The U.K. May Never Be the Same After Yesterday’s Election

A picture of an arrangement of British newspapers carrying headlines dominated by exit poll forecasts in favour of the Conservative Party in the British general election taken in London on May 8, 2015. Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives are on course to be the biggest party in the next British parliament, according to an exit poll from the general election showing them winning far more seats than had been expected. AFP PHOTO / DANIEL SORABJI (Photo credit should read DANIEL SORABJI/AFP/Getty Images)
The headlines after the U.K. elections. Photo: Daniel Sorabji/AFP/Getty Images

The British election results are in and Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative Party have emerged with a clear majority in Parliament. And while Cameron spent today assuring Britons that he would lead a united country, leaders of three of the U.K.’s six major political parties had all resigned within the space of a single hour. Cameron’s chief opponent Ed Miliband stepped down after his Labour Party was utterly decimated, even though pre-election polling had near-unanimously predicted the opposite. The Liberal Democrats did even worse than Labour — claiming only 8 seats after winning 57 in 2010 — so down too went their leader, Nick Clegg. Lastly, the controversial head of the conservative U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP, Nigel Farage, also gave up control after losing his own seat. The only other party to do well was the Scottish National Party, which won essentially all of Scotland in a landslide. Moving forward, half the political parties in England are left scrambling for new leadership and strategies, Scotland is flexing its political independence, and Cameron is left to deal with several enormous challenges amid an increasingly fractious country.

Looking at the commentary across the Atlantic, one thing most seem to agree on is how this is one of the most dramatic and consequential elections in the nation’s history. For instance, the BBC’s longtime political editor Nick Robinson believes the election “will not just reshape British politics but could perhaps reshape the future of the United Kingdom itself,” adding that, “This is the opening night of an extraordinary drama whose conclusion is utterly unknowable.” That’s a sentiment Vice U.K.’s Aaron Bastani shares:

While in the short-term that bodes well for the Conservatives, in the longer-term it means political union between England and Scotland will be put under more stress than ever before. At no point in the history of British democracy have the two nations voted so differently, with the SNP enjoying the most impressive success of any party in the postwar period, and all on an anti-austerity ticket that refuses to spend £100 billion on replacing [the Trident nuclear weapon program]. When you compare that to England, where UKIP and the Conservatives seem to have won around 50 percent of the popular vote between them, it’s difficult to see how such difference can be reconciled without major constitutional reform. You can’t have one nation backing austerity and another panning it without something breaking.

He goes on:

What we can say is that because of how we voted, from our membership within the EU to even the political union of our country, Britain is likely to look very different in a few years time.

One of Cameron’s most important decisions in his upcoming term will be whether to go through with a 2017 national referendum on remaining in the EU. Regarding a more independent-minded Scotland, commentator Brian McNair summarizes the fraught path ahead:

Not only [has the SNP] achieved what is in effect a one-party state in Scotland, thanks to the utter incompetence of the Labour Party both north and south of the border, the SNP now has in a triumphant Conservative Party a bogey man to pick a five-year-long fight with in Westminster.

The narrative of Scotland as the victim of a Westminster conspiracy determined to do the Scots down is renewed, with knobs on. No matter that in the short term all the evils of Cameron’s first coalition government will be amplified and intensified, with the Scottish people paying the price just as much as the English, Welsh and Northern Irish for Labour’s failure; if this outcome drives a wedge further into the Union, and makes a future referendum vote for independence more likely, the nationalists will deem it to have been worth the cost in food banks, welfare and benefit cuts and all else that now follows from another Cameron-led government.

McNair doesn’t believe Scottish independence is inevitable — but either way, the politics remain dangerous for the U.K.:

One thing is for sure. Scottish politics will be dominated for the next five years, as it has been for the last ten, by the constitutional debate. The Labour Party in Scotland seems helpless to prevent this, indeed hopeless overall, and the Tories seem ready to let the Scots go if it means preserving their majority in the UK. With English nationalism on the rise, fuelled by the anti-Englishness of the jocks in the north, it could all get very nasty.

And as noted by the Financial Times’ Philip Stephens, nationalism was an across-the-board motivator in voting yesterday. He also warns that “once unleashed, such forces are difficult to restrain”:

[W]itness the resurgence of populist identity politics across much of the European continent. English Tories who decided long ago that Britain must leave the EU hold no great affection for the union with Scotland. They will be encouraged in their narrow nationalism by Ukip’s performance. The party secured only one seat at Westminster but its 13 per cent share of the national vote will continue to pull the Conservatives rightward.

