General election 2015

Election results: initial thoughts

The 2015 UK general election must rank as one of the most remarkable events in recent political history, largely because the polls got it so wrong. It is probably fair to say that no one – even the most optimistic among the Conservatives – would have expected these results, and no one would hve believed the exit polls revealed at 10 o’clock that turned out to be very prescient, and even underestimated the extent of the Conservative victory. How did the pollsters get it so wrong? It would be quite interesting to find out why, especially as there was no evidence of a surge towards the Conservatives in the last round of opinions polls: indeed, there was a tightening of the polls, with the Tory support ebbing slightly. Evidently people have changed or made up their minds on the polling day: I doubt people had lied to the pollsters en masse.

There are two clear winners in this election: the Conservatives and the SNP. For the Conservatives, conditions for victory in this election were more difficult, since the polls consistently predicted that their possible coalition partners or sources of support were more limited (the Liberal Democrats, the UUP, the DUP, and UKIP) compared to the expected numbers of the opposition parties lined up against them (Labour, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens), so even if they became the largest party, the sum of the opposition might have been insurmountably large. But to win an absolute majority was something unexpected, and people who placed a bet on that outcome have made a small fortune. The party not only cannibalized its erstwhile coalition partner the Liberal Democrats, it also won seats from Labour. It would be interesting to see how the Conservatives weave their narrative of victory. That narrative is important – not just the narrative of defeat for Labour – in order to sustain a government with a small majority and in giving clear contours as to what it intends to do.

The SNP has won 56 seats out of 59 in Scotland, leaving one seat each for Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats north of the border. The SNP candidates overturned huge majorities, and often winning seats with more than 50% share of the vote. It is truly remarkable. It has simply swept Labour away, the party of the likes of John Smith, Robin Cook, Donald Dewar, and Gordon Brown. With Labour and the Liberal Democrats likely to be engaged in leadership contests, and in case of the Liberal Democrats because of their diminished numbers, the only effective opposition at the beginning of the second Cameron term may be offered by Alex Salmond. He would certainly be equal to Mr Cameron. The SNP can keep on outflanking Labour by promoting progressive policies, play the opposition, and demand more from the central government, without being placed in a tricky position of deciding whether to offer life support to a minority Labour government or not, which it might have had to do had the outcome been different.

There are three losers: the Liberal Democrats, Labour, and arguably UKIP. The Liberal Democrats lost and lost very badly: the likes of Vince Cable, Danny Alexander, David Laws, Ed Davey, Jo Swinson, Charles Kennedy, and Simon Hughes have been toppled. The party paid the price for forming the coalition with the Conservatives, and they have lost both to the Conservatives and to Labour. The Liberal Democrat fortresses crumbled one after another. Having lost some of the recognizable heavyweights, a number of cabinet ministers, the party will have an uphill struggle to rebuild its fortunes. The Liberal Democrats’ political narrative was in the end not clear or distinctive enough: those who did not support the policies of the last five years punished the Liberal Democrats for their part in the coalition government, but those who agreed with the policies of the last five years did not give credit to the Liberal Democrats for their part in the coalition government. It was the curse of being the junior partner in a coalition, and it exacted a huge price.

Labour was hoping to win the election, perhaps not outright, but it would have hoped to be in a position to form the government, as many polls were indicating and many bookies thought. As alluded above with reference to the scale of the SNP victory in Scotland, Labour lost its leader in Scotland Jim Murphy, as well as its campaign co-ordinator and shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander. The huge tide of the SNP swept everyone in Scotland, but in England the shadow chancellor Ed Balls lost his seat against the Conservatives. While his majority in 2010 was rather slender, his defeat epitomizes the problem that Labour faced in this election: it was not able to offer hope or competence and confidence to the electorate. Its timidity contrasted with the clarity of the progressive parties that denounced austerity, and its economic credibility was unconvincing. Thus Labour lost in Scotland against the SNP and it could not win elsewhere against the Conservatives. For Labour, the canonical narrative of this defeat that emerges will suggest the direction of travel for the party.

The losses suffered by Labour such as losing really important shadow cabinet members such as Mr Alexander and Mr Balls and the Liberal Democrats are substantial. A good parliament requires good parliamentarians, and a healthy democracy requires a robust opposition. Undoubtedly new talented politicians will emerge from the ranks of new MPs, but it does feel as if the Commons has lost some of its impressive members.

Like the Liberal Democrats in 2010, who had won few seats relative to their share of the vote, UKIP ends up with one seat despite being third in terms of the share of the vote nationally. It will be calling for some sort of electoral reform – on which there was a referendum in the last parliament – because UKIP is unlikely to win sufficient support concentrated in sufficient number of constituencies to win seats to make much difference: the upper limit for UKIP support is lower than for other parties. Besides, if Mr Cameron calls a referendum on the British membership of the EU, what does the party stand for? There is no incentive for Mr Cameron to change the electoral system: so long as the first-past-the-post system is in place, the Conservatives (and Labour) will have a reasonable chance of an absolute majority in a general election, but any system that incorporates proportional representation will make it harder for a single party to win an absolute majority (it is however possible as the SNP has demonstrated in Holyrood).

It was a truly remarkable election.