6 May 2015

Election 2015: how will seven-party politics work?

The polls have barely moved during this election – so let’s start with a graph of what happened last time.


Apart from a slight surge for Labour during the final weekend, the biggest thing in the picture is what we called #Cleggmania, where the Lib Dem leader highhandedly knocked seven percentage points off the Tories on the night of 21 April, in the first TV debate. In effect, the two party system never recovered from that moment.

Now let’s look at a polling graph for the last parliament.


There are three signal events: the collapse of the Libdems, after Clegg reneged on his tuition fees promise; the rise of Ukip and the late surge of the Greens.

If we then mentally superimpose economic conditions over this graph, you can see why it’s sensible to conclude the old British political system is broken.

Labour surged early in the last parliament, when the Lib Dems collapsed. But when the economic recovery began it coincided with the historic surge of Ukip. And arguably at the peak of recovery, with interest rates close to zero and inflation zero, you get the Green surge (which has eased off as the election approaches).

Labour and the Conservatives have successfully made the economy the key battleground of the election. If you listen to the agenda they’ve set, night after night, it’s about how much more austerity we need, the size of the debt and deficit, and the state of public services. It’s as if the potential main parties of government are saying, nightly, “we’ll control the economy better.”

Yet in a way, it’s the economy that is controlling them, and shaping all politics.

Financial crisis

The financial crisis of 2008 left Britain with an existential problem. The boom years of the early 2000s had been fuelled by cheap credit, government spending and lax bank regulation. When the crash came, the economic model implicit in both Labour and the Tories’ policy pledges crashed down with it.

It’s false to say Labour’s borrowing caused the 2008 crash. But the structural deficit was high, and predicated on the idea that growth could go on as it had done for a whole new economic cycle. The Conservatives meanwhile – for those who have long enough memories – had pledged to match Labour’s spending plans.

Election 2015: this morning’s polls show Labour and Tories neck and neck

Bailing out the banks, and the collapse of tax revenues, put a hole in the public finances that made austerity inevitable – but not its form or scale. In the end, what Alistair Darling promised to achieve in 2010 – halving the deficit in 5 years – is what George Osbrone managed, having previously promised to get rid of the deficit altogether.

My reading of what happened in the last parliament is this: Labour, having correctly predicted the Tory austerity plans would tank the recovery, rode high until a real recovery began. This then exposed the problem at the heart of Labour’s policy debates: what does social democracy do in a period where you have to cut spending and increase taxes?

Instead, as the recovery began, Ukip surged, and as it gathered strenght so did the Greens (and of course in Scotland so did the SNP).


Historians will look back on the period since 2012 and see it not just as an economic recovery, but as a peculiar one – in which low wage jobs were created but prosperity did not increase; in which the housing market recovered but left hundreds of thousands of young people trapped in a poorly regulated private rented sector; in which half a million jobs were created for migrants, even as most parties spouted tough rhetoric against migration.

And a recovery in which the main policy driving it – the £375bn of quantitative easing money issued by the Bank of England – was barely understood or discussed.

So the UK electorate is now faced with a very difficult thing. Having fragmented into seven party politics – with five UK-wide parties and two strong nationalist parties in Wales and Scotland – it now has to make the system work.

Election 2015: talking to the SNP – deals and mini deals

Yet the two biggest parties – probably for the last time but no less problematic – have conducted campaigns on the basis that they can form a majority government.

Unless the polls are criminally inaccurate, a majority government is impossible. So the choice facing people as they put their crosses on the ballot paper is like a proxy vote. How best to vote to get the outcome you want: it is going to feel like trying to drive a car with a five second delay between steering wheel and axle.

This is understood implicitly by unionist voters in Scotland, who’ve been telling journalists they intend to vote tactically; and it’s being urged by commentators as different as the Daily Telegraph and Russell Brand. The Telegraph is co-ordinating a campaign for Ukip voters to switch to the Tories; while Brand effectively called for Green voters outside Brighton to vote Labour.

