2015 and the state of two-party politics in the UK

What do the last few general elections really tell us about support for the Labour and Conservative parties?

It is strange to look back on recent years in British politics – filled with talk of hung parliaments, possible (and actual) coalition configurations, the impact and influence of ‘third’ parties, the decline of the two-party system, voter dealignment, and growing public scepticism and disengagement over the central features of the political establishment – and realise that the two biggest parties in the UK have actually had their level of support stabilise, and indeed slightly grow, over the last decade or so.

One of the biggest long-term stories in British politics is that of declining support for the two largest parties. Aside from some particularly anomalous phases in the last 100 years of UK democracy – for example, the period in the early 20th Century where the Liberal party tore itself apart and was dramatically overtaken by Labour as a tenable party of government, or the moment in 1983 where Labour, challenged by internal divisions, surrendered enough support to the nascent SDP/Liberals to see that alliance win more than a quarter of the popular vote – the combined support for the two parties with realistic prospects of gaining commons majorities has never been lower.

Fascinatingly, however, it seems that this is a trend that was reversed in the 2015 general election – and, on further investigation, declining support for the two largest parties may have already levelled-out, or even started to recover, as far back as 2005.

I threw together the two graphs below – based on easily available vote share and turnout data – for a lecture I gave on Monday. They show the combined Labour and Conservative vote share in general elections since 1931 and their combined share of the electorate (that is, their share of everyone eligible to vote) respectively.

graph1 graph2

These graphs make the general direction of travel quite clear. Support reserved for the two largest Westminster parties fell dramatically over the course of the 20th Century. This is a well-discussed feature of the contemporary British political landscape – see, for example, David Denver’s compelling ‘dealignment’ explanation for the deteriorating connection between particular kinds of voters and specific political parties.

What might be unexpected here, however, is that 2015 also saw a slight uptick in the vote share of the two biggest parties – this, in an election marked more than ever by the rise and recognition of ‘third’ parties, and the multi-party campaigning brought about by them. Despite the increased profiles of UKIP, Plaid, the SNP and the Green Party, it seems as if the declining fortunes of the Liberal Democrats was enough to contradict the general trend of dealignment from the two biggest parties.

But the Lib Dem collapse alone cannot explain how, taking into account not only the voting electorate but the level of support achieved by parties as a share of the entire population of eligible voters,  the dealignment trend appears to have been stabilised by 2005 and reversed in both 2010 and 2015. The idea that the aggregate level of support enjoyed by Labour and the Conservatives actually slightly improved in 2010 seems to contradict every major narrative about that election, marked as it was by the Liberal Democrats’ acquisition of around a million new voters after a successful election campaign and the subsequent hung parliament and coalition negotiations.

So why aren’t we talking very much about the stabilisation (or even the improvement) of the vote share enjoyed by the two biggest parties? At least part of the answer lies with the deceptive nature of the 2001 general election, Blair’s second huge electoral success. While the vote share of the two biggest parties declined by less than 2% between 1997 and 2001, their share of the entire eligible voting population crashed by almost 10%, placing the combined electoral support base for the two biggest parties below 50% for the first time: where they have stayed ever since.

Our tendency to focus on vote share rather than electorate share – which takes into account fluctuations in voter turnout – made 2001 seem like a relatively good year for the managed decline of two-party politics in the UK rather than a stunning decline in support: a steeper drop than those recorded between 1992 and 1997 and between 1979 and 1983, when the rise of the SDP caused so much trouble for the then-established two-party norm.

From the electorate share, we can see that the 2010 and 2015 elections represent something quite unusual in recent political history. These are the first two consecutive general elections to show an improvement in the electorate share of the two biggest parties since 1987 and 1992, when Labour’s fortunes slowly recovered and the nascent Lib Dems, confounded by the UK’s electoral system, incrementally lost the high vote share enjoyed by the Alliance in 1983. 2010-2015, 1987-1992 and 1950-1951 are the only three occasions since 1931 showing two consecutive elections of growing electorate share for the two biggest parties.

It’s too soon to tell whether the combined vote and electorate share of Labour and the Conservatives will continue to grow in future general elections. These graphs show that the general trend of declining support has been interrupted before, and sometimes more significantly, than in recent years. And even if overall support for the two biggest parties is set to continue rising in the coming years, there’s no escaping the brute fact that it currently still sits at a nearly historic low point, with less than half of the electorate endorsing one or the other of Labour or the Conservatives.

