Politics & Policy

Will the U.K. Election Results Doom Labour in the Long Term?

Miliband arrives at Labour headquarters on the day after. (Christopher Furlong/Getty)

On the morning of April 10, 1992, my father came into the kitchen and told me that something remarkable had happened. The party, which had been widely expected to form the next British government, had somehow managed to blow it, and the Tories would be heading back into power — in clear violation of the pollsters’ predictions. This, my amazed father concluded, represented an “upset for the ages.”

I was seven years old at the time, and, in all honesty, I can’t say I particularly cared about this news. And yet I do remember hearing something that has stuck with me to this day. “I suppose,” my dad said wistfully, “that when the voters went into the booth and thought about sending Neil Kinnock to Downing Street, they just couldn’t bring themselves to do it.”


This line has popped to the forefront of my mind each and every time I have been asked who I thought would win the U.K.’s general election this time around. Naturally, I am as capable of reading a poll as is anybody else. Indeed, when writing soberly about a subject, I do not think it good form to presume that most of the available evidence must be incorrect (as, happily, it proved to be in this instance). And yet, in truth, I never believed in my heart that Ed Miliband and the Labour party were going to form the next government. There are spreadsheets and there are predictive models and then there is good old-fashioned human instinct, and, drawing on the latter rather than the former, I had wondered in earnest whether British voters could actually bring themselves to tick the box for Ed. Apparently, the answer was “no.”

In truth, I never believed in my heart that Ed Miliband and the Labour party were going to form the next government.

We were supposed to wake up this morning to a fine old mess. Instead, we have perfect clarity. There will be no coalition building, no backroom deals, and no immediate constitutional crisis. Rather, the Conservative party will form the next government of the United Kingdom — this time, without the need of anybody else’s help. Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour party, will resign. Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, will resign. Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence party, will resign. At the end of today, David Cameron will be prime minister once again, and his agenda will remain intact. With this victory, he will become the first PM since 1983 to increase his majority, and the first since 1955 to increase his party’s popular vote. Nobody saw that coming.

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This is not a blowout, and in consequence the Tories do not have a broad mandate for change. In reality, it is only because a Conservative majority seemed so desperately unlikely that we are seeing words such as “triumph” and “shock” bandied around with abandon. Still, what a shock it has been! Yesterday, the commentariat — myself included — had resigned itself to the prospect of either a Labour alliance with the Scottish National party (SNP) or a weak Conservative government — neither of which, it was suggested, could last a full five-year term. Today, we are scrambling around trying to work out what happened. There will “be a lot of disappointed constitutional experts being gently turned away from TV studios this morning,” the Times’s Hugo Rifkind joked on Twitter. Indeed so. Perhaps we might replace them in the hot-seats with contrite psephologists?

All told, the Tories are not the only victors in town. As was predicted, the ascendant SNP has effectively turned Scotland into a one-party region. Remarkably, it now controls 56 of the 59 constituencies north of the border — a nine-fold increase in its share of Parliament’s seats. In the short term, this development has mostly hurt the Labour party, which has hitherto relied on Scotland as an electoral bulwark. In the long term, though, it is likely to serve as a strong blow to the integrity of the Union. As the Spectator’s Fraser Nelson observes today, the SNP now has 95 percent of Scotland’s seats on just 50 percent of the vote. As a result, Nelson notes, the unionists are now “seriously underrepresented: three MPs now speak for half a nation.” How this will work out in Westminster is anybody’s guess. But one thing is for sure: Talk of the recent Scottish independence referendum’s being “decisive” was decidedly premature.

As for the losers, well . . . it is difficult to imagine how the results could have been any worse. In the last election, Labour won 258 seats. Currently, they hold only 232 of those. Among those who have been lost, moreover, are the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, and the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, two bright lights who had been considered possible leaders. They will not prove easy to replace.

Worse still, Labour’s disaster was not just regional. Certainly, the unexpected loss of Scotland has hurt the party’s fortunes considerably. Last year, when the electoral boffins were mapping out their campaign, such a wipeout would have been unthinkable. But it is worth recording that Labour did poorly in England, too — perhaps in part because the English worried that a vote for Labour would be a vote for an alliance with the Scottish nationalists. Below the border, the map is now an almost unbroken sea of blue, with just a few well-populated red holdouts in the North and in South Wales. Indeed, the final tallies show that Labour could have won every single seat in Scotland and still have lost to the Tories by two dozen votes. Long term, that augurs badly.

Elections have consequences, as the old saying goes, and for both the Labour and Liberal Democratic parties, last night’s will augur nothing but ill fortune.

The news was no better for the Liberal Democratic party, which has now been all but wiped off the map. Yesterday, the Lib Dems had 57 members of Parliament; today, they have just eight. Don Foster, a member of Parliament who stood down at this election, was quick to blame this diminishment on the party’s coalition with the Tories. “For the sake of the party we shouldn’t have done a deal,” Foster told the BBC. “We did it for the country.” Foster may well be right — undoubtedly the Lib Dems were aware that by agreeing to a coalition with a party of the right they would inevitably enrage their base. They have paid a terrible price for their magnanimity.

Elections have consequences, as the old saying goes, and for both the Labour and Liberal Democratic parties, last night’s will augur nothing but ill fortune. In fact, Sky News’s Faisal Islam observes this morning, both parties “would best see their current predicament as existential crises.” Why? Because the Conservatives now enjoy the power to redraw the nation’s outdated electoral boundaries, and thus to remove the artificial bump that the current configuration accords to both Labour and the Liberal Democrats. If Cameron can win a majority with the deck stacked so harshly against him, this theory goes, one can only imagine what he can do with a level playing field.

#related#The saddest story of the day, perhaps, is that of the U.K. Independence party, which managed to win 3.5 million votes and to come in third overall, but secured only one parliamentary seat. In response, UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, made good on his promise and resigned from his role as the party’s frontman. He will play no great role in the future. UKIP as a whole, however, almost certainly will, for while its candidates were thwarted by the United Kingdom’s first-past-the-post electoral system, the party as a whole demonstrated neatly that there is genuine frustration about the European Union and about the U.K.’s broken immigration system that can simply not be ignored. Ultimately, this general election was about domestic issues of the sort that do not play well to UKIP’s strengths: this time around, the favored topics were the economic recovery, the size of the deficit, the future of the health service, and the morality of welfare reform. In the next five years, however, deeper questions will inevitably intrude upon the public debate, questions relating to the nature of national sovereignty, to the wisdom or folly of federalism in a unitary state, and, eventually, to what the “U.K.” should look like in the 21st century. UKIP — or at least those who voted for them — will be prepared to answer them, and to answer them well. If, in five years’ time, the Conservative party hopes to find itself in a similar position to today’s, it will listen carefully to what UKIP chooses to say.


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