About ninety minutes after landing at Heathrow, I was walking into an election-watching party in London’s Reform Club just five minutes before the polls closed. Once the sober heart of Whiggish Liberalism, the Reform today is mixed politically. But whatever their sympathies, almost all of those present at 9.55 p.m., including at least two international pollsters, were expecting a dead heat between the two major parties, a hung parliament, and probably a minority Labour government resting on support from the Scottish National Party. That, after all, was what a consensus of all pre-election polls had forecast that morning.
At 10.04 p.m. the big television screen dominating the Reform’s beautiful atrium announced the results of a BBC exit poll taken from over 40,000 voters in every constituency that day. It predicted that the Tories would emerge as the largest party, with a substantial lead over Labour. I can’t honestly say that there was pandemonium. But the prediction did provoke enormous surprise and some scepticism (from, among others, me). But as the evening wore on, all but a handful of results pointed to a strong Tory performance even to the extreme extent of achieving a majority Conservative government.
Our surprise was deep and genuine and in some cases distressed. But it was rooted only in the fact that all the polls had agreed on a more chaotic result. (A Survation poll had picked up a late pro-Tory swing that afternoon but its director, thinking it was so out of line with every other poll that it must be an “outlier”, had decided it would be “irresponsible” to publish it. This is a decision which he now says he may regret for the rest of his life—and to which I say there is no “may” about it.)
If no polls had existed, however, most observers would have predicted that a government enjoying a sustained economic boom would defeat an opposition party widely blamed for the previous recession. By universally forecasting a neck-and-neck race, the polls ensured that David Cameron’s probable victory looked like a comeback triumph against the odds. Our surprise has led us to overestimate his achievement.
Now, the Tory victory was real enough; the party gained a net twenty-four seats to give it a majority of twelve in the House of Commons. It may suffer occasional defeats at the hands of Tory rebels, but with potential allies from Northern Ireland it is secure against votes of confidence for a full five-year term. But this victory rests on a modest popular vote of 36.9 per cent which is itself an increase of only 0.8 per cent on its 2010 performance.
Labour’s story is not dissimilar: it was defeated but not routed. Its share of the popular vote rose by 1.5 per cent—double the Tory increase—to 30.4 per cent, and it gained a net twenty-four seats outside the special case of Scotland. This is not a bad base from which to win in five years, as the long list of young ambitious politicians now queuing up to become the next Labour leader underscores.
If both Tories and Labour won votes and seats outside Scotland, however, where did they come from? The short answer is: the centre-left Liberal Democrats, who lost forty-nine of their fifty-seven seats and whose share of the total UK vote fell from 23.1 to 7.9 per cent. Most of their seats went to the two main parties; but their liberated voters went in all directions. As we have seen, 1.5 per cent went to Labour, 0.8 to the Tories, smaller shares to the Greens, the Welsh Nationalists, and so on. But the lion’s share (or 9.5 per cent) of these voters switched to the United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP, which quadrupled its national vote share to 12.6 per cent. That 12.6 per cent won only one parliamentary seat because it was evenly dispersed over the whole UK rather than concentrated in a small number of constituencies. So it has been overshadowed by the SNP’s 4.7 per cent of the total UK vote which, being concentrated in Scotland, won a landslide and fifty-six of the fifty-nine seats there, leaving the Tories, Labour and the Liberal Democrats one seat each.
Before the election SNP leaders were careful to say that they were seeking a better deal for Scotland within the UK rather than the independence that had been rejected by 55 to 45 per cent in last September’s referendum. Since their landslide they have been more ambiguous, demanding more powers and money from Westminster now while holding out the possibility of full independence for later. They have to be cautious. Other Scottish parties combined actually won 1573 more votes than the SNP. And not all recent SNP voters would vote for full independence. Nonetheless the SNP at both Westminster and the Holyrood parliament will be constantly pushing in that direction. Scottish independence will be a nagging national crisis throughout the next parliament.
Left to themselves, the Tories would probably try to avoid the crisis of full separation by conceding both more fiscal authority to Scotland and a higher level of public spending there from common UK resources. Northern Ireland has long been awash in UK largesse. Bribing problems to go away, or in this case to stay in but keep quiet, is the natural instinct of the UK establishment—and so of its major parties. But the Tories won’t be left to themselves on Scotland or for that matter on Europe either.
UKIP’s electoral success, though generally downplayed, means that the party is now a permanent part of the political system. It has a mass membership and elected representatives in local government, Westminster and in the European Parliament (where it has a plurality of British MEPs). Its potential strength at Westminster is shown by this comparison: it is now placed second in 125 constituencies compared to the sixty-six second placements for the Liberal Democrats.
More significantly, however, UKIP is today England’s second conservative party. It attracts conservative voters in all classes but especially the blue-collar conservatives that the Tories traditionally won—they gave the party half of its vote for most of the twentieth century—but more recently have almost conspicuously disdained. UKIP has therefore followed Disraeli’s example: it has caught the Tories bathing and run away with their patriotic clothes. In the 2015 parliament, therefore, a party with only one MP will check any move leftwards on Scotland, Europe, and other issues. As National Review magazine pointed out: If Cameron deviates too far from his conservative base or from national-minded English voters, UKIP will be able to challenge him in special elections, local elections and European elections. And that will complicate Cameron’s calculations and those of his ministers and backbenchers.
There was much comment during the election campaign that Scotland had moved almost uniformly to the Left in its politics. Less noticed but more significant is that UK politics outside Scotland has moved sharply to the Right. The Lib-Dems have all but evaporated—amusingly after the main establishment organs, the Economist and the Financial Times, advised readers to vote for them where they were either hopeful or at risk. But their collapse surprised people by benefiting Labour only marginally. The “Broad Left” of the two parties lost about 14 per cent of its electoral support.
On the other hand, a modest Tory win overall was achieved in the face of a huge upsurge of support for UKIP. Combine the shares of the national vote won by UKIP and the Tories and the total goes over 50 per cent of the electorate. No one would have predicted this combination of results.
That may well mean, as several UK commentators have pointed out, that electoral reform will become a cause of the Right at least as much as of the Left. Among electoral systems the one most likely to appeal to the cautious Brits is the Australian alternative-vote procedure in which voters cast two votes and their second preferences are distributed among other parties after the counting of first preferences.
If electoral systems shape party structures, the alternative-vote procedure would shape a four-party spectrum running from Labour on the left, through Lib-Dems and the Tories, ending at UKIP on the right. Such a spectrum would give the Tories more freedom of action than Labour, since they would have two potential dance partners to choose from whereas Labour would be stuck with the mutton-dressed-as-lamb Lib-Dems.
That will be a matter that the new Tory government can (and will) determine in the light of its own interests. Almost certainly Cameron will choose to stick with first-past-the-post, which was confirmed by a referendum in 2011, which has just delivered a stable Tory majority government, and which has traditionally served the Tory Party well in a two- or two-and-a-half-party system. But they were circumstances in which the Tories had no rivals to their right. Tories are now living in a different political world—one both more congenial and more difficult to navigate.
David Cameron’s victory will not be the last surprise of the 2015 parliament.