Firstly, a huge thanks to everyone who joined me here on WordPress and on Twitter on election night. I didn’t start out intending to keep a running commentary going, but as the extraordinary night unfolded, I couldn’t help but keep going with real-time updates. My proudest moment of the night was probably correctly calling Ed Balls’ defeat hours before anyone else even acknowledged the possibility. That said, it was one of comparatively few things that I got right in my election analysis.
Let’s start with UKIP. I nailed my colours to the mast quite early on in the campaign, and announced here that I’d be voting for Nigel Farage’s party. I don’t regret supporting them, nor do I regret making it public. There were two main considerations for me in going public with my voting preference – something many people opt to keep private – and the first was that I genuinely believed that UKIP had the opportunity to make a positive difference in Westminster. Cameron’s Conservative Party seems to have lost its way on many issues, drifting closer to the centre-ground, and cuddling up to global corporations. I couldn’t even tell you where they stood on many important issues – Cameron and his team seemed keen to say what they thought voters wanted to hear as opposed to actually explaining their beliefs – if indeed they have any. UKIP, by contrast, had a clear, well-defined, and, crucially, independently-analysed manifesto. On key issues, Nigel Farage was clear, and unapologetic. He has character, backbone, and a genuine commitment to his political positions, something Cameron arguably lacks. The second thing I was trying to do by declaring so openly my intentions was to right a wrong I have committed in my writing on several occasions – criticising UKIP, and other right-wing grass-roots movements unfairly. In the past I’ve labelled UKIP (and the Tea Party in America) a spoiler movement, which ends up harming its own cause by allowing left-wing candidates to be elected instead of moderate conservatives. In true political style, I’ve changed my opinion about that, and I felt that supporting UKIP was a principled stand against a political system which all too often has failed to listen to the people it is supposed to represent. I still feel that way, despite UKIP’s lack of seats – though not lack of success – in the election.
I will return to UKIP in a few moments, but first I’d like to break down my pre-election analysis to find out what exactly I did wrong in the run-up to the election that left my prediction so far off the mark. If you recall, I predicted the Tories would be on 295 seats, Labour on 260, the SNP on 45, the Lib Dems on 25, the DUP on 10, UKIP on 10, leaving 5 seats to be scrapped over. Obviously, almost all of that was quite a way out. I had said in my pre-election analysis that I believed the “shy Tory” factor was not being accounted for in polling, and I tried to factor that in, giving the Tories more seats in my prediction than most pollsters did. I also over-estimated residual support for the Liberal Democrats at the local level, believing strong ties in individual constituencies would see them out-perform expectations based on national polling. That failed to materialise, and even in the seats they retained, once-massive majorities were cut significantly. On the Lib Dems, I failed to fully appreciate just how angry many voters were with them for their decisions in coalition. By supposing, based on polling for Labour and my own assumptions about local factors for the Lib Dems, that both of those parties would perform better than they ultimately did, that accounts for my under-estimation of the SNP successes in Scotland – because those eleven SNP seats that I didn’t see them winning were divided between the Lib Dems and Labour.
Back to UKIP now, because I had them on ten MPs, which I rounded down on election night to “six to ten”, and then “closer to six than ten”. They ended up with a single seat. So how did I get that so badly wrong? First, I’ll hold up my hands and admit it – I was biased somewhat in their favour, and my own bias led me to believe – genuinely believe – that they would do that well. I saw their ground game in key target seats and was willing to believe, in spite of polling, that they had a good chance to take some seats while retaining their existing two. Mark Reckless’ defeat was perhaps the second-biggest surprise after Farage’s. Nigel Farage’s problem in his constituency is tied greatly to UKIP’s weakness nationally – he and the party are inseparable in voters’ minds. Farage is UKIP. He’s been leader for eight of the last ten years, which coincides with UKIP’s spectacular rise, and the party quite frankly lacks anyone else of that calibre, both in terms of leadership and campaigning ability. As a result, Farage was all over the country campaigning for UKIP, because they don’t really have any other known names to campaign for them. Cameron can dispatch Osborne, May, Hague, and many others, Miliband could call on Burnham, Harman, Balls, Cooper, etc., and even poor old Nick Clegg could send out known figures like Cable, Hughes, or Farron to campaign for the party when he was indisposed. Who could UKIP send? Their only two MPs were too busy fighting their own seats, and the party leadership just doesn’t have anyone else even close to Farage’s level. It’s a one-man show. And for Farage, campaigning for the party meant neglecting his own constituency, which isn’t even his constituency to begin with, it’s just the one he thought he had the best chance to win. So if I’m a voter in Thanet South I’m thinking to myself, “this man wants to be my MP, but he’s hardly ever here!” This counted against him in a big way.