Seven party politics

But it’s a big challenge for UK democracy. In a democracy everybody’s vote is equal. That includes highly clued-in people who read the newspapers and highly clueless people who do not know the prime minister’s name, nor really care.

In the past, people who take no interest in politics could, if they voted at all, go with their gut instinct. Now, though they still can, it means there’s a much smaller likelihood of that vote having its desired effect.

Seven party politics, in a first past the post system, enfranchises the clever, and people with newspapers or Youtube sites who can co-ordinate tactical voting, and disenfranchises the rest. And, contrary to what many people intend, it enfranchises politicians above voters.

Election 2015: get the latest news from the campaign trail

If you look at the whole story of fragmentation – Cleggmania, the collapse of Cleggmania, Ukip, the Greens and the SNP – it is a story of rising distrust in politics. Yet on 8 May every party in parliament will have power disproportionate to its actual support: for those who go on to form a coalition, the power will be greater – for those who don’t it will be less.

Large parts of the country will feel disenfranchised. So when people ask me what’s at stake tomorrow, I don’t say austerity versus higher spending. It is whether the professional political class – who have by and large inured themselves from contact with the public and journalists for the whole campaign – squander our consent some more, or begin a debate about the kind of institutions that can more credibly translate our voting intent into the kind of government (and parliament) we get.

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8 reader comments

  1. Boffy says:

    What is interesting in looking at the polls throughout the last parliament, is how much it reminds us of the facts of the last 15 years, and particularly the last 5-7 years, as opposed to the narrative the government has given, and which we have come to accept. For example, we have come to accept a history in which the Liberal-Tories inherited a situation of crisis and near collapse in 2010, which caused the entire population to flee in horror from Labour. Yet, as the graph shows, within 6 months of the election, Labour were already standing at nearly a 10 point lead over the Tories.

    Its hard also to remember now that in 2009, Gordon Brown, stood on the world stage as the man who had saved the world from a global financial meltdown caused by the banks, and that the US and other countries were following his measures to bring it to an end. Indeed, such was his standing at the point, that it looked likely that he would win the election when he called it. What stopped him calling the election was not any economic crisis, but the promise of a big tax giveaway, in the form of scrapping Inheritance Tax, made by George Osborne.

    The reason that Labour was likely to have won in 2009, prior to that, and the reason that Labour so quickly took a lead over the Tories at the end of 2010, is because the idea that the Liberal-Tories inherited an economy in crisis, and so on is a myth. Even during the coalition negotiations, the Liberals were saying that the Tory austerity measures were a mistake, and Liberal spokesman admitted that the issue of the deficit had been “hyped up” for political purposes to justify the coalition, and the austerity measures.

    In fact, the UK economy was growing at the time the Liberal-Tories took over. In the 2010 Q2, the quarterly growth figure was 1%, a figure that the Liberal-Tories have not been able even to equal in any quarter since. Rather, their fear tactics, and their message of austerity sent the economy into a nosedive for more than 2 years, and now they want credit for the fact that it has staged a slight recovery, on the back of factors that have very little to do with the measures they have taken.

    The claim that the financial crash, or that Britain was unable to deal with the economic consequences due to Labour overspending in previous years is also a fallacy as I’ve set out here. If the period from 1997 to 2008 is taken, the average Deficit/GDP ratio was just 1.57%, which is less than half the average ratio of 3.48% for the period 1979-1997 under Thatcher and Major. In the whole 18 year period of Tory government, Thatcher only managed budget surpluses in two years – 1988 and 89, whereas Blair managed surplus in 4 years, 1998-2001.

    Even if the average for the period when the banks were bailed out is taken into consideration, the average deficit/GDP ratio under the last Labour government was only 2.85%, which is still significantly less than the average under Thatcher, and less than the average under the Liberal-Tory government after 2010.

