Politics & Policy

The U.K. Election: A Near Run Thing

(Daniel Sorabji/Getty)

When the polls closed at 10:00 p.m. local time last night, the Tory leadership was nervous and even depressed; when the BBC exit poll was published at 10:06 p.m., their mood lightened up considerably; and four hours later they were confident of victory and hopeful of obtaining a clear, if narrow, majority. Those hopes seem likely to be realized—just. They will have a small majority (331 out of 650) and, if they do a deal with smaller parties, maybe a margin of 20 or more.

So what happened? Were the opinion polls—which on election eve all joined closely together to forecast a dead heat—all wrong all along? Or were the voters lying? Or was there a last-minute swing to the Tories, with some voters making up their minds only in the polling booth? The last possibility seems the most plausible. And it testifies to the deep nervousness of most English voters about the financial and economic recklessness of the Labour party. It prompted about 3 percent of voters to move into the Tory column, lifting their share of the national vote from about 34 percent to 37 percent—a 1 percent improvement on their 2010 performance.

RELATED: Cameron Gains, Pollsters Confounded

That nervousness does not apply in Scotland, where the virtual elimination of Labour and the national triumph of the Scottish National party testifies to the belief that more spending and an end to Tory “austerity” are needed, but that Labour was too conscious of respectability to provide them. That belief was wedded to a strong upsurge of desire for Scottish independence. Together nationalism and socialism were the fuel for a drive for independence that currently looks almost impossible to halt. It gave the SNP almost all the seats in Scotland; Labour and the Tories currently have one seat each.

With Labour’s stronghold in Scotland now seized and occupied, all the Tories needed in England was to hold their ground. In fact, as we saw above, they did a little better than that (and in close fights, still better) to reach their majority. Among their victims were their coalition allies, the Liberal Democrats, whose vote collapsed everywhere, reducing their seats in Parliament from 57 to eight. They will now be very reluctant to continue cooperation with a party that many of their activists regard as the devil incarnate.

UKIP poses a future challenge to Labour on class grounds and to the Tory party’s previous monopoly on conservatism.

What is more remarkable than anything is that this Tory victory was achieved in the face of an upsurge of support for the United Kingdom Independence party that quadrupled its support to over 13 percent. No one would have predicted this combination of results. Because UKIP’s support is geographically dispersed, all those votes have won the party only one seat. But it is now a challenge to both parties and a complicating factor in all their calculations. UKIP is emerging as the party of working-class conservatism throughout England outside London. So it poses a future challenge to Labour on class grounds and to the Tory party’s previous monopoly on conservatism.

RELATED: Will the U.K. Election Results Doom Labour?

#related#If we stand back, however, we can see that this result is a vast swing to the Right. Add up the shares of the national vote won by UKIP and the Tories and the total goes over 50 percent of the electorate. That means, as several commentators pointed out, that electoral reform will become a cause of the Right at least as much as of the Left—and the most likely outcome of that cause is an Australian Alternative Vote procedure and a four-party system consisting of Labour, the Lib-Dems, the Tories, and UKIP (with the latter two winning most of the time.)

Just for the moment, however, the parties are regrouping: The leaders of the Lib-Dems, the Labour party, and UKIP have all resigned (Nigel Farage of UKIP perhaps temporarily). After their parties lick their wounds, they will seek to obstruct the Tory party. Equipped with a narrow majority and (perhaps) unreliable allies, the Tories will have to deal with major problems—notably, preserving their reputation for economic competence in the face of major storms ahead and coping with a triumphalist SNP anxious to twist every parliamentary occasion into a reason for independence.

In the immortal words of Bette Davis: Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night. 

MORE COVERAGE: U.K. Elections

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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