Jubilant Scots and 'shy Tories' shift Britain's political landscape

Jubilant Scots and 'shy Tories' shift Britain's political landscape
9 min read
08 May, 2015
Analysis: A quiet majority made no impact in the opinion polls, but came out when it counted - resulting in the wholesale re-drawing of the UK's political map.
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon (centre-left) had a phenomenal night [Getty]

Ed Miliband gone. Nick Clegg gone. Nigel Farage gone. A divided country has shown just how deep the rifts have become.

Defying the odds to storm to an overall majority was never supposed to be on the cards for any party - let alone the Conservatives, who have presided over five years of deeply unpopular austerity economics, a constitutional crisis, a housing crisis, and a huge increase in the number of people turning to food banks for survival.

In 2010, the Tories were unable to command a majority, so entered into partnership with the Liberal Democrats - who had, until then, been seen as a progressive, humane alternative to Labour. But something in their campaign this time round swung it for the Tories, with the 326th Conservative seat confirmed late this morning.

While England's leftists are looking for their passports, analysts say it was "shy Tories" and "small-'c' conservatives" what won it.

There remains in this country a large segment of "middle England" - a quiet majority of middle-class churchgoers with traditional values, who own their own homes and have raised their families, and who would never dream about expressing a strong opinion on anything beyond whether milk goes in first when making tea.

These are the people who don't rock the boat, who don't answer opinion polls, who don't like to make a fuss.

And these are the people responsible for one of the most significant nights in British politics in recent memory.

Shy Tories don't believe that the National Health Service would ever really be privatised, and that Britain won't actually leave the European Union, while they also remember the strikes of the 1970s under Labour governments. They don't want to find themselves in their Home Counties homes, ruled over by some "socialist" Scot.

And this is the message of fear spread in recent weeks in tandem by the Conservatve Party and the right-leaning press (which, in Britain, is the vast majority of the press), exploiting the concerns of the Middle England base, while keeping quiet about the far more radical agenda at work.

Conservative "austerity" measures have been less about fiscal responsibility, and more about an ideological drive of Thatcherite, Reaganite, Friedmanite economics which favours privatisation of all state resources and services.

     'Austerity' measures are less about fiscal responsibility, and more about the ideological privatisation of all state resources and services.



The attacks on benefits claimants, the great sell-off of the NHS, the gutting of mental health support and the inhumane assessments for disability payments have all hit the nation's most vulnerable hardest of all.

The Tories (and their press) have trumpeted the economic "recovery" that the UK is said to be experiencing. We are out of recession (finally), and GDP is growing - though it remains unclear if these are because of, or despite, the actions of the Conservative exchequer.

Britain had the second-largest growth worldwide in million-dollar-wealth households between 2013 and 2014, The Guardian reported in October. But with a Gini coefficient of 0.34, the UK economy is one of the least equal on the planet, and the recovery has yet to be felt by many here.

Tartan rising

Scotland was always going to be interesting. Last year's independence referendum sparked a political engagement which had been unprecedented in recent history, while the parties of Westminster united to show that they still didn't understand life north of the border. The fact that Scotland came so close to breaking away showed a new generation was fed up with "business as usual" - and the seismic waves emanating from September's poll went on to rock last night's results.

Douglas Alexander (left), Labour's chief election

strategist, was ousted from his Paisley seat by

Mhairi Black (centre), a 20-year-old student

standing for the SNP [AFP]


"Landslide" is a word that gets over-used, but there is no other to adequately describe the scale of the Scottish National Party's victory - gaining 50 seats to win all but three in Scotland.

The Conservatives, with their reputation as posh, expensively educated snobs from southern England, haven't been popular in Scotland for some decades. But Labour could not have foreseen the sound thrashing they received at the hands of the SNP, even after partnering with the Tories for the independence referendum.

Swings of 34 and 35 percent have rarely been heard of - the swing that famously ousted Tory veteran Michael Portillo in 1997 was 17 percent, and that was considered somewhat epic - but that was what was happening across Scotland last night, as voters abandoned Labour in bucket-loads.

Labour managed to retain just one seat in Scotland as the tartan tide rose and washed away the remnants of the party from its former strongholds. Conservative David Mundell managed to cling on to his south of Scotland seat, polling just 800 votes ahead of the SNP there.

The SNP had planned to use its influence to prop up a Labour minority government. In the short term, this influence may be largely lost, as the Conservatives can safely ignore them as long their House of Commons majority holds.

But far from Labour's ineffectiveness in England and Wales proving a disaster for Nicola Sturgeon's party, it gives the SNP an excuse to rally further support. With the Tories as "the nasty party" in power, Sturgeon will be in a very strong position to blame Scotland's woes on a Westminster that fails to understand Scottish needs.

In two years' time, if elections for the Scottish parliament go a similar way, we can expect to see another independence referendum rearing its head.

Long-term, the cynic might say, this could work out very well for the overarching goals of the SNP.