So now we start the analysis. Did UKIP do well, or badly? On the one hand, four million votes is a significant result. One MP, on the other hand, is not. With Farage now gone as leader, the party will struggle to find someone who can campaign even half as well. But if they survive Farage’s departure, they may find it a blessing in disguise. A new leader could do what Farage never could – put together a team at the head of the party who can share responsibility, work together, and spend an equal amount of time putting themselves out for interviews and commentary. In short, a new leader could transform UKIP from a one-man show into a more serious political party. The flip side is that, without their only recognisable face, UKIP could just fade away. I have an uncomfortable example to share for UKIP-ers, but please bear with me because the point is serious. The British National Party ran 338 candidates in the 2010 general election, and polled over half a million votes. This came on the back of having two MEPs elected in 2009, and with a strong and recognisable leader in Nick Griffin. Fast-forward to 2015, Griffin has gone and the party’s 8 candidates (330 fewer than last time) polled a measly 8,000 votes between them. The BNP had its moment in 2009-2010 and then quite simply faded into obscurity. UKIP have admittedly risen a lot higher, but that only means that the collapse could be that much greater. Those four million UKIP voters, of whom I am one, may feel disillusioned not with the political process, but with the party. What’s the point, some will ask, of voting with my heart if it doesn’t accomplish anything? Did I waste my vote?
Right now, I couldn’t tell you which way I’d go in 2020. I could well migrate back to the Tories, or I might stick it out with UKIP. I’m not committed to any political party per se – I’m interested in the party which best suits my political beliefs. In 2015, that was UKIP, but they can’t take my vote, or anyone else’s, for granted. On the one hand, they’ve claimed a great many second-place finishes, and in terms of share of the popular vote, they’re the third-largest party by quite a way. But we’ve heard some of this before – in 2010 they took many second-place finishes, and the party line then was that they were well placed for 2015. But it didn’t happen, so now the party line is they’re well placed for 2020. It remains to be seen if they will keep enough of their 2015 supporters on board as they head to 2020 as they hope. One final point on UKIP before we move on – they’re trying now to make a case for changing the electoral system. This had never been their policy, Farage had always supported first-past-the-post on principle, and the change is clearly more about politics than ideology. Changing the voting system would be a mistake. The only argument in its favour might’ve been that we had two hung parliaments in a row, so FPTP was no longer providing solid and stable governments, but the surprise Tory majority has blown that argument away, and so there’s no reason to change it right now. Some UKIP members and voters may feel hard-done-by, but FPTP is still the best system there is. It’s not perfect, not by a long way, but it’s the least bad voting system available.
So that’s UKIP. Next let’s consider the SNP, who had a truly outstanding night. Sturgeon’s party, running on an anti-Conservative, anti-cuts platform that made no mention of independence, came after Labour from the hard left and won in seat after seat after seat, outing Labour’s Scottish leader and Shadow Foreign Secretary in the process. Some have said a new independence referendum is now coming, but I don’t believe that’s the right inference to read into this landslide in Scotland. It’s only been eight months, after all, since the overwhelming “no” vote in the referendum. There hasn’t even been the transfer of powers, known as “devo max” that the unionist parties promised during that campaign, and former SNP leader Alex Salmond billed the referendum as a “once in a generation” opportunity. Talk of another one so soon is premature to say the least, and smacks of the Bloc Quebecois’ “neverendum” in Quebec as they desperately chased a “yes” vote in many referenda over years. If the SNP go down that road, they would lose a great deal of the political goodwill they’ve built up since September’s defeat, and there’s absolutely no reason for them to think a second referendum would have any sort of a different outcome in any case.
