Normally this blog deals with economics, and the implications of economics, rather than immediately political trends. Readers with no interest in British politics can therefore skip this post and the discussion of voting patterns below.
But many commentators, not just in the UK, have expressed ‘surprise’ or 'uncertainty' about the present trends in the British general election with its outcome later this week .The trends in electoral support the campaign has revealed are often presented as though they were a consequence of unanticipated short term events in the election campaign such as the introduction of TV debates between the party leaders.This view is wrong – as the figures below will demonstrate.
The only serious uncertainty in this election is actually the rather lottery like way in which the undemocratic features of the British voting system will allocate seats in parliament. Unlike most European countries the British electoral system has no element of proportionality in it. It allows governments to be formed on relatively extremely small proportions of the vote - indeed it is theoretically, and practically, possible in Britain that a party with only a little over one third of the vote may have a majority over parties which between them have received the vote of almost two thirds of the electorate. .
In reality the trends of support in the present British general election are the logical expression of long term social trends and they actually are related to economics. Twenty seven years ago the author of this blog wrote a book, Thatcher and Friends: the Anatomy of the Tory Party, demonstrating that the traditional governing party in Britain, the Conservatives, were a party suffering a long term decline in support and analysing the economic and social reasons for this and the consequences for other parties. The intervening period has confirmed these trends. So it is worth outlining, for those watching the election, the way in which the trends revealed in the British general election campaign are a result of long term processes.
The Conservative Party
Taking first the long term trend of the vote for the British Conservative party this is shown in Figure 1. This shows that while naturally there have been short term oscillations from election to election, which help produce individual Tory victories or defeats, the steady downward trend of support for the Conservative Party is entirely clear.
The Conservative vote has fallen progressively from its highest ever level, of 60.7% in 1931, to its post-World War II peak of 49.6% in 1955, to 41.9% the last time it won an election in 1992, to 32.3% at the last general election 2005. Typically the Conservative vote, each time the party won a general election, was lower than at the one it won previously, and each time it lost an election its vote fell to a lower level than the previous defeat. Tory support has therefore oscillated within a clear downward trend.
If the trend of the Tory votes were extrapolated mechanically to the current general election then it would receive slightly under 39% if they were to win this election and 33% if they were to lose it. Given this long term trend of decline of the Tory vote, which on the long term trend would fall in a range of 33-39%, it is naturally not surprising that the level of support for the Tories at this election has been lower than they, and much of the media, anticipated. It is very difficult to win an overall majority at an election with a maximum vote of 39%. This is why the Tories have failed to simply stroll to the easy victory at the polls that the media had taken for granted for the last two years.
The Liberal Democrats
Turning to the trend of the Liberal Democrat vote this is shown in shown in Figure 2. The clear upward trend, again naturally with short term oscillations, of the Liberal vote for the last half century is clear. The post-World War II share of the Liberal vote reached its lowest point at 2.6% in 1951. Its highest post-war share so far, in an explicit alliance with the Social Democratic Party (SDP), the majority of which later fused with the Liberals to form the Liberal Democrats, was 25.4% in 1983. The Liberal Democrat vote fell to 16.8% in 1997, the year of the great Labour Party landslide, but this was still far above its previous post-World War II lows. The Liberal Democrat vote then rose again to 22.1% in 2005.
The overall rising trend of the Liberal Democrat support is clear. If the current opinion polls are any guide, this will continue at this election.
This clear long term rising trend confirms that it was not 'accidents' which in this election campaign produced a high level of Liberal Democrat support - the normal 'accident' cited being the first ever TV debate between the party leaders. As someone said 'history is the natural selection of accidents' and the TV debate was simply the 'accident' the underlying social forces attached themselves to and expressed themselves via. Indeed, as the British website Political Betting has correctly pointed out, the Liberal Democrat rise in support started before the first TV debate between the party leaders on 15 April. Already by 8 April an ICM opinion poll showed that Liberal Democrat support in marginal seats had risen by 5% and in a national poll, most of which was carried out before 15 April, Liberal Democrat support had already risen to 27%.
Finally the Labour share of the vote is shown in Figure 3. This could overall be said to have shown a rise to a peak in 1945-66 followed by a decline since, except that there is a marked depression of the Labour vote in the 1970s and 1980s which breaks the simple trend - making the graph of support look rather like a round cheese with a bite out of it! However overall the rising trend of Labour support to a sustained peak in 1945-66, and then decline since, is clear.
The peak Labour vote in 1945-66 was slightly less than fifty percent, before falling in the 1970s and reaching a trough in 1983, after the breakaway of the SDP, of 27.6%. It then rose to 43.2% in the landslide victory of 1997 and Labour received 35.2% at its last victory in 2005. The Labour landslide of 1997, and its maintenance of office since, was therefore not due to a high level of support for Labour by historical standards - most British governments have received far higher proportions of the vote, but was due to the huge fall of support for the Conservatives. Conservative unpopularity, not a high level of support for 'new' Labour is why the Labour Party was in office from 1997 onwards.
continuing trends in British politics
Finally what do these trends show about the future course of British politics? If the British electoral system were seriously democratic, in the sense of reflecting in Parliament even remotely proportionately the levels of popular support for the parties, the outcome of the election would already be known. No party would receive an overall majority and we would already be into the issue of which coalitions would be formed to govern the country. But, as already noted, the unrepresentative character of the British electoral system means there is still a chance that one party could secure a majority in Parliament.
But such an outcome would
not halt the long term processes. Britain is heading towards a new era
of coalition politics and proportional representation. Not because of
'accidents' in the election campaign but because of the long term
working out of powerful social trends.