Wow, what a surprising night. Going into the election results last night I expected what most people were expecting: the Conservatives to win the most votes, up a handful over Labour, but unable to form a government; and Labour and Ed Miliband limping into power on the back of a shaky supply and confidence agreement with the SNP.
Which would have been a disaster, regardless of what you think of Labour, Ed Miliband and the SNP, because it would not have been a stable government: every single vote in the House of Commons would have been subject to such horse trading that in this increasingly hyper-partisan world the only measures which would be able of mustering a majority would be precisely those bills which were so short-term and pandering that they should never have seen the light of day. What a relief, then, that instead we have a Conservative majority government.
Alongside the result, there are three main stories to emerge from last night’s results: the triumph of the SNP, the over-performance of the Conservatives and the destruction of the Liberal Democrats. Labour’s losses are not actually very surprising, given the rise of the SNP, the unpopularity of Ed Miliband and the party’s inability to say anything positive (you don’t get people to change from the status quo when the economy is doing reasonably well without selling an attractive alternative). So we will leave Labour to the side, and consider the other three stories in turn, starting with the Lib Dems.
Collapse of the Liberal Democrats
In the last election, the Lib Dems had 56 MPs; this morning they have 8. That is an 85% decrease (although not quite as big as the swing to the SNP in Scotland) and could very well be a mortal blow to the party (by descent) of Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd George. How did it all go wrong?
There is no question that Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats took a beating for being in a coalition with the Tories, who still have a reputation amongst many Brits as snatchers of babies and killers of kittens.
But the fundamental problem for the Liberal Democrats is that they completely misunderstood their role in the British political system. They thought of themselves as the “thinking voter’s” alternative to Labour (an attitude which can’t have endeared them to many Labour supporters), but in fact they had become the party of middle class voters who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for either main party: the self-employed plumber who doesn’t like unions but won’t vote for a bunch of toffs; the aspirational middle-class parents who could never admit to voting Tory but don’t much like the Labour party, either.
If those are the type of people who voted Lib Dem, then you would expect a majority of Lib Dem voters to actually have been closet Conservatives. And sure enough, that’s what we saw last night.
In seat after seat in the north of England, voters who had previously voted Lib Dem voted, not for Labour out of disgust with the coalition, but for the conservative, anti-EU, anti-immigration UKIP. And throughout England, the Lib Dems lost twice as many seats to the Tories as to Labour.
There were two reasons for this. In the run-up to the last election, two of the Lib Dems’ flagship policies were lowering university tuition fees and increasing the tax-free allowance. Both of these policies were subsidies for the middle class: for parents who can just about afford to send their kids to university but for whom it is a serious hardship, or for working families who will notice an extra few hundred pounds of take-home income.
But the Lib Dems abandoned the former and allowed the Conservatives to co-opt the latter. And then, rather than doubling down and advocating for policies which would help Lib Dem voters, they spent the next four years distancing themselves from the Conservatives and, in the process, losing any credit they might have had for programs like Help to Buy or transferrable tax allowances for married couples that would have appealed to their base.
The final nail in the coffin was the decision, during the election, to cast doubt on the possibility of a renewed coalition. Remember, a good proportion of Lib Dem voters were actually closet Conservatives, and because of the nature of being a third party, Lib Dem seats were more personality-driven than many constituencies: locals knew (and often liked) their Lib Dem MP and continued to vote him or her despite, at heart, supporting a different party.
But what happens if you’re a closet Tory and your Lib Dem MP says he or she will help put Ed Miliband in Number 10? You vote Conservative. That’s what happened in every single one of the 27 seats they lost to the Conservatives.
The collapse of the Lib Dems in the north has a slightly different, but related, cause. Anyone who votes for a party other than Labour in the northeast must really not like Labour, such is the social pressure to tick red. Such a person is probably conservative, again, but the thought of voting for the heirs of Thatcher is anathema. So, they’ve been voting Lib Dem, with little consequence. But what happens if your conservative protest party spends four years trying to convince you that they’re basically Labour with a friendlier rosette? You look elsewhere for someone to represent your opposition: enter UKIP.
Over-performance of the Conservatives
As this analysis of the Lib Dem collapse shows, fear was a big motivator in this election: in particular, fear of Ed Miliband and the SNP. The Conservatives worked out how to harness that fear in the closing days of the campaign, and the vast body of undecideds broke decisively in their favour.
