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Charting a shifting political landscape

Few predicted the overall majority that would return the Conservatives to power at the 2015 general election. Since then the Labour Party has been coming to terms with the defeat, with a new leader now at the helm. But what was really behind the shift in Britain’s political landscape?

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Labour’s election failure: a post-mortem

On 8 May 2015 a new chapter was written in British politics. An outright Tory government, a purged Liberal Democrat party and an Opposition left reeling by a question that confounded the nation’s leading political pundits in the months that followed: what went so wrong for Labour?

The University offers an unparalleled insight into some of the biggest questions facing – and shaping – national politics, and this was reflected by the media profile of our experts on election night. We’re also home to the 2015 British Election Study (BES), one of the world’s longest-running investigations into political attitudes and voting behaviour, and this work has fed into the process of lesson-learning for Labour.

Infographic - 6 reasons why Labout lost the 2015 General election


But two reasons most commonly cited by politicians and journalists as to why Labour lost are probably red herrings, says Professor Green.

“Much was said about the threat of the SNP and how Labour might deal with them if it were in a position to form a government,” she explains. “But we find little evidence so far that expectations of SNP influence contributed to the Conservatives’ victory.” The second is perhaps more surprising: their analysis suggests there is very little to the argument that Labour was too left wing to attract voters. Yet, at the same time, there is no evidence to support the argument that Labour was not left wing enough either. “Voters would back Labour whether it was seen as a party on the far left, or just to the left of centre. But whatever Labour’s left-right position, it was unlikely to win in 2015,” she continues.

“However, our analysis should not be interpreted as meaning that Labour should be more left wing.

“Although we argue that perceptions of the economy were very important, we don’t yet know if a party can be viewed both as strongly left wing and economically competent, and indeed if this is possible under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.

“In our opinion, Labour needs to give working-class, left-of-centre voters a reason to vote for the party again and the party needs to win support at the centre. It should resist choosing one over the other.”

Unique insight

BES data has long been an invaluable resource to civil servants, scholars and journalists, and allows anyone to uniquely study long-term trends in British voting behaviour. Having analysed every general election since 1964, the BES does a very different job to opinion-polling companies, important though they are. Whereas a poll gives a snapshot of public opinion, the BES reveals more depth of understanding about our political attitudes and why we form them over the long-term.

In 2012 the Economic and Social Research Council, which funds the BES, awarded the 2015 study to a consortium led by The University of Manchester in collaboration with Oxford and Nottingham.

Manchester’s Professor Ed Fieldhouse, one of the co-directors of the BES, explains: “Over the years the BES has made a huge impact on how we understand political attitudes. As one of the most important studies of electoral behaviour in the world, having the BES at Manchester is a great reflection of the strength of electoral politics at the University.

“In our opinion, Labour needs to give working-class, left-of-centre voters a reason to vote for the party again and the party needs to win support at the centre. It should resist choosing one over the other.”

“Because of the rapid changes in our party system and electoral behaviour, it’s an exciting and important time to be running the study, and it puts us at the heart of crucial debates such as Britain’s EU membership, Scottish independence and the decline of the two-party system.”

The BES has provided understanding of the transformation in political attitudes that has swept across Britain over the past decade, casting much-needed light on the rise of the challenger parties such as UKIP, the Greens and the SNP.

“If you go all the way back to 1964, the first BES survey found that 90% of its sample identified with a party and a huge majority of these said they felt ‘strongly’ or ‘fairly strongly’ Conservative, Labour, or Liberal. But by 2005, that figure fell to below 20%,” Professor Fieldhouse observes.

“It’s a stark portrayal of how British political attitudes have changed so much over the years. Only the BES is uniquely placed to explain how and why. And that, in a nutshell, explains why it’s the most important study of electoral behaviour in the UK and beyond.”

For more information visit: Twitter: @BESResearch

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