May 18, 2015 | Commentary on Elections, United Kingdom

They Said It Couldn’t Be Done

London
The smart money said there was no way the Conservatives could win a majority in last Thursday’s general election in Britain. On the left, the New Statesman’s widely followed May2015 blog offered a cogent argument that there would be a blocking majority even against any repeat of the Conservative-led coalition government. On the right, columnist Matthew Parris echoed many Tories in fearing that the British people were about to make a terrible mistake. But it turns out that you hold elections because you don’t know the result in advance. On May 7, the British people returned a majority Conservative government. The smart money was wrong.

It’s not fair to say that no one saw this coming: Sir Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher’s bulldog press secretary, called it in a column in the Yorkshire Post, and, in the aftermath of the election, one firm privately claimed to have detected a last-minute swing to the Tories in a poll it found too incredible to publish. Still, hundreds of polls over the previous months had shown the main parties essentially tied. None of the Tory candidates I canvassed with in the days before the election saw victory coming, nor did any of the center-right think tanks. Most were preparing for a Tory defeat.

In the end, it was a victory: 331 Tory MPs, as against 325 needed for a majority, and a vote share of 36.9 percent. Labour tallied only 232 MPs and 30.4 percent of the vote. The polls weren’t all wrong: They were right about the scale of the Scottish National party’s (SNP) triumph and the failure of the U.K. Independence party (UKIP) to break through, and they also called the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, though no one expected the Tories’ coalition partner to slump from 57 MPs down to 8, putting them about where they were in 1979.

Unfortunately, the polls were wrong where it mattered most: They didn’t pick the winner. When shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Ed Balls went down in a symbolic defeat in the small hours of Friday morning, traders in the City of London cheered, while the Tories in the Savile Club rushed to Marks & Spencer to buy more champagne. In 1997, Labour’s celebrants asked each other the next day if they’d been “up for Portillo”—still awake when the defeat of Labour hate-figure Michael Portillo was announced. In Balls, the Tories now have an equivalent scalp.

The inquest is under way. The slightly superannuated figures of New Labour—Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson in the vanguard—argue that under Ed Miliband, Labour lost its way. Believing that the financial crisis signaled a permanent turn to the left, it forgot about the aspirational classes, who may dislike bankers but have no appetite for a war on business. Aspiring Labour leaders like Chuka Umunna agree. Writing in the Guardian, Umunna condemned his party for having “too little to say to the majority of people in the middle.” 

That is indeed a problem, but it is not the only one. There’s the matter of Miliband’s campaign, advised by a well-paid David Axelrod. Cameron’s government wasn’t perfect, but Miliband’s effort to bring it down was clownish. His signature moments were securing the endorsement of comedic has-been Russell Brand and engraving his pledges to the nation on a stone tablet, which sparked a flurry of #Edstone Twitter mockery. 

Labour’s structural dilemmas are far more serious and cannot easily be remedied by better campaigning. It has lost all but one of its Scottish seats to the SNP. If it does not recover them—and there is no immediate reason to believe it will, though Labour must hope that the SNP is a classic political bubble—it is unlikely to be able regularly to win a majority in England alone. That means it will need to rely on coalition deals with the SNP—but it was, in part, the threat of such a deal that scared English voters into swinging to the Tories. In other words, Labour’s weakness in Scotland feeds its weakness in England. 

Moreover, in England, its coalition is similar to Obama’s: The progressive elite and some ethnic minorities give it much of London, and the postindustrial working class gives it the Midlands and the north. One weak point of this coalition is that the London elite love the workers in theory, but despise them in practice; another is the friction between the workers and the minorities. The Lib Dems have proven even more fragile. Comprising the most naïve and self-righteous elements in Britain’s body politic, they could not stand the realization that being in government means making tough choices. They therefore committed political suicide.

The SNP’s triumph is the largest shadow on Labour. That triumph is not hard to explain. In the 2014 referendum, 45 percent of Scottish voters supported independence; in this election, 50 percent supported the SNP. Support for Labour and Scottishness used to go together easily. Now, they do not, and a little less than half of Labour’s voters have decided to plump for Scottishness. In those circumstances, and coupled with the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s first-past-the-post system meant doom for Labour. 

The distant shadow on Labour—and the Tories, though even less immediately—is UKIP. On the surface, it had a bad election night. Its leader, Nigel Farage, lost his election bid, and his party, which won only a single seat in the Commons, descended into turmoil after initially refusing to accept his resignation. But UKIP finished second in 120 constituencies, took a swath of local council seats, and won 4 million votes, more than the SNP and the Lib Dems combined. The SNP concentrated its vote in Scotland and won; UKIP spread its vote around England and lost. But in the north of England, Labour may in future have as much to fear from the antiestablishment sentiment that drives UKIP as it clearly does in Scotland from the SNP.

For the Tories, the great risk is that they will mistake the win for a landslide. Three hundred thirty-one MPs, though impressive in context, is a narrow majority: By way of comparison, Margaret Thatcher won 397 seats in 1983. The talk in Tory circles now is about the “shy Tories” who—shades of the party’s unexpected victory in 1992—won it for them this time. 

That is a bit too comfortable a thought. It is likely that the winning margin came not from shy Tories, scared into silence by the progressive media, but from a last-minute swing by the undecideds, who will have to be wooed again next time, and from Labour voters who, alienated by Miliband and his inept campaign, decided on the day to stay home. The Tories did a superb job of mobilizing their base and targeting the right seats, and they were lucky in their opposition. But the Conservative party has serious organizational weaknesses, and it badly needs to expand its base. If it gets 37 percent of the vote in a good year, a bad year doesn’t bear thinking about. The total Tory popular vote in 2015, at 11.3 million, is still 2.7 million below what the party won in 1992.

A decisive election result, for a time, throws all worries in the shade. For democracy’s sake, that is a good thing. But all of Britain’s problems—an AWOL foreign policy, tattered armed forces, serious long-term indebtedness, national finances that still rely too heavily on borrowing and easy credit, low productivity growth, excessive regulation and welfare spending, Islamist radicalism, Scotland, the European Union, and unskilled European immigration, to name only a few—are still with it. In their first term, the Tories, in harness with the Liberal Democrats, made headway on reducing the deficit and reforming the benefit system and education, but to the extent they didn’t make the other problems worse, they did nothing about them. 

Now, with his majority of a mere 12 MPs, David Cameron has it all to do, and he has no more coalition to excuse any failures. The smart money would say he can’t do it. Of course, the smart money’s been wrong before.

 - Ted R. Bromund is the senior research fellow in Anglo-American relations at the Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.

About the Author

Theodore R. Bromund, Ph.D. Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: Elections, United Kingdom

Originally appeared in The Weekly Standard