Most the commentariate – as usual – focuses on seats delivered by the elections, and not the actual votes cast. Even those who support voting reform (e.g. Polly Toynbee in The Guardian) continue to use seats, as a proxy for actual support, as the main basis for their analysis.
The biggest historical fallacy in British politics was generated by this sort of thinking: that the post-war Labour government ran out of steam, and was defeated by the Tories as the “affluent society” took off in 1951. Actually, Labour won the popular vote in 1951 with a far larger share than they got in the “landslide” of 1945.
There are several examples in the 2011 elections of similar misconceptions – e.g. the SNP has smashed Labour in their Scottish heartlands. Actually, the Labour share of the vote in Scotland was almost exactly the same as at the General Election last year and actually increased in some of the places they lost to SNP. What changed was the complete collapse of the LD vote and its transfer to the SNP (incidentally the same thing happened in 1951, with the Liberal vote collapsing and in that case going over wholesale to the Tories).
The reality is that Labour are overall on 37%, up by 8% since last May, the Tories down from 36% to 35%, and the LDs down from 23% to 15% (-8%). So there has been a big swing from LDs to Labour. In a General Election Labour would win a 40 seat majority on these results. And on past form, many of the SNP and SNP-borrowed LD votes in Scotland would go to Labour in a GE.
The results of May 2011 will undoubtedly feed speculation about an early General Election, with Tory commentators already calling on Cameron to ‘cut and run’. On these figures, and the current electoral boundaries, that would be a big gamble. Cameron will only take it if the polls start to look better and/or they can foresee major problems that mean their “sunny uplands” of 2015 aren’t going to materialise. And of course, it may not be his choice if the LDs implode, which is entirely possible after these elections and the AV debacle.
Returning to Polly Toynbee who asks “is this the start of a Tory hegemony”? The answer is simple, on these figures – no. Even with the forthcoming manipulation of the electoral system and the defeat of AV, with only about a third of the vote the Tories will struggle to ever rule alone again, as will Labour. Ironically, one of the killer arguments used against AV – that it will lead to permanent coalitions – may be with us anyway.
Polly does make one intriguing suggestion – that Labour should embrace open primaries as a way of building a new progressive alliance. That would be one way of fundamentally changing the electoral system which doesn’t need legislation. Interesting.