The age of electoral volatility

Electoral Shocks: the volatile voter in a turbulent world

By Edward Fieldhouse, Jane Green et al

Published by Oxford University Press, 2019, £25

Reviewed by Clive Heemskerk

December’s general election outcome produced a flurry of capitalist media commentary hailing a new era of prolonged Tory rule and the possibly terminal demise of the Labour Party.

The Blairite Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland was just one among many when he wrote of “Labour’s worst election performance since the 1930s… that broke new records for failure” (14 December), in order to feed the narrative – promoted in the immediate aftermath of the result by Tony Blair himself – that, unless ‘Corbynism was ditched’, Labour would be finished.

The election was without question a defeat for the working-class movement and the hopes that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party had generated with his unexpected triumph against New Labour in 2015.

But Boris Johnson only increased the Tory vote by 329,000 compared to Theresa May’s result in 2017, hardly the herald of an impregnable new ascendency.

On the other hand, in both the general elections fought under Corbyn – in 2017 and last December – Labour polled over ten million votes, something not achieved by Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband in 2010 and 2015, or by Blair in 2005.

The 2019 result was similar in absolute votes and percentage share to that in 2001 when New Labour won 413 seats.

Still, Labour lost 2.612 million votes from its 2017 tally. And, while the electorate grew by around 600,000 from 2017 – although still with millions not registering, disproportionately those in private-rented accommodation, black and minority ethnic and young people – the number voting in December fell by 375,000 compared to two years earlier.

In an era when capitalism has still not overcome the consequences of the 2008-09 financial crash, and the accelerating climate crisis is showing ever more clearly the need for fundamental socialist change, the pull of Corbynism had faltered.

Earlier in 2019, May’s local elections had seen a Liberal Democrat revival – even if overhyped by the media – in which they won an extra 704 council seats. The Tories lost 1,330, while Labour and the Tories held an equal share of the popular vote.

The Liberal Democrats also came second in the subsequent European parliament elections, which were topped by the Brexit Party, formed only at the beginning of the year, and the Tories slumped to fifth place with just 8.8% of the vote.

The dramatic December turnaround just six months later was a serious defeat but, most fundamentally, it was another manifestation of electoral volatility and an expression of the difficulties the capitalists face in this era in constructing a stable political system through which to exercise their rule. This really was a freeze-frame snapshot in a rolling film.

Electoral Shocks, by Edward Fieldhouse, Jane Green and five other politics professors, although written before December’s election, is useful in putting its outcome into that wider context.

Drawing on surveys conducted by the British Election Study (BES) immediately after every general election since 1964 – the longest running social science survey in the UK – the authors identify a pronounced rise in electoral volatility compared to previous decades.

“The 2015 general election delivered the highest share of votes on record for parties other than the traditional big three (Labour, Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats)”, they write, with the combined share of Labour and the Conservatives at just 65.1%.

Yet “only two years later, the 2017 general election delivered the highest combined Labour and Conservative two-party share since 1970”, at about 85%.

“Underlying these results”, they argue, “the electorate has become increasingly volatile at the individual level”.

Examining BES surveys of the same individual voters in pairs of elections, they find far fewer people having strong attachments to political parties and far “more likely to switch parties than voters in the past”.

So, 43% of those who voted in the 2010 and 2015 elections switched which party they voted for between the two contests, compared to just 12.5% of those who voted in both elections in the 1960s.

The level of switching between 2015 and 2017 was less but, at 33%, was still the second highest incidence of individual voter volatility on record.

Meanwhile, “the proportion of the electorate reporting a very strong party identification has also plunged from 45% in 1964 to only 10% in 2005”, the data shows.

The 1960s were a time, with the long post-war boom still not exhausted, when the capitalist system appeared to be able to deliver improved living standards and prospects.

This underpinned support for Labour – it had actually delivered material reforms under the 1945-51 governments and through the trade unions and local councils, too – but also, particularly amongst the middle class, the Tory party, which had 2.7 million members and the biggest party youth wing in Europe in the 1950s.

Even into the 1980s, the Tories had a membership of one million or more, compared to the 159,000 registered in last year’s Conservative leadership contest.

Voter volatility had begun to grow markedly from the early 1990s, against the background of the seeming triumph of the ‘free market’ after the collapse of the Stalinist states of Russia and eastern Europe and, in Britain, Blair’s transmutation of Labour from a party, described by the authors as “clearly seen to represent the working class”, into the definitively capitalist New Labour.

Then, after the 2008-09 crash, the ‘volatility index’ passed 30%, so that of those who voted in the 2010, 2015 and 2017 elections, only 51% voted for the same party each time. What is clear is that there will be no return to the stable party loyalties of the 1960s.

These are conclusions, however, that the reader has to draw from the data in the book not from the authors’ analysis.

This, unfortunately, is full of banal tautologies like “partisan de-alignment” (weakening party loyalties) is a “more general phenomenon of generational change”. But why were generations in the 1960s ‘partisan’ and today’s generations not?

Central is their laboured theory of ‘electoral shocks’ – “an abrupt change to the status quo” – rather than “overarching” causal explanations of voter volatility.

But then, while they include the impact of the Liberal Democrats’ participation in a coalition government with the Conservatives from 2010 to 2015, they exclude Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party as a system ‘shock’ because they deem it “part and parcel of normal party politics and of the regular shifts in policy and political representation that entails”! 

Margaret Thatcher was far more perceptive in claiming as her greatest achievement the reconstitution of Labour as New Labour – which Corbyn’s leadership threatened to overturn, challenging a two-decade long political order.

Moreover, the victory of New Labour became a driver of the international trend for the transformation of the former social-democratic parties and their subsequent diminished electoral base.

The authors’ ‘theory’ – and certainly not the travails of the Liberal Democrats! – does not come anywhere near to explaining the global phenomena of ‘volatile voting’, compared to factors like the end of the post-war boom, the collapse of Stalinism, the ‘bourgeoisfication’ of the former workers’ parties, unleashed capitalist globalisation, and the 2008-09 crash.

The New Labour era in Britain was marked by rising abstentionism predominately among the working class, with Blair losing 3.97 million votes from 1997 to 2005 while turnout fell by 4.1 million – the mass disenchantment of ‘volatile non-voters’ as much as voters. This feature doesn’t register at all in the book.

Yet the whole electorate needs to be looked at to really measure electoral trends – the biggest group in December 2019, as in all elections since 1997, were non-voters, 15.7 million this time.

In that context it is significant that, in 2017, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn attracted a bigger share of the total registered electorate (27.4%) since 1979 than it had in any previous election, excepting 1997.

In other words, more than Labour achieved under Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock (twice), Tony Blair (on two occasions), Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband.

That gave a glimpse of what is possible.

The task facing the workers’ movement as Corbyn steps down is not to ‘ditch Corbynism’, but to adopt a clearer socialist programme and the necessary organisational forms – a new workers’ party if that is what is required – to seize the new opportunities that will arise in the age of capitalist volatility we are living through.