by Nick Wright
Let us start with some facts about the British general election (with some explanations for our overseas readers).
Britain has a deeply undemocratic, unrepresentative first-past-the post (FPTP) electoral system with 650 separate constituencies in which the candidate with the most votes takes the seat even if they poll only a fraction of the votes. When, in times past, the great majority of votes cast went to the two major class-based parties, the Tories and the Labour Party, there was less of a disjuncture between the numbers of votes cast and the number of seats won. Those days are long gone.
In the new parliament the Tories have a 12 seat majority. A parliamentary majority is usually somewhere just above 320 figure because the Sinn Fein Irish republican party — with a handful of safe seats — stands only in the neo-colonial statelet of Northern Ireland and refuses to attend the UK parliament.
With 331 seats and 11,334,920 votes, this Conservative (Tory) party (the party that allies the Atlanticist, pro EU bankers and monopoly bosses to weaker bourgeois sectors) won 36.9% of the votes cast — an increase on 2010 of 0.8%.
With 232 seats and 9,347,326 votes, Labour (torn between a neo liberal Atlanticist, pro EU wing and a trade union-based social democratic tendency) won 30.4%, an increase of 1.5%.
With just one seat and 3,881,129 votes, UKIP (the xenophobic populist party of disaffected bourgeois and petit bourgeois critics of the EU) saw its percentage rise to 12.6%, an increase of 9.5%.
With just 8 seats and 2,415,888 votes, the Liberal Democrats (an alliance of social liberals and reactionary neo liberals) won 7.9%, a catastrophic drop of 15.2%.
With one seat and 1,157,613 votes the Greens on 3.8% increased their percentage by 2.8%.
With 56 seats and 1,454,436 votes the Scottish Nationalists gained a UK wide total of 4.7%, an increase of 3.1% that masks the fact that in Scotland it won 50% of the vote and all but three of the seats.
How the British people voted
Turnout was slightly up on 66.1% of a 46,425,336 electorate which means that the ‘majority’ government is formed of Members of Parliament who represent just over one in five of those registered to vote — a figure which itself excludes many, mostly working class people, who are unregistered.
Parties/ Seats Gain Loss +- Votes Vote share +-
Thus it takes 34,244 votes to elect a Tory, 40,290 to elect a Labour member, 3,881,129 to elect just one Ukipper, 1,157,613 voters to elect a Green, 301,986 votes to elect a Lib Dem and 25,972 electors to return a Scottish Nationalist.
Hypothetically speaking, if the Scotland were to be regarded as a separate entity with this voting system, 707,147 votes would result in just one Labour member being elected. It will be interesting to see if the SNP lose interest in proportional voting now that they are the beneficiaries of the system that shut them out in favour of Labour.
Such is bourgeois democracy.
The disjuncture between the votes cast and the parties represented in parliament undermines the legitimacy of the government as much as it undermines the credibility of the opposition. If parliament was formed of members elected on a proportional system it would look like this.
However, even this dramatically revealing presentation obscures the real dynamic that a proportional system would create because under the present system many voters ‘vote tactically’ to defeat which of the major parties is least to their taste rather than voting for a party that most closely represents their views and interests.
Thus, sections of domestic capital whose interests run counter to monopoly and the banks, are forced into a political formation that subordinates their priorities to the dominant sections of capital. Hence the schisms in the Tory party over EU membership or the divisions in the Lib Dems between the mostly decent instincts of many of its voters and the neoliberal free market ideology of the dominant Orange Book tendency.
More serious is the marginalisation — and their constant compromising — of the more progressive sections of the Labour Party (and the trade unions, some of which are directly affiliated to the party) which leaves the neo-liberal, pro EU, Atlanticist tendency in charge.
One of the reason why the bourgeoisie and the Labour right wing are so opposed to proportional voting is the effect it could have on the Labour movement and the Labour Party.
Under PR Labour could no longer count on working class and progressive minded voters voting for the party because the alternatives are worse. The party would be compelled to devise policies that could mobilise its working class base and the millions of non voters drawn mainly from the most oppressed and exploited strata.
PR would disrupt the endless pursuit of mainly middle class ‘swing’ voters in a handful of marginal constituencies.
In this election there is some evidence that the Tory strategy, aided by their massive dominance in the mass media, was to ‘game’ the opinion polls to suggest that their advantage was very marginal whilst they quietly poured resources into their key target seats. Some support for this theory lies in the varied pattern of Labour voting where in some areas, particularly where active left wing candidates could appeal to a working class electorate, left wingers were able to score significantly higher votes.
During the campaign, Cameron, the upper class privately educated, multi millionaire leader of the Conservatives adopted a languid pose and artfully suggested that his heart was not in pursuing a third term in office. At the time this did not ring true but it reinforced the media discourse which suggested that the Labour and the Tories were neck and neck.
In reality, the opinion polls, which were consistent in representing the margins as too close to call were significantly wrong in predicting both voting figures and the constituency outcome.
This failure was not only of methodology and analysis. It demonstrates that the foundations of the British political system are changing.