I suspect that SNP supporters, rather like UKIP supporters, will ultimately be disappointed with the results. Sturgeon promised to “lock David Cameron out of Downing Street” by allying herself with Ed Miliband and Labour. But with no “anti-Tory majority” presenting itself, her new MPs will find themselves about as effective as the Liberal Democrats were in the years before 2010. A loud voice in parliament, perhaps, but unable to do anything of consequence, unable to influence policy. What I find completely ridiculous since the election, and this is not the fault of the SNP in any way, is sore losers on the left trying to accuse the Tories and the right of stirring up English nationalism – as if that were some horrible thing. The Guardian’s eight-year-old columnist Owen Jones on yesterday’s BBC News programme Dateline went out of his way to force this point, brushing aside the divisiveness of the SNP’s plan to break up the UK and trying to shift the blame onto Cameron, UKIP, and English nationalism. An incoherent and plainly stupid argument if ever there was one. While Cameron’s timing may have been poor, speaking just after the referendum, English votes for English laws simply will have to happen in conjunction with greater Scottish devolution. It’s not fair to the English voters and taxpayers to do anything else. What I believe is needed, ultimately, is a federal United Kingdom. England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland each operating their own legislatures with equal powers, and a federal government in Westminster handling national affairs. The federal system would have to be stronger than Germany’s to satisfy the Scots, but less severe than Bosnia-Herzegovina which is essentially two wholly separate countries which occasionally realise they share a government. The constituent countries of the UK could become akin to US states, with a great deal of control over their own affairs. Fairness would return, and various nationalisms would die down. But that, I suspect, is an argument for another day.
Cameron needs to do what he promised Scottish voters – transfer powers north from Westminster. Once he’s done that, what he does for England, Wales, and Northern Ireland is a matter for him and for those countries. And if the SNP win next year’s Scottish election with a promise to hold another referendum, then we can cross that bridge when we come to it. But there are two things to bear in mind – firstly that the current crop of SNP MPs will have far less power and influence than advertised, and secondly, a second referendum would not go down well with the rest of the UK. I expect patience to be worn thin. I have already changed my opinion from last September when I wrote an almost pleading piece to Scottish voters to reject independence. It’s now my opinion that independence, or not, is a matter for Scots to decide. If they choose to be independent, I wish them good luck and hope we can continue to have good relations. If, as I suspect, independence is not for them, then I welcome them back into the fold as full members of the UK. And I do not for a moment suggest that SNP MPs are in any way lesser than MPs of any other party. They were elected by their constituents on a clear anti-cuts platform. That they can’t do anything to enact those promises is beside the point – their legitimacy was never in question, at least so far as I’m concerned. Final point on the SNP: I find it silly that some senior figures in the Conservative and Labour parties are now questioning the electoral system based on this result, suggesting that the SNP shouldn’t have this many MPs (which comes back to suggestions of illegitimacy). Let’s be quite clear – they won in almost every constituency they contested. To get upset about the system when it lets their opponents win but defend it when it lets them win is pure hypocrisy. Voting reform has been tried and rejected. Just like Scottish independence. This parliament shouldn’t be about re-trying the defeated ideas from the last one.
So that’s the SNP. Let’s turn to Labour next, who suffered a devastating series of defeats on election night. Labour barely broke 230 seats, 100 short of the Tories and 95 short of a majority, and now with a mountain to climb to get back into power. I was a full 30 seats out with my prediction – why? Well firstly, my SNP tally was off by 10, so we can assume that, had the SNP won 10 fewer seats, Labour would have been the main beneficiary. But my biggest problem in predicting Labour’s seat tally was that they failed to make any net gains in England. It wasn’t Scotland that sunk Ed Miliband – even had the SNP not won a single Labour seat they’d have still been a long way behind the Tories. It was England, and Labour’s inability to make any net gains against the Conservatives that sunk them. Key target seats remained in Tory hands – often with a swing away from Labour. For me, the most notable was Carlisle. Once I saw Carlisle remain blue, that was it. If Miliband had any hope of walking into Downing Street – even with the SNP support he said he’d never rely upon (we’ll never know if he’d have kept that promise, but I doubt it) – I knew that it was over for Labour, and that one way or another, that meant Cameron had won.
