Three waves of political mobilisation: the SNP, Brexit, and Labour

Matthew Goodwin is probably in hiding from people demanding that he eats a book, but I can’t help but notice that he massively buries the lede in this paper on the elections. In table 1, his multivariate regression for the change in turnout, Model 3, has the following result.

What leaps out at you there? Like…a leopard, about to rip your face off? Well, I’d say it would be the result marked as significant at the p=0.005 level, with a whopping coefficient of -8.13, vastly greater than anything else. The coefficient for age is 0.03. That for % non-white is 0.04, even if it does pass the significance test with a wet sail. Weirdly, Goodwin and Heath don’t discuss it at all. Because Scotland.

To better understand the factors that influenced support for the two main parties, we restrict our analysis to England and Wales, as a rather different set of factors are relevant for understanding electoral competition in Scotland, where the SNP are dominant and divisions over Scottish Independence are more salient

But why would you do that? The data is telling us that a constituency’s being in Scotland was very strongly predictive of lower turnout. No fewer than 21 constituencies changed hands in Scotland, in the context of a parliament where the government majority is 10 even with the DUP. As Faisal Islam was saying earlier today, seven Tory (or DUP) rebels are enough to flip any vote. The SNP lost three times that many. This is a big deal.

So the very high turnouts recorded in Scotland in 2014 and 2015 are reverting towards the mean. The conclusion I draw from this is that the wave of SNP enthusiasm and mobilisation of 2014-2015 is ebbing away. People are looking at their cybernat tweets from last night and reaching for the aspirin. More broadly, there have been three great waves of political enthusiasm in Britain in three years. The SNP had its surge of enthusiasm in 2014-2015. Brexit had its surge in 2016. Labour’s is running at the flood now. Does this mean that they are just surface phenomena that will blow away? I think not.

The SNP lost seats, but the 2014 surge gave them hegemony at Holyrood and a very substantial delegation at Westminster, all of which they still have. The Brexit surge felled the prime minister and a hatful of cabinet ministers and ushered in the great crisis of 2016, and we still have no idea where it will take us. The Labour surge has reduced the Maybot from a killer drone to more of a captive target, and we might not yet have seen its limits – not least because Scotland is no longer ruled out as competitive territory.

I recently learned that my own CLP has gained another 200 members since the general election, in about a month. We entered the 2015 election campaign with just under 600 members. We finished it – remember, this is before Corbyn was a thing – with 900 and flooded the streets to the extent we couldn’t keep from knocking up the same voters three times. Then the second stage of the rocket ignited. At the time of the EU referendum, my ward had more Labour members in standing than it had Conservative voters. By election night 2017 we had 3,300 members and we’ve pushed through 3,500 by now. The average growth rate is of the order of 112 members a month, and we’re running at twice that.

If we forgot about arguing back and forwards about who’s a slug and whatever, if we forgot temporarily about party leaders, we would have to accept that this mobilisation is a massive phenomenon in itself. If you had asked me why I was optimistic, and therefore wrong, about 2015 I would have said “Membership”. If you had asked me why I was pessimistic and therefore wrong about 2017, I would have said “Well, I hoped the mobilisation would do it last time.” And then it…did it. Labour is on the way back to the mountainous mass memberships of the 1940s and 1950s, and well, nobody else seems to be, or even trying to be. British political parties operated into the 2000s on the legacy of the postwar mobilisation – the trades halls and Winston Churchill Houses, the networks of influence, the habits of activism.

I would like to see a real discussion of this phenomenon, which rejects not just the conventional wisdom of post-1979 but that of post-1959. Two-party mass politics and mass activism has been officially passé for fifty years, but heeeere’s Johnny! Sorry. Jerry. And we might start by asking how much of the SNP surge of 2014-2015 will last now the excitement has passed. We might also observe that the Brexit surge has not left much that will endure, with UKIP on 5% in the polls, skint, and unable to scrape a demo together.