However, there is enough here to at least begin to argue that the haemorrhage of support from the two biggest parties has now been halted – and to develop a set of possible explanations as to why this could be the case in an era of chaotic and dealigned politics. Rumours of the death of two-party politics may yet prove to have been greatly exaggerated.

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Why we shouldn’t be surprised that electoral reform keeps failing

Here’s a quick graph that I threw together for a lecture I’m giving tomorrow, based on aggregates of the latest polls and seat predictions (all garnered from the excellent May2015 website). Click for a bigger version!

2015pic

The back row of columns represents a reasonable guess of the real distribution of seats, based on the latest polls, within our current First Past the Post system. Specifically, it makes use of the May2015 Predicts totals, which is a good model, incorporating the ‘strong transition’ equation as well as data from Ashcroft’s polling of marginal seats.

The front row of columns, meanwhile, shows a seat distribution that assumes simply that the aggregate of current polling is accurate and that each party’s nation-wide support level is translated directly into proportional Westminster seats. This would be the outcome under some variant of a ‘list’ electoral system, and would be close to the outcome under STV (depending on how that system would be implemented).

There’s lots to talk about in this graph, just as there is for so many comparable images based on the outcomes of past elections. Regionally-bound parties like the SNP would clearly have less nation-wide power under a proportional system. Parties with meaningful levels of support that are quite widely distributed would do better. How resilient the Lib Dem MPs would be under a more proportional system! How significant UKIP would be for everyone’s post-election coalition mathematics! How much more seriously we’d have to take the Greens!

But the real headline – and the thing that is made most immediately and obviously visible by illustrations such as this one – is the changing size of those first two red and blue columns. The two parties that will necessarily be involved in every future government are also the two parties with the most to lose from a more proportional voting system.

This doesn’t add up to a substantive argument about the value of proportionality of representation. But I don’t think we need to look any further if what we want is an explanation of the failure to make meaningful reforms to FPTP, and the gloomy prospects for such reform efforts in the future.

A Crisis in British Democracy?

Prompted by an intriguing question from a colleague, I just found myself in the position of trying to set out, in one paragraph, the big overarching theme from all my lecturing and teaching on British politics. I kind of didn’t manage it, but I think that my failure may be an instructive one, and the theme I did draw out makes a certain amount of sense: contemporary democratic crisis.

Not-so-contemporary democratic crisis.

The paragraph I ended up writing speaks, I think, to the broader perspective that this blog is trying to pull together:

The unspoken overarching question … is “Is there a crisis in British democracy?”. To begin to answer this question, we have to draw upon a multitude of core trends from recent years: voter dealignment, sovereignty debates, regional nationalism, single-issue parties, electoral instability, political scepticism on the part of the public, conflict between formal and informal elements of the establishment (media vs. politicians = good example), the rise(?) of executive presidentialism, etc.

Each of these topics could form the basis for a blogpost (or journal article. Or book. Or book series) in their own right – and perhaps they will. But we might sketch out how each of these vaguely-drawn headings contribute to the sense of a broad crisis in British democracy.

Voter dealignment is a hugely important trend in contemporary politics, convincingly framed by David Denver and others. In the UK context, it incorporates the effects of the decline in class-motivated voting, a long-term pattern that was powerfully concretised by the New Labour project and its rejection of most of the ideals usually associated with a politicised working class. We are now, as a voting public, far more likely to be ‘floating voters’ than before, far less likely to maintain political and party memberships, and increasingly disinterested in emulating the voting tendencies of our parents. Economic social mobility may be rather stagnant, but political mobility remains alive and well among voters.

Our dealignment from the classic duopoly of British political culture contributes to several other trends. So-called ‘single issue’ parties are now successful enough to need to set out more broadly-framed governmental manifestos (often with mixed results), meaning that UKIP isn’t just interested in immigration reform and EU membership, but also needs to have a perspective on education and the NHS that is at least somewhat plausible. Combined with the rise of regional nationalist parties – primarily meaning the SNP, given the strangely dwindling fortunes of Plaid Cymru in Wales – voter dealignment clearly hasn’t simply resulted in more variation in party support, but in the awakening of the UK as a venue for a multitude of political perspectives and parties. This rise in ‘third’ parties is of crucial importance even in the face of the Liberal Democrats’ declining fortunes. With significant upticks in support for UKIP, the Green party, and the SNP, combined support for Labour and the Conservatives is at a historic low.