But the scale was something I was unable to predict. Not only did Labour fail to make any gains at the Tories’ expense, they actually lost some marginal seats to Cameron’s party! That is unprecedented in a generation – the sitting government increasing its number of seats at the opposition’s expense. Gower, in Wales, is just one of a dozen or so examples of the Conservatives picking up Labour seats. But the biggest – and funniest – example of this trend was Ed Balls’ seat in Morley & Outwood. Balls was Ed Miliband’s Shadow Chancellor, and if Labour and the SNP had their way, would have been moving in next door to Miliband in Downing Street. But voters in this northern English constituency chose a Conservative candidate by a margin of only a couple of hundred votes, and that was that. Balls out. It capped what was a miserable night for Ed Miliband, and has started what promises to be a long period of soul-searching for Labour. As one pundit pointed out, only one Labour party leader has won an election with a working majority since 1964 – Tony Blair. There will be big calls within the party to go back to a Blairite vision of New Labour, courting big business, banks, and the press.
How much of the blame really lies with Ed Miliband, though? After all, turning Labour around from its dire 2010 performance under Gordon Brown was always going to be difficult, and nobody could’ve predicted the rise of the SNP. In fact, if you remove the SNP factor and pretend that Labour didn’t lose 42 Scottish seats to them, Miliband’s party made a net gain, albeit a small one. But his fundamental character flaws were too much for many voters to see past. The way he went after his own older brother – who was better-qualified and better-placed to lead – led to unanswerable questions about just how far he was willing to go for power. An alliance with the SNP, even though he ruled it out, seemed quite likely. But more than that, he came across as very weak. As someone put it on the Internet – “the BBC has suggested that, if David Cameron refuses a one-on-one debate with Ed Miliband, they will replace the Prime Minister with an empty chair. Bookmakers have now made the chair odds-on favourite to win that debate.” The point behind the joke is serious – Miliband seemed to shine during the campaign, but he only did so because expectations of him were so ridiculously low that people were genuinely amazed that he hadn’t wet himself and run away crying. Voters looked at Miliband and didn’t see a leader, not a national leader who could stand on the world stage. Miliband was a manager, not a leader, and a middle-manager at that. He was the political equivalent of a supply teacher, and frankly, the thought of Ed Miliband sitting at the negotiating table with the likes of Vladimir Putin made British voters nervous (and probably Putin very happy). He was seen as weak, and power-hungry. Then there was the little problem of just how badly the previous Labour government – in which Miliband was a minister – had messed up the nation’s finances. Nobody is suggesting that Miliband should take all the blame for that (well, nobody outside of the Conservative Party), but he should have been able to accept that Labour overspent during the good years and Labour’s policies left the country less well-placed than it should’ve been to weather the 2007-8 financial crisis. If Miliband couldn’t understand that Labour overspent last time, how could voters trust him not to overspend this time – especially if circumstances forced him into coalition with the SNP, whose spending plans were even more extreme than Labour’s own? These issues of character never came to the forefront of the campaign, but they were there nevertheless, and they’d been there for five years as people got to know Ed Miliband. The truth may simply be that many people had already made up their minds about him well in advance of election day.
What of the Liberal Democrats? I predicted they’d be forming the next government – as a junior coalition member – and be wounded, but not defeated, on about 25 seats. What happened there, and why was I so far off the mark? My analysis was based on a simple principle – that local issues and strong incumbent candidates would help Nick Clegg’s party pull off a surprise compared to their low poll ratings. Strong candidates who fight good local campaigns have been one of the Lib Dems’ strengths in the past, and I believed this factor was being underestimated. That was a mistake. I failed to appreciate the strength of feeling that many former Lib Dem voters had against the decision to work with the Conservatives, and some of the compromises made while in coalition. Clegg, despite retaining his own seat, was the target of much of this ire, and the Clegg factor, which was so big in helping the party in 2010, cost them votes in 2015. But there was no alternative for them, not in 2015, and not in 2010. There was no option to work with Labour or any other party in 2010 – the numbers didn’t add up – and there was no way to ditch Clegg, unpopular though he was, before polling day in 2015. The Liberal Democrats will be praised in the history books for taking the hard decision to work with the Tories in the best interests of the country, despite how voters punished them.
