The new volatility in British politics

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There are now enough Labour leaders who have won a parliamentary majority to play a game of bridge, albeit only with the assistance of a Ouija board. Step forward Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and Keir Starmer.

For the third time in British political history, the Labour party has entered office with a smaller number of votes than it received while losing the previous election, just as it did in 1964 and February 1974. And for the fourth time in British political history, the Labour party has won a majority with lower overall turnout than in the previous election, just as in 1964, October 1974 and 1997.

All of this reflects some old and enduring truths in British politics.

First, what matters is not how many votes you get, but where you get them. Attlee is the only Labour leader to have won an election — that of 1945 — on a higher turnout and with more votes than the party got in the preceding elections, and even then the wartime circumstances were exceptional. He still received fewer votes than when his majority was all but wiped out in 1950 and then in subsequent defeats.

Second, there is a group of voters whose electoral preferences are essentially between voting Tory and not voting at all. When they are scared of the Labour party, they turn out to vote, as they did in record numbers in 1992. (John Major’s vote haul in that election is still highly unlikely to be bettered by a British political leader.) When they aren’t, they stay home.

But some things about Starmer’s victory reflect genuine changes in electoral conditions that weren’t the case for Attlee, Wilson or Blair. Nigel Farage’s Reform party, for example, gave former Tories a new way to abandon a Conservative government they thought needed to change, without having to stay at home or vote directly for Labour.

This is one reason why the Tories would be unwise to believe that winning the next election is as simple as bolting the votes Reform got on Thursday on to the Conservative pile. Without fixing some of the same things that caused voters to switch directly to Labour and the Liberal Democrats, no rightward shift on immigration or any other single issue is going to lure over enough Reform voters to win a majority.

Another is that voters in general are more volatile. One factor in Rishi Sunak getting fewer seats than Major did in 1997 is that he had a much worse administrative record. But the other is that voters are now more willing to shop around and more willing to vote for different parties.

That is part of why the relatively modest swing to Labour nationwide yielded a landslide that came close to equalling the one of 1997. One of the handful of seats that Labour won in 2019 but lost in 2024 exemplifies the trend: the seat now named Bristol Central has, in a relatively short amount of time, been represented by a Conservative, a Liberal Democrat, a Labour MP and now a Green. These shifts that once took the best part of a century have all taken place since 1992.

Two things underpin the new volatility, as is made clear in an essential book for understanding recent elections, Electoral Shocks: The Volatile Voter in a Turbulent World.

The first is the rise of smaller parties. Voters find it easier to jump from the Conservatives or Labour to these than they do to switch directly between the two biggest parties. But once they have made the leap to the Liberal Democrats, an independent, the Greens or Reform, they are more willing to shift to a different big party than the one they originally defected from. That’s part of why Labour strongholds went blue in 2019: voters first left Labour for Ukip, and then they switched to the Tories.

The second is the global financial crisis of 2008. The UK’s economic performance has never recovered from that blow, though other factors, such as austerity, Brexit, the pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine have also played their part. That means less money, which means less disposable income and lower tax receipts. That means voters are poorer and the public realm has to do more with less. That makes voters unhappy, and they then have more options they are willing to contemplate in response. All of that means bigger majorities, and larger swings in the political fortunes of the respective parties.

Taken together, this suggests that Labour is right to fear — and the Tories correct to hope — that if Starmer gets into trouble and the Conservatives make the right choices they can win again soon. But the Tories should be aware that increased volatility also means that if Labour succeeds in office and they make the wrong decisions, the next election could be even worse.

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