    As I’ve set out in other posts, not only is this narrative about overspending a lie, not only did the Liberal-Tories inherit and economy that was growing more strongly than they have been able to match, and indeed an economy which they trashed, when they came in, but also, the narrative over interest rates is a lie too, because in 2010, UK Gilt Yields were steadily falling under Labour too, so the idea that the money markets were going to cut off funding is also a lie.

    That about sums up the government of the last five years, one big lie after another.

  2. simon says:

    It all whiffs of decline. Everyone knows something is wrong but nobody knows what the answer is, leading to a disparate fragmentation with politicos flapping around in a visionless void. I suspect the next coalition government will reflect that.

    Looking on now as I do from Australia, Britain increasungly looks, well simply quaint but largely irrelevant.

    Its a shame, the world is a worse place with Britain in that condition, look forward to the day we get our mojo back, in the meantime by comparison Australia mojo is rising and looks more like the uk than the uk does nowadays.

  3. Martin Yallop says:

    Nobody talks about PR. Is that the elephant in the room?

    1. Andrew Dundas says:

      I did Martin. See above.

      About the feasibility of “… government that reflects all opinions?”

      Sadly, there are no known forms of PR that produce any result that reflects the range of opinions.

      ‘First past the post’ is easier to describe and obliges Parties to be a coalition of related interests.

  4. Andrew Dundas says:

    Is it possible to elect a viable government that reflects all opinions?
    There never has been one anywhere. Here’s some examples:
    * Fully proportionate Knesset cannot reflect Israelis preferences because the tiny minority parties hold the balance of power and demand more influence than their voters warrant.
    * Democratic voters scored a majority of 2 millions more votes in 2012 elections, but the Republicans won a clear majority of both Senate & House seats.
    * In Scotland’s referendum, only 1.6 million people voted to become a new EU State and to change the identity of 5.3 million people’s citizenship.
    The clear message from all types of election is that no system can adequately reflect all opinions. The alternative systems are, however, very much worse.
    Scotland is also a test bed for two novel proportional representation systems at Holyrood and Local levels. Neither of them is clear. Neither of them is at all equitable. It’s a mess.
    Turning to our dominant UK-wide issue. ‘Deficit’ and ‘Austerity’ are just the latest political gimmick. We’ve had far worse deficits before and without all this hullaballoo in the mid 1940s and 1920s. Nations are not like households. Big nations always have vastly greater value in their assets than debts, and are therefore always a good credit. So that a modest deficit such as we had in 2010 is fully affordable: that much was always reflected in the UK Bond Rate, which was always at record lows for both Labour and Tory administrations. The rest is just media hype.

    1. Fiona Fletcher says:

      For the referendun, a total of 3,619,915 people voted Yes or No – a turnout of 84.5% in Scotland as a whole and a new record for any election held in the UK . I don’t know where you are getting your figures from Andrew Dundas, but I suggest you check the facts before posting. Also, of the 5.3 million population, a large number will be too young to vote, so you need to look at the voting population, not the population of the entire country.

      1. Andrew Dundas says:

        How good of you to respond, Fiona.
        What I wrote (see above) is: “In Scotland’s referendum, only 1.6 million people voted to become a new EU State and to change the identity of 5.3 million people’s citizenship”.
        It’s not a matter of how many people vote, but that by changing the national identity of anyone without their express consent – whether they had ‘a vote’ or not – is an infringement of their rights as citizens. Rights that our whole population possesses, not just those who happen to vote in a referendum. When a nation changes its identity, it also changes the status and rights of everyone living within that nation State.
        And children have as many individual rights as you or I may have. Both the European Convention for Human Rights and the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights make this clear.
        Those human rights are one of the several ‘democratic’ problems we should take account of.

  5. Boffy says:


    I don’t do Twitter, or I’d have tweeted, but have to congratulate you on the Northern Soul selection.

    Not many remember the Three Degrees. I recall it from the Top Rank in Hanley circa 1972.

    I suppose each party, however, is like Shirley and the Shirelles hoping for “A last Minute Miracle”, having already like James Lewis offered us their “Manifesto”.

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