Time for a strategic discussion

Trevor Fisher surveys Labour’s post-election quagmire and sees a Blairite clan determined to learn the wrong lessons

The post election discussion even in the weeklies has been a non-event where the actual outcome is concerned. Apart from the polling world, which has started to work out why it got the predictions wrong, there is virtually nothing. The New Statesman editorial on 19th June quoted Jim Murphy stating that Labour has to win Conservative voters, which is flat earth thinking typical of the failed Blairite right wing, but at least Murphy recognised that Labour suffered two and a half defeats on May 7th – SNP, Tories in marginals, and UKIP in many English and Welsh seats. However the bigger picture is still out of focus. There are no deep analyses on offer, the groups like Compass and the Fabians which would at one time discussed an election are silent.
The first point about May 7th is that there were six parties on offer discounting (Plaid and the Northern Irish), all of who could affect the outcome. Three did well, three badly. Centre or centre left parties did badly, far left parties were trace elements. Labour did badly but not catastrophically, Greens did very badly, and the Lib Dems suffered the worst defeat of any party since the Irish Home Rule Party to Sinn Fein in 1918. For the successful parties UKIP did well in votes but not in seats, SNP did well in votes and seats but only in one region, building a momentum which at the moment gives them 60% support in the opinion polls in Scotland. However the big winners – the victors – were the Tory party, now in majority in parliament.
However while it is clear that there are major problems here, the key fact is the failure of Durverger’s first law. This states in essence that a first past the post electoral system will produce a two party politics. It has been increasingly clear that Duverger’s law does not operate in the UK – though it still works in the US but not in the UK, breaking down over the last thirty years. However the party strategists over the last decade have operated on part of Durvergers law, the bit that says that small variations in party votes have a disproportionate effect in delivering seats. The Tories built on this, with a strategy that worked in the key marginals. This bit of Duverger is simple common sense. It is better to win ten seats by 1000 votes than win one by 10,000 votes.
Labour is again building up large majorities in safe areas which don’t help win Westminster elections. The disparity of outcomes with Tories winning a majority on 36.9% of the vote, Labour losing seats on 31.5% of the vote is partly accounted for in this way. The Tory strategy was to hold its vote and win key marginals, ignoring areas where it could not win. They were helped by the lack of tactical voting by their opponents. If Greens had voted tactically for Labour in 10 seats the Tories would not have a majority.
Murphy is wrong to think Conservative votes have to be won over. This would only be true if Duverger’s first law operates, but with more of the electorate not voting Tory than did, the pool of winnable votes lies outside the Tory 36.5%. Not that it will be easy.
In the Spring edition of Renewal Lewis Baston has a useful analysis of what happened as the election slipped away from Labour. Although written well before the final disaster, and believing neither major party could win a majority, it has much to say about Labour’s overall strategy whch was to hold the 29% of 2010 and take over 5-6% of voters who were old Lib Dem. With 35-36% of the vote Labour could repeat 2005. Why did this not happen?
It appeared to work 2010-13 when Labour rose to c42% of the poll, but slipped back inexorably to the 31.5% of May 7th. Why is not clear, and the turning point may have been 2013 when UKIP began its rise. This built on the SNP break through in 2011 and the increases in Green votes in the European election of 2014 to give momentum to the smaller parties, called by Baston the ‘insurgent’ parties. Though PR elections are not relevant to Duverger’s law and Baston ignores the European election, he and others expected ‘support for insurgent parties to fade’. SNP wiped out all but one MP for LibDems and Labour (and Tory). Anomalies occurred, as must always happen without PR, with the amount of votes needed for each MP being almost insanely random especially for UKIP.
But the final result was to give one party a majority in parliament almost as if Duverger’s first law operated. For the Tories to keep operating as an elected dictatorship when they only had 36.9% of the vote, despite the precedent of 2005 when Blair did the same is to play a very dangerous game. The Tories are not playing to the centre , but to the hard right.
For the medium term, however, the issue is how the progressive movement should behave now it is a minority as the combined votes of Labour and Greens (and possibly SNP though their politics are ambiguous) and fringe left candidates indicate. The country has moved to the right. Jim Murphy and other Blairites supported by the New Statesman are wrong, Labour should not follow the trend. Not for principled reasons vital though these are. It is simply not electorally viable. With Duverger’s first law no longer operating, the question is how to seek majority support. This is not achievable by chasing Tory voters – and certainly not because Policy Exchange and the Tory right want Labour to do so. ‘Come into my Parlour said the spider to the fly’. Or alternatively – be careful what you wish for.

Trevor Fisher

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