8 May 2015

A tale of two elections

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This extraordinary General Election, quite unlike any in British democratic history, was a tale of at least two elections, writes Sunder Katwala – at once a very good night for the Conservative and Unionist Party, and one almost beyond the dreams of the Scottish National Party.

The English election had many uncanny echoes of John Major’s 1992 election triumph, as the uncertainties of election day turned into a surprise majority the following day. The Scottish election avalanche with barely any democratic precedent at all, as the SNP turned the disappointment of Scotland’s decision to stay in the United Kingdom into a victory which came close to erasing the dominant Scottish party of the past half century without a trace.

Both winners and losers responded to the outcome with a dignity and decency that put into context talk of a constitutional crisis if the election had been close.

Ed Milband had won creditable reviews for an election campaign in which he had improved on previously dire leadership ratings, and dealt with personal attacks with dignity.

But the result suggested he had been speaking mainly to a minority political tribe of the already converted, from which the Scottish ‘core vote’ deserted en masse. Labour could find only small consolation in taking university seats and urban city constituencies from the beleagured Liberal Democrats, able to connect with young voters in Cambridge, Bristol and Southwark, and in some of its London target seats against the Conservatives too, but struggling to connect in many more places than the party needed. The party’s inquest will need to go much deeper than personality.

Once the celebrations stop at CCHQ, Tory strategists and thinktankers should conduct a similar, if less painful, analysis to uncover which new groups of voters they succeeded in reaching to secure a majority, even as some of their more traditional supporters were leaving the party.

UKIP could point to three and a half million votes but Nigel Farage’s party, having promised a ‘purple revolution’ struggled to make anything like the mark on election 2015 made by the SNP in Scotland.

The Liberal Democrats had sought to Europeanise British politics, to provide an educative lesson in the value of coalition and compromise and paid a heavy political price.  Party activists can provide chapter and verse on how they sought influence from within government – on tax thresholds, and green investments, and pension reforms – but could never quite get a public hearing for the benefits of making the compromises –

Even a majority government will inevitably be a Coalition, across the Conservative party between a One Nation leadership and the right-leaning backbenchers. David Cameron will certainly recall that John Major’s majority honeymoon did not last long in 1992, as Europe split the party.

David Cameron will have to navigate the politics of a European referendum. He will be confident of keeping the country in – but will want to keep the party together too.
But the Prime Minister is enormously strengthened by the surprise nature of his victory. Amid much discussion of whether Commons majorities were simply a thing of the past, he had managed to pull one out of the hat.

In the emergence of two very different parties, one unionist and one nationalist, as last night’s clear winners, some may see a paradox. Stopping that turning into a head-on collision may require a broad and comprehensive offer to Scotland from Westminster and, in Edinburgh, an ability to engage with that offer. The test of both leaders, strengthened by their respective mandates, will be whether they use that influence to seek the common ground.

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