The "devolution-max" option that the Conservatives have offered Edinburgh will have to be robust enough to secure the Scots' acquiescence - and little less than full fiscal autonomy will do the job.

But the surge in nationalist support in Scotland failed to materialise in Wales, with Leanne Wood's Plaid Cymru retaining its three seats, but not managing to make much headway in several English-speaking constituencies.

Many at Plaid will be disappointed, after having positioned themselves to the left of Labour.

The exit poll

The first shock of the night came with the publication of the first official exit poll at 10pm, which had surveyed 22,000 voters as they left the booths.

The poll suggested that the Conservatives would sweep to 316 seats, 77 ahead of Labour - but still short of the 323 needed to form an outright majority.

It appeared to run counter to previous projections, which showed the Tories winning fewer than 300 seats, though the meltdown of the Liberal Democrats was far from unexpected.

Lord Paddy Ashdown, a veteran LibDem, told BBC News that he would "eat his hat" if the prediction was correct (Alastair Campbell, a key figure of Tony Blair's administration, later said he would "eat his kilt" if the Scottish National Party won the projected 57 seats, thus setting up an increasingly bizarre running gag through the small hours across social media).


The statisticians were quick to point out that, in several of the tighter races, a 51-49 protection was taken to predict a result - a margin that broadcasters in other countries may well judge "to close to call".

Labour peer Lord Peter Mandelson said such predictions were were "hyperbole, built on conjecture built on hypothesis".

But the early results appeared to support the poll, with small swings towards the Conservatives. By 2:00am, analysts were suggesting David Cameron could win an outright majority.

The isolationist United Kingdom Independence Party - whose campaign has been dogged by accusations of racism, sexism and xenophobia - surged in support, coming second in more than 100 seats.

UKIP has benefited from the antics of its boorishly charismatic leader Nigel Farage, but having failed to win his target seat of South Thanet, he made good on his promise to retire if unsuccessful.

While the relatively new party has managed to build a groundswell of support - with 3.8 million people voting for it - it will struggle to maintain cohesion without a new generation of dynamic leadership to whip together its old guard - which could most politely described as "being of another generation", in the same way as your gently racist grandmother.

 

The collapse of the Liberal Democrats was widely predicted, though the scale of the meltdown could not have been foreseen. The party, which has been Britain's third-largest for some years, were wiped out at the ballot box, losing 47 of their 55 seats.

Across the country, the Lib Dems lost 15 percent of their previous vote share. Party elders including Simon Hughes and former leader Charles Kennedy lost their seats, while many others lost their deposits. And Nick Clegg lost his job.

"I must take responsibility, and therefore I announce that I will be resigning as leader of the Liberal Democrats," he told reporters this morning. "A leadership election will now take place according to the party's rules."

The party had been seen as propping up the Conservatives, and selling out their principles for a shot at power. During the campaign, leading Lib Dems maintained they had managed to temper some of the Conservatives' most reactionary ideas.

But their failure to rein in the Tories on university tuition fees or the slashes to welfare support or the selling off of NHS facilities and services to the highest bidder cost them dear. It will be a generation before the party recovers.


 


The Lib Dem losses, however, did not translate into a surge of support for any single other party, and their vote share became spread around several groups.

The Green Party, which has successfully broadened its image from an ecology and conservation-focused fringe group to a leftist anti-austerity progressive alternative, increased its vote share by nearly three percent across the country, scoring highly in several targeted constituencies. Former leader Caroline Lucas kept her Brighton seat, but remains the sole Green at Westminster.

The "Green surge" that had been predicted may, however, just be beginning.

With more than a million votes cast for the Greens, yet winning just one seat, the UK's "first-past-the-post" system will again be called into question. To give some perspective, the Greens managed to attract 3.8 percent of the country's vote share with 1.1m votes. The SNP, meanwhile, took a 4.8 percent share, with 1.4m votes - and won 56 seats.

It is clear that, with the collapse of the Lib Dems and the loss of enthusiasm for Labour as a party of strong opposition, left-leaning voters in England will have few options in the coming half-decade, and the Greens will be the party to watch in 2020.

As for the next five years? After last night, who can really know?

Continuing cuts to budgets in all public sector departments. The NHS forced to compete with market providers. A new industry of state-funded, privately controlled schools. Another sharp rise in income inequality. Volunteers recruited to run anything which can't be made to make a profit. A huge rise in the numbers depending on food banks and soup kitchens. The withdrawal from the European Human Rights Act.

We've seen all this already in the past five years, and the voters of Britain have decided they want more of it.

An "in-out referendum" on membership of the European Union is certain. And if you thought the Scottish referendum was tiresome, you just wait for this one. The rhetoric will be divisive, the campaigns will be fractious, and by the end of it, no one will care about the result and just be glad it's all over for another few years.

Some things in politics never change.

James Brownsell is chief sub-editor at al-Araby al-Jadeed. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesbrownsell