Richard North, 11/05/2021  

One of the fascinating UK political events of WWII (with the war still not over) was the way a supposedly grateful nation ditched its wartime leader in the 1945 general election and voted for Labour.

This gave the party a landslide victory under Clement Attlee, with an unassailable majority of 393 seats over Winston Churchill's Conservatives, who struggled in with 197 seats in a 640-seat House. Almost unnoticed, the Liberal Party and the breakaway Liberal National Party returned 23 seats (12 and 11 respectively).

But equally fascinating – and perhaps of considerable (if unrecognised) significance to contemporary politics – were the general elections of 1950 and 51. In the first of the pair, Attlee regained power, but with a very much reduced majority of 315 seats over the Conservative's 298, in a reduced 625-seat House.

Although Attlee had a working majority, in October 1951 he called a snap election in the hope of strengthening his grip on power. However, However, despite winning the popular vote and achieving both the highest-ever total vote of the time, and highest percentage vote share, Labour won fewer seats than the Tories.

The defeat paved the way for the return of Churchill, with his Conservatives taking 321 seats as opposed to Labour's 295, marking the start of 13 years of Labour opposition.

But to understand properly the reason for the 1951 defeat, one must look not only at the two main protagonists but at the Liberals. Firstly, as an electoral force, the National Liberals had all but disappeared in the 1950 election and it is safe to say that a substantial number of votes gravitated to the Tories (in 1968 the party was to merge with the Conservative Party).

Secondly, in the 1950 election, the Liberal Party proper regained some of its seats, taking nine in all, with a total national vote of 2,621,487. But, come the 1951 election, with the National Liberals still out of it, the Liberals proper had run out of money.

Compared with the 1950 election when they had contested 475 seats, this time the Liberals were able to field only 109 candidates. As a result, their national vote collapsed to a mere 730,546 votes. Many of the "lost" votes were Hoovered up by the Tories, in two-way constituency fights with Labour.

With 13,948,883 votes against the Conservative's 13,717,850, Labour "won" the 1951 election. But, due to the vagaries of the first past the post system, the Tories were able to defeat their Labour opposition in detail at constituency level. Effectively, the election was won for the Tories by the Liberals.

What this election did, therefore, was illustrate a relationship between the Liberal (now Lib-Dem) and the Tory electoral fortunes – a relationship which seems to have endured to this day, and which is still seems to be exerting a considerable influence.

This dynamic is actually more than adequately illustrated in the Hartlepool constituency. If we go back to 1974 was it was established, we see that it was a two-way fight between Labour and the Tories, the former on 26,988 and the latter on 22,700 votes.

In the year 1974, of course, there were two general elections and, in the second contest, the Liberals intervened, gaining 6,314 votes – quite evidently at the expense of the Tories, whose vote dropped to 16,546. Labour, on a reduced turnout, held roughly steady at 24,440.

Through the period from 1974 up to 2004, we see this dynamic at play: as the Lib-Dems (as they were to become) gained votes, the Tory share dropped. This culminated in the 2004 by-election (precipitated by Mandelson's departure) when, on a substantially reduced turnout, the Lib-Dems came second with 10,719 votes.

But what we saw then was the intervention of Ukip, which polls 3,193 votes, pushing the Tories into third place with a mere 3,044. Here (at the time) it was conventional wisdom to assert that Ukip had dragged down the Tory vote but, with Labour polling a then historic low of 12,752 votes, the more nuanced perspective is that (in general terms) the Lib-Dems were dragging down the Tories and Ukip was damaging Labour.

In the general election year of 2005 – the high-water mark for the Lib-Dems – they again came second, with 10,773 votes, holding the Tories down to 4,058. But Ukip lost votes, weighing in at 1,256 votes, coming fourth, while – on an only slightly increased turnout – Labour partially recovered its strength to 18,251.

This perhaps introduced a third element – turnout. Over the period – and again generally – the Labour vote seems harder hit by reduced turnout. We could suggest that Labour supporters are more likely to stay at home than to switch votes.

By now, we've come into the period covered by the graph from UK in a Changing Europe (illustrated), whence we the impact of the 2010 general election: the Lib-Dems go down and the Tories go up. Ukip goes up and Labour goes down.

As between 1945, 1950 and 1951, the Lib-Dem/Tory dynamic is also reflected between 2005 and 2015. In 2005, Conservatives take 198 seats (with 8,784,915 votes) and the Lib-Dems capture 62 seats with 5,955,454 votes. In 2010, Cameron's Tories pick up 306 seats (beating Labour but short of a majority, with 10,703,754 votes). The Lib-Dems take 57 seats with 6,836,825 votes.

Come 2015, we then see a dramatic change, mirroring the 1951 scenario. Cameron gains 330 seats with 11,299,609 votes, while the Lib-Dems plummet to a mere eight seats, on a national vote of 2,415,916.

Ukip in this election win 3,881,099 votes, and the Ukip-effect is evident in many constituencies, but the collapse of the Lib-Dem vote gives Cameron the buffer he needs to win the election – and deliver the 2016 EU referendum. Arguably, the party which most facilitated that referendum was the Lib-Dems, while tha=e party which did the most to prevent it was Ukip.

Going back to the graph covering Hartlepool, we continue to see visualised the relationship between the Tory and Lib-Dem votes. As the yellow line dips, the dark blue sides – although, to complicate matters, there also could be a Ukip influence. However, as Ukip dips in 2017, the Labour vote rises.

Dramatically, when the Brexit Party then emerges in 2019, higher than the previous Ukip levels, the Labour vote dives. At this point, the Lib-Dems are undergoing a mild resurgence in Hartlepool and, true to form, the Tory vote dips slightly. 

 Then, in the final act of the drama – last week's by-election, we see only modest rise in the Tory vote, partially matched by a decline in the Lib-Dem showing. The big difference – and the unique change – is that although the Brexit Party vote collapses, so does the Labour vote. 

On past performance, as the anti-EU vote dipped, the Labour vote should have recovered but, this time round, the stay-at-home vote soared. As near as one can be certain, in this by-election, it was this stay-at-home vote which was decisive – a dramatic confirmation that the Conservatives didn't win it. Labour lost it. 

 Interestingly, in the Guardian , we see Angela Rayner acknowledge that "former Brexit party voters were decisive in many of Labour’s losses". No more was this than in Hartlepool. Looking at the bigger picture though, some pundits are talking of a "progressive alliance" to defeat Johnson. 

But when history suggests that the Tories fortunes are closely linked to those of the Lib-Dems, a resurgent – but entirely independent - Lib-Dem party could be an electoral asset to Labour. But, hazarding a guess as to why the Brexit Party vote didn't "return" to Labour, it is reasonable to assume that leavers simply do not trust Labour. 

Clearly, Labour leavers (some of them) are not prepared to support Johnson, which says that they are recoverable by Labour if it ever gets its act together on Brexit. Sorting out its post-Brexit policy may turn out to be impossible for Labour as it is at present constituted, but if it drifts further towards "rejoin", that more than anything might doom it to oblivion. 

 Much the same might be said of the Lib-Dems. If their targets are Tory voters (as the past record might suggest), then they too have to get their act together on Brexit – something they show no sign of doing. 

Ironically, therefore, it would seem that Brexit – the very issue which tore the Tory Party apart, now seems set to keep it in power for a decade.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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