British politics, now more than in many countries, consists to a series of illusionary manoeuvres in which real class interests are as much obscured as they are misrepresented.
More significant than polling gamesmanship was the strategy of ‘nationalist tension’ in which the Tory party and its attendant press played up the prospects of a ‘hung’ parliament in which a Labour government would be held hostage by the SNP and would forced to make concessions to a ‘reckless’ spending programme and a separatist agenda.
The SNP willingly collaborated in this theatre the better to suggest to Labour voters that an SNP vote was roughly equivalent to voting for a ‘social’ democratic’ government.
However, the arithmetic brutally confirms that even if Labour had won its Scottish seats it would still be without a parliamentary majority.
The reasons for its defeat lie deeper. Labour never managed to repudiate the suggestion that Britain’s present day economic problems are the result of Labour ‘profligacy’ and spending on welfare.
Labour’s complicity in the institutional support for neo-liberal economic orthodoxy, its enthusiastic support for banking deregulation, worship of the City of London, religious belief in the holy trinity of EU, IMF and World Bank – which reflects the domination of finance capital and the Anglo-US alliance — coupled with its systematic neglect of it’s working class electoral base is the foundation of a more compelling explanation for its failure. Unable to confront the implications of its own responsibility in government for the structural problems of state monopoly capitalism and bound to capitalist orthodoxy it could not give a full explanation for the systemic crisis of contemporary capitalism to the British people without both repudiating its own past and charting a new course for the future. Thus its economic credibility was ruthlessly exposed.
As Communist Party general secretary Robert Griffiths argues on this site the explanation for Labour’s defeat is both political and ideological.
In this election the Tories cannibalised their erstwhile LibDem coalition partners. LibDem voters, swelled in the 2010 election by former Labour sympathisers alienated by Blair and the Iraq war and by people attracted by LibDem pledge — brutally betrayed in the first acts of the new government — to abolish tuition fees for university students, went in part back to Labour or to the Greens while the more right wing Lib Dem voters saw the Conservative Party a more fruitful repository for their votes. In Scotland the Nationalists were better positioned to be a refuge for alienated Lib Dem voters of all tendencies rather than the rump Conservatives.
Out of office for the larger part of a century the Lib Dems are now reduced to a rump after their brief and bruising term of office.
The Scottish nationalist tsunami overwhelmed Labour who hitherto held the majority of the FPTP Westminster seats (although the SNP, with a partially proportionate electoral system, were the dominant party in the Scottish parliament.)
Labour lost all but one of its Scottish seats. However, the actual voting figures reveal a more nuanced reality.
How Scotland voted
The SNP won 50% (up 30%) of the votes, Labour 24.3% (down 17.7%), the Tories 14.9% (down 1.8%), the LibDems 7.5% (down 11.3%), UKIP 1.6% (up 0.9% and the Greens 1.3% [up 0.7%).
Despite its weak connection to the trade unions, neoliberal economic policy and the big business orientation of its leadership the SNP successfully positioned itself as the anti austerity party, opposed to the Trident nuclear weapons system and the expression of a Scottish national interest combined with a claim to be the repository of Scotland’s social democratic tradition.
It was able to garner many working class voters put off by the New Labour record. This process was given extra impetus as much by Labour’s tactically maladroit alliance with the Tories and the Lib Dems in the recent referendum on Scottish independence as by Labour’s recent selection of a notorious warmongering, neoliberal right wing leadership in preference to the left and trade union-based alternative.
In the UK as a whole the raw data and the graphic representation of the election result could give the impression that these movements consisted of distinct blocs of voters moving between parties.
In reality the behaviour of voters is likely to be much more complex and unlikely to comfortably fit a unilinear positioning of parties along a left/right axis.
Take for example the composition of the Lib Dem vote in the 2010 election and this one. In the earlier election the Lib Dems presented a ‘progressive’ anti war, anti racist socially liberal face. In 2010 even as prominent a lapsed Trotskyist as Tariq Ali could suggest voting Lib Dem in preference to tarnished New Labour. In this election some more progressive Lib Dem voters returned to Labour, others went Green or SNP. A significant section switched to the Tory Party.
In some quarters there was an assumption that the UKIP vote was mainly disaffected Tories but UKIP increasingly targeted ‘left behind’ working class and economically marginalised groups with populist policies. Thus Labour’s calculation that the UKIP rise would decisively split the right wing votes was negated by the reality that some working class voters and many hitherto abstainers were mobilised to vote UKIP.
In sum, the election revealed that powerful barriers remain to the direct expression of working class interests and that unless the working class movement can find a way shape an electoral machinery that does give expression to its class interests bourgeois hegemony will remain unchallenged and the electoral system will continue not offer very productive ways for the working class to meet its immediate needs.
The medium term implications are that the Labour Party needs to radically change its approach if its is to be able to construct a winning alliance of working class and progressive middle class opinion such as that which supported the post war welfare state and system of relatively full employment.
The prolonged nature of this capitalist crisis and the absence of a compelling strategy for meeting basic working class aspirations within the capitalist system suggests that the material basis for political social democracy (or trade union bargaining) to win concessions is much diminished.