The article deals first with the fortunes of the Labour Party, and by extension the parties as a whole, during the period since the 2010 election, noting the relatively gradual changes that have taken place during the parliament leading to a surprisingly radical reconfiguration of the party system and the strategic opportunities for Labour and the other parties. It is unlikely that parties can form stable coalitions of support sufficient to win majorities of the sort that underpinned the Thatcher and Blair eras, and therefore probable that the politics of the 1970s--small majorities, frequent changes of government and heavy external constraints on policy--are more relevant to the current situation than the period between the consolidation of Thatcherism in 1982 and the financial crisis of 2008.
Trends in public support for Labour 2010-14
Despite the frequent claim that the electorate is more volatile than ever before, the movements in public opinion during this parliament have been impressively gradual for the most part. The gyrations that took place in the polls during many previous parliaments over fairly short periods have not happened since 2010. Instead, there have been some slow and mostly explicable transfers of support.
The decision of the Liberal Democrats to join the Coalition with the Conservatives, and their abrupt policy shifts on the economy and taxation, as well as their signature 'betrayal' on tuition fees, gifted a left-leaning section of the electorate to Labour. By the end of 2010, Labour was back in contention.
A period of fairly close competition between Labour and the Conservatives followed. Labour's local election performance in 2011 was adequate rather than impressive, with a strong swing in metropolitan areas of the north contrasting with good Conservative performances in the south and in smaller towns, and the SNP landslide in Scotland. This period lasted from late 2010 until the 'omnishambles' budget in March 2012 when there was a pronounced swing to Labour.
Labour enjoyed a period of dominance that lasted into 2013, although support for UKIP was creeping up in the polls. Labour achieved its best local elections and by-elections in this period; the May 2012 local elections were a Labour landslide in some marginal areas such as Dudley, with the London mayoral result being the only major setback; marginal Corby followed in a November by-election.
The swings to Labour in by-elections dropped from the start of 2013 onwards, and in the county council elections in May Labour's performance was notably worse than in 2012 in comparable areas as UKIP ate into the anti-government vote, followed later in 2014 by advances for the SNP and the Greens. The year 2014 ended with Labour enjoying--if that be the word--a slight lead in an unpopularity contest, with both parties being somewhere around 30-33 per cent.
Although by-election swing is a rough and ready indicator, complicated by the irregular sample of seats that are affected and the particular conditions of each campaign, the data does illustrate the stalling of Labour's momentum at the beginning of 2013. The following chart shows the swing since the 2005 election (not 2010) to illustrate the extent of change since Labour last won a general election. The swing figure is that between Labour and Conservative, stretching the use of 'swing' a bit because only four of the 21 by-elections this parliament (two of them in Northern Ireland) have seen the big parties both place first and second. Labour were racking up respectable swings to the party in nearly all contests between the start of 2011 and late 2012, but since then the swing has been weak or towards the Conservatives.
Chart 2: Con to Lab swing since 2005 in by-elections during the 2010 Parliament Oldham East & Saddleworth 2.4% Barnsley Central 4.8% Leicester South 10.6% Inverclyde 1.7% Feltham & Heston 3.7% Bradford West 4.2% Manchester Central 7.8% Cardiff South & Penarth 2.4% Corby 9.4% Croydon North 8.3% Middlesbrough 7.6% Rotherham -2.3% Eastleigh 0.3% South Shields -2.1% Wythenshawe & Sale E 5.5% Newark -2.5% Clacton -3.0% Heywood & Middleton 1.0% Rochester & Strood -8.5% Note: Table made from bar graph. Local election performances also illustrate the point. The pattern of local elections has become increasingly complicated and differentiated by region and level of urbanisation, but the results in Ipswich, a town lying close to the demographic average where both Labour and Conservative have traditionally been well-organised, are indicative.
In the year and a half after March 2012 it was possible to write optimistically about Labour's prospects of assembling a coalition of support that would be...