread evenly among current constituencies Labour STILL has the plurality of seats with 276, the Conservatives only increase to 245, and the Liberal Democrats increase to 100 (others have 29).

Under that scenario, Labour would have the right to form a government BUT being third would mean its moral authority to do so would be highly questionable. The Liberal Democrats would almost certainly demand electoral reform in exchange for support to either major party, but LD leader Nick Clegg has said that if Labour came third in popular vote, it would not support Labour led by Gordon Brown for government, as it would be clear that the vast majority of voters would have rejected his government. So there may be the spectre of the Liberal Democrats backing the Conservatives as the party with the highest plurality of vote, whilst Labour with the highest number of seats is in Opposition. The price of Liberal Democrat support will be clear though - it would mean a change in the electoral system (although almost certainly not to MMP like New Zealand was led to do by the hard left).

If Labour gets less than 27.6% of the vote, it will its worst result since before the Great Depression, as it managed to grab 27.6% in 1983 when it promised a hardline socialist manifesto (and the Liberal/SDP Alliance, precursor to the Liberal Democrats grabbed 25.4% of the vote).

Yet, it could be far worse for Labour. The Conservatives have shifted targets to a range of what were previously seen as "safe" Labour seats, where the Conservatives are second, on the basis that if the Labour vote seriously collapses, it could mean a significant sea change. The Conservatives implicitly see Liberal Democrat seats are unlikely to be winnable. The Liberal Democrats are also targeting Labour seats, with leader Nick Clegg saying in the Times that he wants to be Prime Minister and that "Liberalism has replaced “Labour statism” as the driving argument of the Centre Left". Of course what he means is liberal with other people's money and socially liberal, not classically liberal.

What is most important is that the Liberal Democrat leader has admitted he leads a party of the left, and he is seeking to supplant Labour as the centre-left force in British politics. While it would be a brave person to predict this will happen at the election, it would be a crucial blow to Gordon Brown and the Labour Party to find large numbers of their supporters switching to the Liberal Democrats.

The last time such a shift occurred was in 1924, when the Liberals lost a third of their vote and over two thirds of their seats, cementing Labour as the Opposition party (even though the Conservatives won most of the seats).

Such a shift would thrill the Conservatives, as they are left without major competition on the side of those who want less government and taxation (as limp wristed as they are in being committed to this), as shifting support from Labour to the Liberal Democrats increases the seats the Conservatives pick up along the way.

Personally, I doubt it will quite happen like that, but it is highly likely the Liberal Democrats could beat Labour on share of the vote, and the Conservatives may get less seats than Labour.

Oh and before the shrill self-righteous head counters (not head examiners) of the electoral reform left start shouting, the simple truth is that this is NOT an issue in the UK for anyone, besides the Liberal Democrats and a small handful. Most voters accept that the seats in Parliament won't actually be proportionate, and work within that system.

No comments: