The British Election Results Nobody Expected

My first empathetic thought in terms of the disastrous outcome of the British national election results for the Labour Party is that it must feel like the shock experienced by Democrats last November when everything that could go wrong did go wrong. But that’s actually not a good analogy. By election day in 2014, no Democrat expected anything better than limited losses. Yesterday morning Labour expected actual gains in seats in the House of Commons, a last-minute surge in their popular vote to finish first, and a better-than-average chance of evicting David Cameron from 10 Downing Street, albeit probably after difficult negotiations with the Scottish National Party. Instead Labour lost the popular vote by six-and-a-half points, lost 25 net seats, and was almost wiped out by the SNP in its long-time Scottish stronghold, while the Tories–expected to lose a minimum of ten seats–picked up 27 and won an outright majority in Commons, giving Cameron the freedom to govern without partners if he so chooses.

But the big loser last night, believe it or not, wasn’t Labour, but the centrist Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the unquestioned star of the last British elections in 2010. The LibDems lost an incredible 48 of its 56 seats, and their leverage over the Tories.

Both Clegg and Labour leader Ed Miliband have already resigned their leadership positions (both did retain their seats in parliament).

So with the major parties of the Left and Center suffering catastrophic losses, and the Tories winning an actual majority in parliamentary seats for the first time since 1992, you’d figure this election represented a national “swing to the Right,” wouldn’t you? But that’s not at all clear. The Tories’ share of the popular vote barely rose at all from 2010. The night’s big winners aside from the Conservatives were the SNP, which boosted its seats in Common from 6 to 56 (all but two of Scotland’s delegation to Westminster). Its leader, Nicola Sturgeon, was, like Clegg in 2010, the unquestioned star of the campaign. And the SNP ran on a message focused as much on opposition to Tory austerity polices and maintaining pressure on Labour from the left as on its traditional themes of devolution and/or independence. Meanwhile, UKIP, the right-wing nationalist party that has been the terror of British politics the last several years, lost one of its two seats in parliament, that belonging to its celebrity leader, Nigel Farage, who has joined Miliband and Clegg in resigning his leadership post this morning.

The conventional analysis that seems to be emerging today is that even as the SNP was destroying Labour’s base in Scotland Cameron was able to exploit English fears of a Labour government dependent on Scottish support allowing the country to unravel. This not only gave the Tories an advantage in the traditional cockpit of British politics, the south of England, but minimized defections to UKIP.

As for the future, the Tories have to be ecstatic that they evaded responsibility for an economy far more sluggish than it needed to be, and now apparently on the upswing. One theory being bruited about is that the LibDems served as a “human shield” for the Tories, taking the brunt of popular disgruntlement with austerity. But part of the price Cameron will pay for fending off UKIP and a potential revolt from his own back-benchers (sort of the Tea Party of the UK in combination) is a commitment to a referendum by 2017 on continued British participation in the EU, with negotiations beforehand aimed at clawing back some national prerogatives. This will be an unwelcome source of instability for the British business community, and a perennial challenge to Cameron’s own control of his party.

Meanwhile Labour will almost certainly conduct a full-on Struggle for the Soul of the Party, dealing with a lot of ghosts from the Blair era. Again, it’s by no means obvious that a return to New Labour centrism is the ticket to redemption, but at the same time, the LibDem immolation does open up some ideological territory in England, and it’s not clear even a decisive shift to the Left could revive Labour’s support in Scotland.

Accompanying this and other bouts of self-examination among the political parties will be a major “what went wrong” evaluation by polling outfits and news media. Some are comparing this election to the Labour landslide of 1945 in its defiance of polls and predictions. You’d probably have to go back at least to 1994 to find anything like it in the U.S. So it will continue to cast a long shadow on politics not only in Britain and in Europe, but perhaps here as well.

UPDATE: My esteemed friend Keith Humphreys emailed to point out I had misspelled the last name of UKIP leader Nigel Farage (as did commenter JamesWimberley), and also noted Farage was not an incumbent in his losing campaign (he is, and remains, a member of the European Parliament).

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.