The day of a general election in Britain is a crucial part of the political calendar. There have been 21 such days since 1945. All election days since 1945 have been held on a Thursday. Six have been held in May, five in June, four in October, two in February, and one in July, March April and December. The day of a general election does not happen very often. Since 1945, there have been, on average, one every three and a half years or one in every 1,300 days. The election day is even only a small part of the electoral cycle which starts with the dissolution of Parliament followed by the launch of the party manifestos and around three weeks of hustings.
Nevertheless, the election day is important, and not just because at the end of it (or, to be more accurate, the morning after) the result is known and a new government installed. Rather, elections reflect the state of public opinion which is itself the product of wider social, economic and political forces.
Sometimes, election days merely denote more of the same. In the 1950s, the Conservatives won three consecutive elections (under Churchill, Eden and Macmillan) repeating their ousting of Labour in 1951 with further successes in 1955 and 1959. Some pontificated at the time that Labour would never win again. This was not, however, because the electorate had rejected the mixed economy and welfare state created by Attlee’s 1945-50 Labour Government. On the contrary, the Tories won precisely because the new economic settlement seemed to work and, not surprisingly, they accepted it lock, stock and barrel, thereby establishing a post-war consensus that lasted until the 1970s. Similarly, victories by the Thatcher-led Conservatives in 1983 and 1987 confirmed the widespread rejection of the post-war consensus that first became apparent in the election of 1979. Despite an improved performance by Labour in 1992, the Conservatives won their fourth consecutive election under John Major in 1992.
Most post-war elections have produced an overall majority for one party (either Labour or Conservative). Occasionally, election days produce an indeterminate outcome. Since 1945, this has happened three times. In February 1974, Labour failed to overturn Heath’s Conservative majority and Wilson was returned to Downing Street to preside over a minority government until October when another election produced a small majority for Labour. The second time it happened was closer to our own time in 2010 when Cameron’s Conservatives formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats before five years later winning an overall majority. Finally, in 2017, Theresa May miscalculated, hoping to increase the majority won by Cameron two year’s earlier but ending up falling short of an overall majority.
At other times, election days seem to reflect significant change a turning-point in the political life of the nation. Labour’s victory in 1997, and the arrival of Tony Blair in Downing Street, might be regarded in this light, as the defeat of Thatcherism and the heralding of a new era of centre-left politics. 1997 was certainly noteworthy for ending 18 years of Tory rule. However, as with the Conservative victory in 1951, the Labour landslide in 1997 was to a large extent the product of the party’s acceptance of key parts of Thatcher’s economic liberalism. A key symbol of this was the decision of the party to remove the clause in its own constitution – present since 1918 – committing Labour to the public ownership of the economy.
The two elections which represented genuine ideological change occurred in 1945 and 1979. They formed brackets around the post-war consensus. At one end, the 1945 election resulted – much to the surprise of many who thought the Conservatives would be rewarded for Churchill’s war-time leadership – in the election of the first majority Labour Government. It was retrospectively apparent that many voters were not focusing on the War so much as the privations and economic crises of the 1930s. What the War effort did reveal was the capacity of the state to regulate the economy and society effectively. It was natural, then, for people to want that to continue in the post-war world, to ensure economic security, health and education. Seen in this context, a Labour Government was, for many, the only option. After all, it was not that Labour had been invisible during the War or even opposed to it. Rather, Labour Ministers served in the war-time Coalition Government with, most conspicuously, Clement Attlee earning Churchill’s respect as Deputy Prime Minister.
The end of the bracketed post-war period was confirmed by the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives in 1979. This election was the culmination of a decade of more of economic crisis and dislocation under the Conservative Government led by Heath and the Labour Governments led by Wilson and then Callaghan. Thatcher’s offer of an alternative – free-market – approach, mixed with a social conservatism seen as an antidote to the more permissive 1960s and 1970s, was made at the right time and the right place. The post-war consensus was dead.
Whether or not the most recent election day – in December 2019 – was similarly significant is a moot point. For some, the unpopularity of Brexit and Corbyn – factors that will soon disappear – was the key determinant of the Conservative victory. For others, the ability of the Tories to defeat incumbent MPs in Labour’s heartland – the so-called ‘red wall’ – was what won it for Boris? Could this be the beginning of a new political realignment that seriously inhibits Labour’s future chances?
It is clear that the appeal of Brexit, the unpopularity of Corbyn, and the Conservative victories in many of Labour’s heartland seats are inextricably linked. Johnson appealed, unlike Corbyn, to the wider value system of a substantial swathe of working class voters outside of the metropolis. Johnson won because he was able to position the Conservatives in such a way as to appeal to a substantial portion of disillusioned former Labour voters in Britain’s towns in the Midlands and the North without losing too many traditional Tory voters in the South.
It was often pointed out during the campaign that individual parts of Labour’s programme – nationalisation, higher public spending particularly on the NHS, and higher taxes for the best-off – were popular. This perception was largely correct but it was offset by two factors. One is that Labour were not, as they were in the 1980s, competing against a Conservative Party extolling the virtues of the free market and the limited state. The second, and key, factor, was that the popularity of Labour’s left of centre economic policy was more than offset by the unpopularity – amongst key Labour voters at least – of Labour’s perceived social liberalism.
There is no doubt that Labour – along with many parties of the left in developed economies – has been infected by a particular kind of identity politics. This left-leaning politics of difference is a cultural movement based on a demand for recognition and respect by particular groups of people centred on their race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. The perception of this new left-wing progressivism is that liberal societies promote the interests and values of dominant groups (whites, men and the economically well-off) and undermine and marginalise other groups who are regarded as inferior and less valuable. As a result, identity politics is about redressing negative perceptions by reasserting the value and dignity of the particular oppressed group.
The problem for Labour is that this version of identity politics – whilst strongly supported by sections of society, particularly in the large urban cities – is despised by many erstwhile Labour voters in non-metropolitan areas of the Midlands and the North. Such voters are attracted to notions of the nation and patriotism that Labour no longer seems to embody.
Whether or not the 2019 election represents a genuine realignment is, of course, too early to say. A Labour Party led by a more consensual politician who resists the identity politics lobby may still yet drag the party back from its present parlous state. Likewise, the Conservatives may be unable to deliver the economic benefits that Labour’s former heartlands will demand.
A few more election days will have elapsed before we know for sure whether 2019 was as significant as 1945 and 1979.