Thursday, 20 May 2010

How we voted (or didn't)

Inspired by Democratic Socialist Dave's painstaking number-crunching at Liberal Democrat Voice, I've done a slightly different take on British election data here, excluding Northern Ireland with its own distinctive party setup and extending the series back to 1918.

The chart brings out the recent plunge in electoral participation: voter turnout peaked at 84% of registered electors in 1950 and 83% in 1951 but otherwise remained in the 70-80% range throughout 1922-97 before diving to 60% in 2001-05. Now at 65%, it looks unlikely to regain its former level without radically reinvigorated politics.

A surprising fact is that excepting the somewhat misleading "National" win in 1931 (lumped here under Conservative despite the inclusion of Labour and Liberal elements), only Labour has polled 40% of all potential votes, and not in its winning years of 1945 and 1950, but in 1951 when it went down to defeat in terms of seats in the House of Commons. Since then it’s been downhill most of the way.

The impact of the 1981 SDP defection from Labour and the new party's alliance with the then Liberals is readily apparent in the abrupt narrowing of the Labour and "Lib" shares in 1983. But equally remarkable is Labour's gradual recovery of its lost ground over the following three elections, before its decline under the Blair and Brown premierships.

The Tory trend over the past 60 years shows three phases, with a postwar plateau at 38-39% in 1951-59, a remarkably consistent 32% or so in 1964-92 broken only by the defeat of October 1974, and then a precipitous drop (worse even than Labour's in 1983) to the fifth or more of recent years.

Of the three principal parties, that leaves the Liberals/Alliance/SLD's/LibDems: the rise from the early 1950s is quite remarkable. But what's paradoxical is that apart from the gains of February 1974 and 1983 (in the latter case mostly down to Labour's split rather than new Liberal votes), the party’s share fell at each election from 1966 to 2001.

The chart shows the rise of the SNP and Plaid Cymru in the decade to 1974 and of the “other” parties a quarter-century later, with 2010 marking the best year for groupings other than the big three. But the greatest recent advance remains that of the non-voters, who had they been a single party look like they’d have lost every election from 1924 to 1997, but would have won every one since 2001.

A look at combinations of the principal parties reveals some interesting features. The two largest parties' share of votes relative to the whole electorate fell fairly steadily from its 1951 peak of 80% (itself well above the 65% average over 1922-97), its decline to a mere 43-44% at the last two elections punctuated only by a slight recovery in 1966 and more marked bounces in 1979, 1987 and 1992.

The combined Conservative-Liberal share peaked at around half in 1922-31 and 1983-92 but averaged only 41-42% in 1935-79 and declined abruptly to around a third in 1997-2005 before recovering to 40% in 2010.

The greatest overall stability is shown by the combined Labour-"Lib" share: except in the aftermath of the 1931 Labour split and Liberal collapse, the two parties' vote remained remarkably steady at around 41-42% of the electorate over the whole of 1922-97: despite the intervening plunge in overall turnout their appeal showed similar constancy at 35-36% in 2001-10.

What does it all mean? The most alarming feature is that of the 37 percentage point loss of the two leading parties since their peak, most appears to represent voters lost entirely to the electoral system. Most of the remainder has gone to the Liberals, but half of the five million voters lost to the electoral system in 1997-2001 have yet to return. Had non-voters been a party, they'd have lost every election in 1924-97 but won every one since.

The relatively steady "Lab+Lib" rating seems to lend some support to Labour and left Liberal claims for the persistence of a natural "centre-left" constituency, though it must be added that while the two parties' fortunes seem closely linked, they're inversely linked. Labour's loss is LibDems' gain, and vice versa.

Can the same be said of today's governing "centre-right" coalition? To a degree, if we adjust for the exceptional period after 1981 when the Liberal-SDP vote includes a large component that might be considered historically Labour. But to the extent that the decisive fault-line determining election outcomes appears to lie at the Labour/LibDem margin, it may be said that national contests have tended to be decided by shifts between this notional "centre+right" on the one hand and Labour on the other.

That said, since 1981 it’s the LibDem and Labour votes that have tended to move in opposite directions at each election. The implication is that LibDems’ greatest opportunities – and vulnerabilities – lie on the left. That means that they need to be very wary of becoming too closely identified with their new coalition partners: you don't appeal to voters on the left by being seen as a party of the right.

That’s not a case against coalition, but rather a reason to be cautious in adopting a stridently anti-Labour tone – easier said than done when they’re the newly-dethroned Opposition and still smarting and it’s their job to throw everything they’ve got at you, but sometimes you have to be a little thick-skinned if you want to get ahead or even hold your own.

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