Of course, when we talk about the changing tendencies in party support, what we’re really trying to understand is the changes in voter behaviour more broadly.  Political scepticism and political apathy are powerful forces in our democratic landscape. Electoral turnout crashed significantly in the early-mid 1990s, and has only recovered a little bit since the end of the Blair years. While the importance and efficacy of voting is generally considered to be non-negotiable in most democratic contexts, there exist good reasons to doubt the meaningfulness of democratic participation in this country – and it’s telling that such scepticism seems, more and more, to be at the heart of our national debate, with various movements claiming (or being accused of embodying) an ‘anti-politics’ agenda. Various recent events have contributed to declining public confidence in the institutions of British democracy even as they form part of what many commentators perceive as being a generalised crisis in the support-base for established liberal democracies worldwide.

Meanwhile, the crisis in British democracy – if there is one – is surely reflected in the mounting tensions between the various core institutions and components of the establishment in this country. This is a democracy where the printed media claim to influence the outcome of elections even as their circulations decline and the political class seeks to introduce press regulations. The police are constantly at odds with political will at a personal and institutional level and the NHS is alternately revered and delivered to play as a viable political football.

This is a short list, and a badly incomplete one, but it gives some sense of the scale and rapidity of the trends that are reshaping British political reality. Now, more than ever, British politics is in need of a clearer understanding of its own democratic theory.

Political Ignorance and the British Public

This is the draft of a piece whose definitive, considerably better final version has been published on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog as On the Complex Relationship Between Political Ignorance and Democracy.

Public ignorance is a central consideration in my academic work, which encourages the idea that politics, at least in part, is best understood as throwing up considerable ‘knowledge problems’; problems that are pervasive at every level of participation and administration in contemporary democratic states. The justification of democracy must, if it is to have meaning, take the political ignorance of democratic citizens seriously.

sheep

The media occasionally pick up on and discuss the depth and significance of the most obvious kind of political ignorance – that displayed by would-be voters. Naturally enough, these concerns can make for attention-grabbing headlines as our minds are concentrated by the rapid approach of a general election. The Independent‘s buzzfeed-imitating ‘i100’ site recently pointed out some recently-accumulated evidence:

46% of respondents were unaware that a general election is taking place this year

57% of respondents were unaware of what a general election is

59% of respondents could not name the current British Prime Minister

How trustworthy is this evidence? Well – not very trustworthy at all, methodologically. As i100 noted, the 1900-odd respondents were an unweighted sample, quizzed via email by a voucher codes website. We’re learning a lot about the political ignorance of the savings-savvy with a bit of time on their hands, perhaps, but should be wary of extrapolating such information into a generalised indictment of the state of public political knowledge.

But are these statistics outliers? Do they fail to correspond with existing (more sound) empirics on similar questions? Would an expert on public opinion be surprised by these findings?

Absolutely not. While most research around public ignorances arises from surveys conducted in the USA, there’s a growing body of work concerned specifically with the UK context as well, and the majority of such evidence confirms the realism of the statistics set out above.

For example, Denver & Hands have found that 77% of British 18-year-olds cannot reliably differentiate between the policy platforms of mainstream political parties. When the survey is limited to those who are students or former students in politics, this figure only improves to 50%.

More recently, a survey for the Royal Statistical Society and KCL provided a widely-reported embarrassment of riches in this area, including:

  • the general belief that under-age pregnancies are  25x more common than they actually are
  • the over-estimation of the severity of benefit fraud by 24x
  • 29% of those surveyed thought that Jobseekers’ Allowance is more expensive to the taxpayer than pensions, when the latter costs about 15x more
  • The generalised belief that crime and violent crime rates were rising, when in fact they have been falling for decades
  • The systematic over-estimation of immigration rates

These findings are particularly interesting in that they seem to indicate a kind of pessimistic bias in British political ignorance. Is it possible that many of these areas imagine things to be worse than they actually are because of the media and cultural landscape in which we find ourselves? In a more balanced informational environment, would we cease to be wrong, or simply cease to be wrong in a systematically pessimistic way?

