I think almost everyone was shocked by the exit poll released at 10pm on election night. As an avid follower of the opinion polls, I was genuinely expecting Labour to be at least neck and neck with the Tories, if not slightly ahead in terms of seats. Many people at that point in the night thought the exit poll may be a little optimistic, including the Liberal Democrats’ spiritual leader Paddy Ashdown who said he would eat his hat live on air if they were correct (can somebody hold him to this?). If anything, though, this was probably a foolish assumption, exit polls always tend to underestimate the Tories’ vote share because of those pesky ‘shy Tories’ so it was almost no surprise for me to wake up in the morning to a slim Tory majority as opposed to a possible minority administration.
The reasons behind a sudden swing towards Cameron’s Tories are multi-faceted, but a good place to start in any analysis of this election would be the SNP effect. Sturgeon was widely seen to have won the leadership debates, indeed one of the top google searches after the so called ‘Challenger Debate’ was ‘Can I vote for the SNP?’. At first glance this would’ve been a good thing for Ed Miliband in this election, in the sense that the more likeable English voters find Sturgeon the less scary they are likely to find the idea of a Labour government propped up by the SNP. The truth was in fact the opposite, English voters contrasted the strength of Sturgeon’s performance with the weakness of Miliband’s in determining who would be calling the shots in a Labour minority administration. For English voters the idea of being ruled by the Scottish agenda, and fear for the constitutional crisis that could ensue were the SNP to call for another independence referendum, drove them to hold their noses and vote for the Conservatives.
However, there were of course other factors at play in this last minute swing that cannot be ignored. Labour, as Liz Kendall herself admitted towards the end of the campaign, were still not trusted on the economy; an assumption backed up by a string of YouGov polls released throughout the campaign. The economy whilst a slow burning issue, can manifest itself in a last minute panic as it did in the 2012 presidential election with Obama. People may not be feeling the recovery in their pockets, but as was often said of Obama’s victory ‘at least the numbers are going in the right direction’.
The most subtle reason for the Conservative victory could be in fact the English preference for strong government. As YouGov found in late April, a Conservative majority was viewed by most voters as the ‘least bad’ option. Coalition governments and minority administrations are unusual in UK politics, the main reason most people stated for their opposition to AV in 2011 was the tendency for that voting system to produce coalition administrations. The English idea of Parliamentary Sovereignty and strong government is ingrained in our national psyche, and was probably a major factor in most voters’ decisions to keep the Tories in power.
But what can the Tories realistically achieve with a majority of just twelve MPs? They are in fact just a few dodgy by-elections away from a crisis. It is interesting that one of the first things Cameron did today was meet with the chair of the right wing 1922 Committee Graham Brady. Cameron will likely have to make massive concessions to this Eurosceptic, traditional wing of his party, in order to ensure the survival of his government and will also probably have to continue to deal with the Lib Dems in order to push forward the last remnants of his modernising agenda if this group prove difficult to tame. In addition to this, rebellious MPs like Sarah Wollaston will have a much greater voice in this government, and alterations may be made to bills based on their own specific requests. This situation is not totally unmanageable for Cameron, who was once described by Polly Toynbee as the Conservative Party’s greatest asset for his ability to balance the different ends of his party in a way which John Major was unfortunately unable to manage. Indeed Cameron is capable of appearing as all things to all men, Eurosceptic enough to appease the Priti Patels of his party, but not to the extent that he would alienate the followers of Michael Heseltine’s branch of conservatism.
What next for Labour? There has been much discussion of whether the party’s wipeout in Scotland, and lacklustre performance in England was the fault of the party being too left wing or too Blairite. This is perhaps a little bit too inward looking. The question should not be whether to be New or Old Labour, but rather what is Labour for in an area of deficit conscious voters. The party’s failure to rebut accusations of economic incompetence after the 2010 election will continue to have implications for its performance in this parliament, appearing economically credible is not merely a case of ‘triple locking policies’ and ‘fully costed plans’ it’s about framing your policies in a way that makes it clear that they are not just nice ideas, but essential to the economy and our continued growth. This requires perhaps a ‘Fourth Way’, the ‘Third Way’ merged neo-liberalism with high state spending and socially liberal policies, but this is now an unpopular ideology with tax payers demanding value for money at the same time as wanting strong public services. A ‘Fourth Way’ would recognise the changes in our economy and come up with radical solutions that reflect that change, policies such as the ‘Energy Price Freeze’ do not appear economically credible to the electorate, and evoke images of the late 1970s Labour governments. This does not mean we need to lurch to the right wing end of the Labour party, but rather the formation of a new style of Labour party that encourages and facilitates the role of NGOs in the provision of services such as energy and water for the poorest in our society. In addition to this, they must be unafraid of tax cuts for small businesses, which are more likely to employ the poorest in our society and often serve important social functions, by doing this they can introduce policies such as the living wage without fear of opposition from this sector to the extent that we saw with Karen Brady’s infamous letter.
In addition to this Labour must reclaim ‘Englishness’ from the right. The Labour government devolved power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but left England behind despite clear cultural identities existing in places such as Yorkshire in the North West. To reclaim the English vote we need more devolution, and also to reclaim ‘Englishness’ as something which embraces the multicultural history of our country and the working class foundations of the Labour party.
In terms of who should lead the Labour party, this remains unclear. Each candidate comes with their own merits and flaws. Andy Burnham, the bookies’ favourite, may have covered himself in the red flag, but we must not forget the burden that his and others roles in the New Labour government put on the shoulders of the whole Labour party. Whilst inexperienced, potential candidates such as Liz Kendall, Stella Creasy, Dan Jarvis, Chuka Ummuna and Lisa Nandy may provide Labour with the fresh face it needs to rebuild itself.
Overall this has been one of the most messy elections in history. There is a far clearer divide between North and South, Scotland and England and even between South West and South East. We can but hope Cameron sticks to his promise of ‘One Nation’ conservatism.
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