The British general elections have come and gone – although if you happened to be on the streets anywhere in Britain on the May 7, you would never have known it. In over 50,000 polling stations up and down the land – some in the quirkiest of places including one in a parked ambulance – there was not a single policeman or security officer of any description to be seen. No CCTV cameras, no indelible ink, no polling agents, no army – just trust. Needless to say, there has not been a single word from anyone, victors or vanquished, to even suggest that there was any instance anywhere where even an element of malpractice or dishonesty could be suspected.
It wasn’t because things went smoothly for everyone. It was a great night for the Tories, who, against all expectations raised by polls which proved to be rather less than accurate, won an overall majority with 331 seats, thus doing away with the need of any messy politicking after the polls in an effort to drum up a coalition. It was a magnificent night for the Scottish national Party (SNP) too who, beyond even their own wildest expectations, walked away with 56 of the 59 seats in Scotland, thus presenting a result which could well lead to the breakup of this United Kingdom and presenting David Cameron with the greatest challenge of his new premiership.
But the Tories and SNP were the only winners. For Labour, it was a night of huge disappointment managing only 232 seats, down 26 seats from their performance five years ago. The Liberal Democrats (LibDems) were annihilated losing all, but eight of the 57 seats they had – and thus coming to the same level as Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which has the same number of seats. The UK Independence Party (UKIP), billed as a huge game changer in this election, managed just one seat, as did the other supposed game changer, the Green Party.
There are those who will say, with considerable justification, that it is a post-electoral system that fails entirely to reflect the political hopes and aspirations of the British people. The SNP in Scotland won less than 30 per cent of the total haul of votes won by UKIP and the Greens, polling 1.45 million votes, and yet came out with 56 seats. And although the LibDems were wiped out having faced their worst ever electoral performance for years, the fact of the matter is that even through all the mayhem, they managed to procure almost 2.36 million votes. That works out to around 21 per cent of the votes the Tories won, and if they were to win 21 per cent of the seats the Tories won, they would have ended the evening with 66 seats, not eight.
The disaster the LibDems encountered was predicted, but is impossible to understand the political logic behind it. It is said that their supporters were angry at them for having gone and joined the Tories in a coalition, for the two parties had little in common.
The Tories are the party of severe austerity cuts, much of it from the welfare budget that affects the less privileged in society; the LibDems abhor that. The Tories are the party whose members have the biggest reservations against Britain’s membership of the EU, a concern which the LibDems do not share at all. The Tories are the party of high university tuition fees which the LibDems had pledged to oppose; the Tories are the party of wide ranging privatisation of the National Health Service (NHS) which the LibDems oppose. So what did the angry LibDem voters do? Well, most of them went and voted for the Tories!
In this, as in something else, there was perhaps evidence that for all its education and experience of democracy, the British electorate is perhaps not as mature and well informed as many of us make it out to be. The other astounding fact that supports such a conclusion was that over ten million voters were still undecided on the morning of election day, not having made up their mind which way they would vote. If you have lived through five years of a government and are still undecided till a few minutes before you cast your vote, it can only mean one of two things – either you are waiting for a sign from up above, or, more likely, you have no interest in politics and simply do not have a clue what has been going on for the past five years. Either way, your decision is not going to be an informed one. This, perhaps, was the factor that befuddled all the opinion polls before the elections, with none being able to predict an overall Tory majority.
Minutes after the poll closed, the first exit polls conducted by the BBC showed that the Tories would be the largest party by some distance, perhaps even come out with an overall majority, while the SNP would sweep Scotland mainly at the expense of Labour and that the LibDems would be wiped out. In the event the Tories did even better than the predictions of the exit poll, but by and large, it spelt out the pattern for the evening fairly accurately.
Labour leader Ed Miliband, LibDem leader Nick Clegg and UKIP leader Nigel Farage have all said that they would be stepping down from the leadership of their respective parties. Miliband was a decent and honest man, but he made a crucial error of judgment in assessing that the main ground of British politics had shifted to the left after the economic crisis of 2007. It had done nothing of the sort. The fact of the matter is that since 1979 when Margaret Thatcher swept into power, the main ground in English politics has shifted inexorably to the right and Tony Blair could only come into power and stay there by dragging the Labour party miles to the right and calling it New Labour, to the extent that the distinction between it and the Conservatives had to be examined under a microscope to discern any difference. Ed Miliband’s attempt to realign the Labour party by moving it to the left has resulted in Labour suffering one of the most horrendous nights of its political existence and in Miliband losing his job.
And this is where the divide with Scotland comes in. While England is now politically firmly entrenched very much to the right of centre in terms of the British political spectrum, Scotland is as certainly placed to the left of centre. Any party, Labour or Tory, that tries to reach out to Scotland by moving its political alignment leftwards threatens to disrupt its support base in England, which, after all, is almost 85 per cent of the UK.
This will be David Cameron’s greatest challenge. Both he and Miliband were guilty of putting the party interest before that the country when they both attacked the SNP ruling out any prospect of a coalition with them, as if they were untouchables. That contributed to the SNP sweep in Scotland in no small way. Realising the problem that he faces, Cameron, in his first speech of his new term, said that he wanted to bring “our nation together, our United Kingdom together,” and to reclaim the mantle of “one nation, one United Kingdom”. He realises full well how important that is for with elections to the Scottish Parliament coming up next year, a similar result would make another referendum on Scottish independence, all but inevitable and there would be every chance that it may not go the same way as the last one. Cameron’s entire legacy would stand totally sullied and mangled if he were to be known as the Prime Minister who presided over the breakup of the UK.
The other major challenge on his plate is the matter of the EU. Cameron has promised a referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the EU in 2017 but before that happens, he wants to win some crucial concessions from the EU, which, he hopes, would enable the referendum result to go in favour of Britain staying in the EU. Not all of his backbenchers think quite along the same lines, and some reports have it that as many as a 100 of them would be only too happy to see the UK out of the EU. If England should decide to leave the EU and Scotland should decide to stay, the potential showdown with Scotland could come much before a second Scottish referendum.
So Mr Cameron has his work cut out for him. As, of course, does Labour, for they have not only to find a new leader, but also to decide just how ‘new’ they want to be after this defeat.•