  1. Metatone

    Labour is faced with the same question that Pat Kane & others have been asking of the SNP for a while – what institutions are you creating for ordinary people to be a part of, to sustain their engagement?

    Possibility of another election means that the “keep on campaigning and doorknocking” answer suffices for now, but I do think some more answers will be needed.

  2. Phil

    My own local party’s holding a social for new members, where ‘new’ is defined as ‘since March 2017’. I’m feeling quite the veteran, having joined way back in September 2015. It’s getting to the point where we won’t need to campaign in council elections – if every party member votes Labour we’ll be pretty much there.

    As you say yourself, though, the waves that should have profited UKIP and the SNP have ebbed away – what’s to stop the Labour tide going out just as quickly? Perhaps only a disappointing performance in government will do the trick. So that’s something to look forward to.

    • yorksranter

      There’s an interesting difference, though – the SNP wave may be ebbing but it’s carried the SNP…far up the beach (like a landing craft over a reef, not a dead whale) while the Brexit one seems to have left neither UKIP nor the Tories any stronger in the long run.

      • Marwood Lennox

        Yes, but the Brexit surge has given us Brexit, which is still happening. And that mobilization imo has to date back to at least the 2010 with UKIP and BNP maintaining large numbers of deposits. Actually, the hard right mobilization against Blairism has since 23rd June 2016 seems much more important than it did at the time.

        Similarly for Labour, any discussion of this should mention the Green Surge of 2015, where that party quintupled in their vote. And like UKIP, it has two years later essentially disintegrated with only Caroline Lucas left. Only ten iirc deposits saved after running over 450 candidates.

        • John Styles

          The Greens is tactical voting surely? Anti-Tory and anti-Brexit – you don’t tactically vote if you don’t feel you have the luxury.

          • Marwood Lennox

            Sure. But why did they not do the same in 2015? That is the important point. It’s not as if the Greens were all that credible in that election either, despite their vote surge.

          • Chris Williams

            The Green/Red voters in 2015 voted Green because they couldn’t see the point of Millibandism: Labour had gone so far to the right, what was the point? In 2017 800,000 of them went ?back (many quite young) to Labour because Corbynism was close enough to their values that they were _positively_ invested in it, although many of them in theory still preferred Green policies in the abstract. But it is FPTP and these people are clever.

            GPEW were left with its second highest vote ever (500k is much better than 2010’s 280k), though don’t forget that GPS didn’t hardly stand this time round. The key to GP support in the UK is that about 10% will vote for us if they think it won’t be wasted, but they are smart enough to realise that most of the time it will be.

            Also, thanks to the remains of our own mass mobilisation we did it (it seems) without going into debt, which is actually a first. But yeah, those deposits – I handed five of them over myself, not expecting to see any again, and lo! it came to pass that I didn’t.

            By standing the maximum number of candidates in Leics we stemmed the local rot though — down from 13k to 11k — so I’m still happy. And I learned how to be an election agent, which is fun upskilling.

          • Phil

            don’t forget that GPS didn’t hardly stand this time round

            What’s that about? When they went pro-indie I thought it was a smart move – getting in on the ground floor of the post-independence political spectrum, which presumably wo(uld)n’t have much room for unionist parties – but it doesn’t seem to have developed to their advantage.

  3. Thomas Lumley

    0.04 per percentage point non-white isn’t nothing. 20 percentage points difference in non-white (eg Bradford East vs Leeds Central) gets you the same difference as Scotland vs not-Scotland.

    Also, I’m pretty sure the Scotland coefficient not adjusted for % Leave is more relevant. That is, if you think (and I agree) that Scotland is an important factor, the low Leave vote in Scotland would be a consequence, not a cause, of Scotlandness. Thus, the ‘real’ Scotland effect is better estimated by not adjusting for % Leave, and it’s the same size as 10 percentage points difference in ‘nonwhite’

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