The magnitude of that shift was impressive and unexpected, and Cameron and the Conservative campaign team deserve a lot of credit for winning the election. That said, there are many reasons not to get too complacent, or to read too much triumphalism into the result.
In the first place, today’s result was in many ways not so much a Conservative victory as a Labour loss. Cameron could not have had a weaker opponent. The Tories won largely based on the electorate’s fear of Ed Miliband and the SNP; hardly the basis for a conservative mandate.
Furthermore, the inaccuracy of the polls in the run up to the election indicates that the “shy Tory” phenomenon is live and well; people are still embarrassed to admit that they have voted for the Conservatives, so ingrained is it in popular society that the Tories are heartless, self-serving toffs. Nevermind that it was hardly compassionate to keep people working daily in conditions hazardous to health and life mining coal long after it had ceased to be economically viable. Nevermind that twice in the last 30 years the Conservatives have rescued the UK from the economic ruin brought on by Labour profligacy.
The Tories need to address their image problem, but decent people in all parties and the media need to recognise that it is unfair and ultimately offensive to an electorate that returns a majority Conservative government to say that no one with any compassion would ever consider voting for the Tories. All parties have scoundrels; equally, all parties have members who devote themselves tirelessly to what they believe will better the commonweal. All things might be fair in love and politics, but the demonisation of the Tories is damaging to public polity and is both a symptom and a cause of politicians being held in such disrepute.
In any event, Cameron will have to work out how to govern in circumstances where he lacks a strong mandate and a large proportion of the population continues to nurse an irrational hatred of his party.
Cameron will also have to negotiate some sort of constitutional settlement with Scotland and then, again, with the EU. So far, he has had a lot of luck at the right moments: winning the Conservative leadership election, becoming Prime Minister by the skin of his teeth five years ago, and pulling a rabbit out the hat last night. But he has not shown himself to be a very able strategist on Europe or devolution, having completely bungled the Scottish referendum and a number of previous attempts to assert Britain’s interests in the EU. Will he have learned enough from past mistakes to steer the UK through the tumultuous next few years? Let’s hope so.
Triumph of the SNP
Perhaps the most immediate crisis facing Cameron and the new government is what to do about Scotland. The triumph of the SNP in Scotland has reopened the question of independence, and has in many ways posed the question in a much more trenchant way for the rest of the UK.
The SNP won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats. Unlike previous Parliaments, where Scottish MPs were part of national parties and so could legitimately vote on issues which did not directly affect Scotland, the Scots are now almost entirely represented by a party that is only interested in what it can get for those north of the border.
That may be a great deal for the Scots, but it’s not so good for the English, Welsh or Northern Irish. The SNP won 56 seats (8.6% of the total) off the back of 1.45 million votes, or 4.7% of votes cast. By contrast, UKIP won 1 seat (0.15%) after receiving 3.9 million votes (12.6%), mostly in England.
The problem is not with the number of Scottish MPs, which is roughly proportionate to the Scottish population, but with the fact that a single, nationalist party with no tie to any other part of the UK now wields such a disproportionate influence over the politics of the UK as a whole; that the Scots have chosen to cut themselves off from the politics of the UK as a nation and impose self-serving, parochial nationalism on the rest of the country.
There is a real danger that such a situation is fundamentally untenable. If the Scots refuse to engage with the rest of the UK by electing MPs who are part of national parties then the Union is already severed, politically if not in law.
If resentment towards this situation grows in other parts of the UK, there is no easy solution. English votes for English laws only works if the party with the most English MPs is also the party in government, which will often not be the case. And devolving power to an English assembly would require hiving off control over 90% of the Civil Service to an English executive, not something that MPs or Prime Ministers are likely to support.
We can hope either that the SNP does take a broader view of the national interest than the interest of Scots (narrowly defined), or that the Scots quickly become disenchanted with the new settlement. And make no mistake, the national parties deserve plenty of blame for letting the situation deteriorate to this point. But it is still troubling that the question of Scotland’s place in the Union remains unsettled and will, for the first time, have a major, direct effect on Westminster politics.
So, after an election night to remember, the question remains: is this Churchill’s end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end? Cameron’s legacy will depend on it.