For now, we can at least say that there’s no need to turn to i100’s dodgy sources if we want to get a sense of the ‘knowledge problems’ at work in British democracy – but we needn’t dismiss those findings as unrealistic, either.

The next, fascinating challenge is to offer meaningful and relevant political theory in response to such evidence. Cynicism – or, at least, simplistic cynicism – need not be the only response available to us. Within the British context, the extent of public ignorance may even have the surprising effect of helping us to make peace with the various systemic and electoral features of our political establishment that make the public far less influential than they might imagine or prefer themselves to be. After all, what’s the value of a more responsive electoral system – of more democracy – if the wider citizenry is incapable of voting well?

My own research strikes a more positive note than this, and tries to offer a more encouraging justification of democracy. More on that in future posts.

Just as most empirical work on public ignorance comes from the USA, so too does most of the theoretical consideration of its implications. To those interested in reading a critical perspective on democracy due to the extent of political ignorance, I’d say that this (plentifully controversial) book by Ilya Somin is a really great starting point.

Finger Lickin’ Voting: Apathy, Nando’s and Clegg

Here’s something my students are probably sick of hearing me say: a metaphor isn’t an argument. Even the most evocative, appropriate-seeming and intuitively persuasive metaphor or analogy might not, in the end, make very much sense at all. Political communication is rife with arguments-from-metaphors (and there’s quite a lot of it in political academia as well). It’s a dependable fall-back position in politics because it relies upon an ancient form of reasoning, and one that requires no expertise or careful thought on the part of your audience in order to seem wise.

I'll flame grill your chicken

Example: Nick Clegg, making a generally pretty charismatic appearance on a comedy TV show, being asked to make the case for voting – this, obviously, in the aftermath of Russell Brand’s well-publicised argument that voting is basically a big waste of time – made an interesting comparison:

[I]f you go to Nando’s and get someone else to go up to the counter and order for you, you can’t complain if they come back with a meal you don’t want.

Does this really strike us as being similar to voting in some important way? It certainly seems to have done the trick for the show’s presenters, one of whom took to the New Statesman to write up Clegg’s performance in glowing terms:

It was the single best description of the value of voting I’ve ever heard. And according to the electronic wall of scribble known as Twitter, it was a very convincing one. And all because there was no bullshit.

Casting a vote, however, is not very much like placing an order in a restaurant. To receive a meal different to the one you ordered is an error; to end up with a government controlled for a party that you didn’t vote for is a by-product of the procedural norms of democracy. There is no agentic similarity between these two situations: my vote, unlike my food order, is neither the necessary nor the sufficient condition for the arrival of my desired outcome. Indeed, in the vast majority of cases, our votes carry far less objective value than the opportunity costs we incur by taking the time to cast them, which is why political scientists have spent decades puzzling over the paradox of voting. Given that in the UK’s particular electoral system the narrow chance of having an ‘influential’ vote is literally ruled out for many by the accident of their geographic location only deepens the quandary – quite a lot of us are voting, but none of us are right to be doing it on the grounds that we think it will change any outcomes.

Even if we grudgingly agree, for the sake of argument, that Clegg’s statement is basically sound, it doesn’t come across as a strong justification of voting. Voting, by this account, is a practice that we should value on the grounds that it licenses us to complain about political outcomes. Our political objections become meaningful, then, because we participated in the system that brought about the outcome to which we object.

But this idea contradicts what would seem to be the most persuasive reason to value voting: that it generates not the grounds for agreement with final outcomes (since the eventual outcomes will be undetermined by my vote), nor the grounds for legitimating my disagreement if the outcome is not to my liking, but rather because it signals personal consent to the procedural norms of the democratic system itself. If democracy produces an outcome that I do not like, I will be more inclined to tolerate it if I feel that the system that produced such an outcome was fair in some basic way. Voting would therefore not give me a reasonable basis from which to complain, but rather create a reasonable basis for my political obligations to a government that I did not choose.

In any case, Clegg is again demonstrating a talent for political communication, and he can hardly be blamed for not articulating a strong case for voting, since for most of the political class voting appears to be a self-evidently virtuous activity.

But I might recommend a better, more appropriate analogy between Nando’s and UK politics: after all, no matter what you order, you’re very likely to end up eating chicken again.