The first step in making sense of this disaster for the left is to work out what happened. Understanding why the pollsters and everyone else misread the voters of English and Wales so badly will help us to work out what we’re going to do next.
First up, the polls didn’t get everything wrong. The scores for the SNP, UKIP, Lib-Dems, Greens and Plaid were more or less bang on. They correctly predicted the SNP landslide and Labour wipe-out in Scotland, even if no one quite believed it. But the polls got the Labour and Tory vote shares badly wrong, even if these were (just about) at the limit of the margins of error. And seat projections based on the polls totally failed to predict the extent of Liberal Democrat losses, especially to the Tories, or how the UKIP vote would hurt Labour so badly by stopping the party from picking up many key marginals from the Conservatives (and significantly reducing its overall vote share).
This last point is particularly important for Labour to get to grips with. It looks to me like we have vastly underestimated the loss of Labour and potential-Labour voters to UKIP over the last couple of years. These voters were probably telling pollsters they were undecided (which may have been true at the time they were asked, although the existence of “shy UKIP” voters seems plausible to me). I suspect many of these people were floating around between voting Labour (with little enthusiasm), UKIP, some other fringe party or not voting at all. Where UKIP seemed to be doing well, they went over to UKIP because Farage engaged them and Ed Miliband didn’t.
This would certainly explain UKIP’s unexpected surge to come within a whisker of nicking Heywood and Middleton from Labour in last year’s by-election. This, with hindsight, was much more of a straw in the wind than Rochester or Clacton. It might also explain the unexpectedly good showing on Thursday by UKIP in some Labour heartland seats, particularly in the north and east of England.
These voters – mostly working class, white and in insecure low-paid employment, have a disaffection from Labour stretching back into the Brown/Blair days. They have little stake in the system and so are easy prey for UKIP. They’re not worried by Farage’s clowning around or UKIP’s incoherent policies, because they think the political system’s broken anyway. They’re receptive to the idea that the EU and mass immigration are at least plausible explanations for their problems. Yes, some are probably racist, some are at least prejudiced. Most feel uneasy and insecure, and can’t see anyone else offering much by way of solutions. Reading James Meek’s excellent accounts of his forays into “Farageland” in Grimsby and Kent, could have told us much more than looking at the polls (warning: these essays are long but hard to put down).
My guess is we will find that a lot of these voters, alarmed by the SNP scare but unable to bring themselves to vote Tory, plumped for UKIP over the last couple of weeks. They were probably showing up in the polls as “undecided” or “weak Labour”. UKIP performed in line with the polls, so my guess is these “left-wing” Ukippers were offset by “right-wing” Ukippers (mostly ex-Tories) backing the Conservatives in order to avoid splitting the right-wing vote and letting in the Red-Tartan menace.
It’s important to remember that these ex-core Labour voters exist in every constituency, not just in Labour heartlands (yes, there are even some working class people in Surrey). There are certainly quite a lot of them in Tory-Labour marginals. In quite a few seats, they might have made the difference between Labour taking the seat from the Tories and falling a few hundred or a few thousand short (as happened all over the place). This would certainly explain why the UKIP vote was higher than expected in many key marginals but didn’t seem to hurt the Tories much. And for every one of these ex-Labour voters who voted UKIP, there are probably another two or three who felt the same but just stayed at home.
Labour really needs to get this before it plunges into the usual tug-of-war over whether it lost because it was “too right wing” or “too left wing”. For these voters, it was both. For what it’s worth, my view is that Labour lost because it was both not credible and not convincing. On the right, for middle ground voters, Labour’s economic programme wasn’t credible and the two Eds were not seen as credible alternatives to Cameron and Osborne. At the same time, on the left, it failed to convince working class voters who are seriously alienated from the political system (and from civic life generally) that it was going to do anything worthwhile for them.
Like Britpop nostalgists, Old Blairites like Peter Mandelson want to rehash all the old tunes from the 1990s, as if we still live in the comforting world of the old two party system (and they call themselves modernisers!) Putting all your energy into chasing after “soft” Tories doesn’t make much sense when there aren’t many of them (Cameron got 36% of the vote, John Major got 43% in 1992) and your core vote is slipping away faster than you can say Nick Robinson.
The idea that the millions of working class voters who voted for UKIP are really crying out for another Tony Blair is ridiculous. Yes, they may have voted for a nominally “right-wing” party, but their issues are ones left-wingers should have engraved on their hearts – jobs, housing, poverty, perpetual insecurity – as well as complex feelings about English identity and culture which are outside the conventional left-right framework. In the 1990s, these voters had no other choice than to vote Labour or stay at home. Now they do.