Two weeks ago every major pollster, pundit and journalist predicted that the UK general election on May 7th would produce a hung parliament, a parliament where no party commands an overall majority of 326 seats. Indeed, the odds on a hung parliament in mid-April were 1/16 with bookmakers favoring the opposition leader, Ed Miliband as the eventual Prime Minister by a margin. The odds on a Conservative majority were just 10/1. The major parties had been busily planned for coalition negotiations and polling had consistently put the opposition Labour party and the Conservatives within 2 points of each other with neither party being able to make a breakthrough prior to the election.
The campaign was a typically British one. Brutal, absurd, unpredictable, short and low cost by US standards. The cost of UK elections vs. the US is staggeringly small with total spending per candidate in the US roughly 23 times higher than in the UK. The election was fought on the domestic front and there was very little discussion of foreign policy or the UK’s place in the world in the face of a confrontational Russia and the rise of Islamic extremism both domestically and abroad. The Conservatives attacked the perceived weak leadership of Ed Miliband, who in return attacked the Conservatives for protecting the wealthy and presiding over a perceived growth in the income and wealth gap in the UK. It was a passionately-fought campaign which saw the rise of minor parties such as UKIP, the SNP and the Green Party and saw the traditional dominance of Labour and the Conservatives decline.
Right up until the night of the election bookies, pollsters and pundits pored over every possible coalition partnership. This all changed at 8.55pm on the night of the election when the BBC released an exit poll showing that the Conservatives were projected to win 316 seats, just 10 short of a majority. This was far above the general consensus that the Conservatives would be the largest party perhaps winning between 280-90 seats. The exit polled remarkably proved to be short. After all the results had been counted the Conservatives won 331 seats, a majority which would enable them to govern alone. Labour had their worst election result since 1987 with major figures such as their foreign spokesman, Douglas Alexander, and their finance spokesman, Ed Balls, losing their seats. The Scottish Nationalists dominated the political landscape in Scotland and decimated the Labour party north of the border. They won 56 out of the 59 seats in Scotland and comprehensively disproved the long-held truth that Scotland is a heartland for the Labour Party. The UK Independence Party, which has threatened to split the centre-right Conservatives, only won 1 seat and indeed their leader Nigel Farage failed to win his seat in Kent. This election was undoubtedly a victory for the Conservatives and the centre-right and a disaster for the other major Westminster Parties including the Liberal Democrats who were reduced to just 8 Members of Parliament.
What happened? There are three main views that have been publicly debated since the election:
The first is that Ed Miliband was unelectable as Prime Minister and an ineffectual leader. His personal leadership ratings had been lower than that of his party and in repeated polls David Cameron had been seen as a more credible Prime Minister. A series of gaffes including a stumble off stage after a question panel and an unflattering photograph of Ed Miliband struggling to eat a bacon sandwich came to encapsulate the narrative about him. This may not have played the significant role that some had suggested. Firstly, the UK is a parliamentary system and not a presidential one. The voters elect a parliament and not Prime Minister directly. If the Labour party had offered a narrative and alternative vision for Britain which resonated with the electorate then I believe Ed Miliband’s perceived weaknesses would have mattered far less.
The second speaks to the Clinton maxim ‘it’s the economy, stupid’. The UK has the fastest growing economy in the G-7 and there have been broadly positive macroeconomic statistics relating to unemployment, inflation and the deficit over the last year. The Conservatives have claimed that they have returned the course of UK finances towards sustainability and long-term prosperity. The phrase ‘long-term economic plan’ was repeated by every major Conservative figure during the campaign as a way to cement this reputation. The Conservatives strengthened this narrative with their attack on Labour’s management of the economy. They attacked Labour for over-spending and profligacy which was symbolized by a letter that the former Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liam Byrne, wrote stating that ‘there was no money left’. This letter was repeatedly brandished by the Prime Minister during a Question Time session as proof that Labour could not be trusted with the economy. The improved outlook of the economy undoubtedly played a role although many argued that growth had not translated into an improvement in household disposable income and that the cost of living was still far too high for many households.
A final narrative, was the Conservative message that a vote for Labour would increase the likelihood of either a coalition between Labour and the SNP or at least a minority Labour Government which would be propped up by the sizeable block of SNP MPs in Westminster. Ed Miliband, in the days leading up to the election, tried to refute the claim that he would need the SNP’s support but he was not able to adequately dismiss this from the minds of the electorate. The argument goes that when many voters came to the polling booth, the thought of a Scottish Nationalist party being able to dictate or influence English, Welsh and Northern Irish Policy was not something they could bear. To a great extent, the fact that the SNP, a left-wing anti-austerity secessionist party, could have a strong say in the affairs of other nations within the Kingdom was a key driver of a Conservative majority and perhaps why pollsters and pundits were unable predict the scale of the victory.
The outcome of the election precipitates a period of soul-searching for the Labour party. What should a modern centre-left party stand for when the current Government’s narrative is conservative ends through progressive means? How can the Labour party capture the centre ground which for so long was held by Tony Blair’s New Labour? How can they appeal to the young ‘Generation Y’ who are far more socially liberal but more suspicious of high tax and spend policies and indeed the welfare state itself, cornerstones of Labour party policy? These are all questions that the Labour party will grapple with over the coming months and years.
For now there are huge challenges ahead for the Conservative administration. First and foremost, preserving the Union in the face of resurgent Scottish Nationalism, secondly, managing Britain’s difficult relationship with the EU and ensuring the sustained economic growth and prosperity that they promised to deliver over the next five years. The UK is moving into unprecedented constitutional and political territory and one reality is certain, the next five years will be a period which defines the United Kingdom and its place in the world for many decades to come.