However, that’s little comfort for the 49 MPs who lost their seats, including major party figures like Vince Cable – once tipped for the leadership – and David Laws – without whom David Cameron would never have had his favourite prop (that letter left by Labour at the Treasury saying “we spent all the money”). While Labour looks inwards to find a new leader to hopefully win in 2020, the Lib Dems are seriously asking themselves if they will still be around as a party by then. With only eight MPs, one of whom is Clegg, their leadership options are slim. Tim Farron, former party president, is probably the only viable candidate, but he has a mountain to climb just to hold on to what he’s got. Forget 2020, the Lib Dems need a longer-term strategy. The old Liberal Party, predecessor to the current Liberal Democrats, had periods in the 1960s and 1970s where they had as few MPs as now, but it took a generation to recover. The Lib Dems are looking at a similar task now. Politically, the coalition was suicide in the short term, but I maintain that it will be viewed more kindly in the long term.
Despite the major gains enjoyed by the SNP, their eventual ineffectiveness at working with Labour means there was really only one winner – David Cameron’s Conservative Party. After being out of office for thirteen years, Cameron steered his party to victory over Gordon Brown in 2010, but huge losses inflicted on the Tories in 1997 proved difficult to recover from (they were down to 165 seats at their low point) and despite Cameron’s gains they failed to win a majority. Governing with the Liberal Democrats, which took many by surprise, was a master-stroke for Cameron in political terms. His junior coalition partner imploded amid criticism from the left that they had “sold out”, especially after the rise in university tuition fees. The result was that, five years after entering into coalition, the Conservatives were in a position to take dozens of Liberal Democrat seats. Indeed, this is why Cameron won – they made some gains against Labour, but those gains were offset by a similar number of losses. But against the Lib Dems, the Tories were relentless. In seat after seat they ousted incumbent Lib Dem MPs, some of whom had served for decades. It wasn’t a defeat as much as a rout for the Liberal Democrats, but it wasn’t a victory for Cameron as much as it was a repudiation of Nick Clegg.
Cameron’s personality and character, despite how Labour tried to portray him, actually was one of his strong points. Compared to the hapless Ed Miliband, it wasn’t hard for Cameron to appear statesmanlike, and not just in the campaign – there was almost five years of debates at Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons to show how ineffective Miliband was against him. The incumbency factor didn’t really play much of a role, though it is probably easier to appear a statesmanlike leader while already occupying a position of power, and having all the trappings that come with it. But again I come back to the same point as I was making about the Liberal Democrats – there’s nothing solid to indicate that Cameron won as much as Miliband lost, at least in the leadership stakes.
The main reason for the Conservative victory would seem to be the economy, and concerns about changing from an economic plan that is generally agreed to be working – albeit with some problems along the way. Cameron’s economic policies, enacted by George Osborne as Chancellor, have revived a British economy that was in a very bad way after Labour left office, at least partially. Miliband’s pledges, by contrast, were vague, uncosted, and many voters clearly saw that a change was risky. But the Conservatives’ economic plans were not particularly well-explained either, particularly where £12bn of cuts in welfare are supposed to come from. Voters clearly understood the need to make those kind of savings, however, and Cameron and Osborne were able to run on their record, helped in no small part by reminding people of the previous Labour government’s record, too.
As to where my analysis of the Conservatives went wrong, I’d say two things. Firstly, I expected the Liberal Democrats to do much better than they eventually did, and with many Tory gains being Lib Dem losses, that accounts for part of it. Secondly, I was not expecting the Tories to make a net gain in terms of seats. That is unprecedented, and between that historical pattern and months of immobile opinion polls, I predicted a small net loss for the Tories, even accounting for the “shy Tory” factor that I felt wasn’t being reflected. My analysis in that regard was clearly correct, though even I managed to significantly underestimate its effect. The pre-election polls all had Labour and the Tories on 33-34% each. The actual result was closer to 37% for the Tories, and 30% for Labour. The Tories saw a swing in their favour of almost 1%. That’s not something I was expecting, because there was no reason to expect it. Cameron surprised everyone by winning a majority. The caveat is that there’s no way the Tories could pull off something like this in five years’ time, largely because there’s hardly any Lib Dems left to target! On a serious note, though, it’s difficult to see them building on this majority going forward.
So I hope that’s a reasonable accounting-for of my election predictions, as well as an interesting take on how the parties fared and their fortunes going forward. I hope to look into the upcoming leadership elections soon, as well as consider some of the policies which will emerge, not least the European referendum. To those of you who joined me for some or all of election night, thank you once again, and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.