To The Independent’s Matthew Norman, it was Cameron who pushed Scotland away, particularly with his campaign tactics:

Rather than stretch out that hand in friendship, he used it to slap the Scots in the chops by taking refuge, for short-term party political gain, in crude and petty nationalism. The tactical beneftis for the Conservatives, we now know, were twofold. He roused such resentment across the border that Scotland has made itself a virtual one-party state to the crippling cost of Labour (which takes a minority share of blame itself, of course, for having taken Scotland for granted and treated it like a provincial fiefdom for so long). But he also laid the ground for the hysterical narrative about the savage Scots storming across the border and marching on Westminster that  played a significant part in his win.

Then again, as Brooking’s Richard V. Reeves suggests, Cameron may have had something else going for him, too — leadership:

In the old days of two strong parties turning out their core votes, leaders were not a decisive electoral factor. Those days are long gone. As fixed party loyalties dissolve, voters can be wooed or repelled by individual leaders. Ed Miliband was a very poor choice of leader for the Labour Party. Everyone knew it, all along, and yet the party somehow persuaded itself that it could win anyway. Nicola Sturgeon, SNP leader, is a superb communicator and ran a stunningly good campaign. The Conservatives won not because of their policies, or their organization, but because Cameron was seen as a strong leader.

Meanwhile, many others are blaming the Labour party for its over-confident, ham-handed handling of both Scotland and the overall race. The Telegraph’s Dan Hodges sums it up neatly:

[This was a] loss on a scale even greater than the scarring loss of 1992. Despite boundaries effectively rigged in its favour. Despite Lib Dem refugees swarming into its ranks. Despite Ukip creating havoc within the parliamentary Conservative party. Despite Ed Miliband supposedly not having to “get out of bed” to secure 40 per cent of the vote.

Maybe Labour was always destined to lose. Maybe it was always going to be impossible to win immediately after being kicked out of office.

But we’ll never know. Because Labour never even gave itself a chance. Instead it chose the wrong leader, gave him the wrong team, deployed the wrong narrative, pursued the wrong priorities, adopted slogans instead of a policy program, moved away from the political centre and – crucially – tried to win without winning.

The New Statesman’s George Eaton tries his hand at unpacking Labour’s failure, as well:

The Tories’ SNP scare campaign, the hostility of the press to Labour and the Conservatives’ funding advantage will all be widely cited. But the most plausible explanation is that, as the Tories long expected, “the fundamentals” simply reasserted themselves. For years, the Conservatives had enjoyed a commanding advantage on leadership and economic management. No opposition party has ever won while trailing on these. Labour’s painfully large deficit on both made defeat inevitable.

On the issue of the near-inevitable referendum on EU membership, The Guardian’s Natalie Nougayrède is worried:

[I]f Europe loses Britain, it runs the risk of self-destruction. And if Britain drops out of the EU, it will have to navigate uncharted waters, and risk becoming a small, insignificant player in a globalised world.

Wherever they may be, Europeans need to wake up to whether they want to let this part of the world become an even more fragmented and weakened entity than it already is. There is much at stake and much to lose. The onus must now surely be on Britain’s politicians to make sure that the domestic debate unfolds in an informed, lucid, constructive way – not one that plays only on unfounded fears and cheap jingoistic slogans.

Looking at it from Europe’s perspective, though, making the U.K. feel more welcome might not be an easy task, as Philippe Legrain explains:

EU leaders don’t want Britain to leave: it would set a terrible precedent, reduce the EU’s clout in the world and accentuate Germany’s dominance. But there is only so far they are willing to go to keep Britain in. For instance, restrictions on welfare payments to new EU migrants may be achievable; limits on freedom of movement within the EU are not. There is no appetite for the arduous process of changing the EU Treaty, which would require achieving unanimity among 28 EU governments and winning parliamentary approval in each member state, with the added hurdle of a referendum in several countries. The election calendar is another big constraint: in 2017, the putative UK referendum year, there will also be a presidential election in France and a general election is also due by then in Germany.

One of the most puzzling aspects of yesterday’s election was the incredible failure of pollsters in predicting the outcome. Even Five Thirty Eight’s Nate Silver, who was tracking the campaign and election, was left scratching his head and wondering what it means for the future of political polling:

At least the polls got the 2012 U.S. presidential election right? Well, sort of. They correctly predicted President Obama to be re-elected. But Obamabeat the final polling averages by about 3 points nationwide. Had the error run in the other direction, Mitt Romney would have won the popular vote and perhaps the Electoral College.

Perhaps it’s just been a run of bad luck. But there are lots of reasons to worry about the state of the polling industry. Voters are becoming harder to contact, especially on landline telephones. Online polls have become commonplace, but some eschew probability sampling, historically the bedrock of polling methodology. And in the U.S., some pollsters have been caught withholding results when they differ from other surveys,“herding” toward a false consensus about a race instead of behaving independently. There may be more difficult times ahead for the polling industry.

Post-Election, the U.K. May Never Be the Same