Warning this is a long one!
So much stuff to talk about in the aftermath of the most fascinating election in my lifetime (I was born in July 1974).
I'll try and group my thoughts under a number of headings.
The Run-up to Election Night
As I had shared on Twitter in the couple of days running up to the election I had read a piece by Shaun Lawson on Our Kingdom that had convinced me the polling was wrong and the Tories were going be very close to a majority:
"The polls and (most of) the forecasts are wrong. Ed Miliband will not be the next PM" https://t.co/w7nEghzARu - V good and important piece— Mark Thompson (@MarkReckons) May 5, 2015
I had actually e-mailed a number of key activists and people in the media (some of whom also shared it) about this piece as I really felt like the scales had fallen from my eyes. I also opened up a dialogue with Shaun via DM on Twitter and he pointed me towards this very long post on Number Cruncher Politics by Matt Singh published 2 days before election day which analysed the “Shy Tory” factor stretching back over 50 years worth of data and concluded that the Tories were on course for a majority. It is a highly persuasive and hugely perceptive piece of psephological work which if there is any justice will lead to the author getting the respect and plaudits they deserve even though they are not part of the mainstream media.
As I hadn't had the time I didn't actually start reading this post until about 8:30pm on election day and finished it holed up in a hotel room in Margate at about 9:40pm, i.e. 20 minutes before the polls were due to close. At this point, absolutely convinced we were about to see an incredible result against almost all the polling I tweeted this:
Just starting to get the feeling that very soon Labour activists will be bitterly disappointed. And the denial will start at 10:01pm.— Mark Thompson (@MarkReckons) May 7, 2015
So when the exit poll at 10pm on election night predicted that Cameron was going to get 316 seats with Labour on 239 and the Lib Dems on 10 (and SNP in the high 50s) I was probably one of the very few people in the country to have been unsurprised.
Given that these exit polls are usually pretty accurate and use a completely different methodology from the other polls in the run up to an election (they sample 22,000 people's votes as they are coming out of about 140 polling stations hence you definitely know they voted for example and they are asked to fill out a mock ballot paper that is exactly the same as the actual one they have just filled in and then put it in a sealed ballot box) and the sample size is so much bigger I was well over 90% sure that this was the effect that Shaun and NCP had written about in the previous few days coming through. I thought Paddy Ashdown's attack on the poll was ridiculous and so it was proven a few hours later.
I spent the bulk of election night, from midnight with the BBC Radio Kent team in the Winter Gardens in Margate where the counts for Thanet North and South Thanet were being held. They chose that count because South Thanet was the seat that Farage was trying to capture although by the time I got there all the talk was that he was not going to win it judging by the mood of the camps and this also was correct.
I was on air almost continually from 1am to 6am so I experienced election night in a way I never had done before (for the 2010 one I had split my time between a party organised by the Guido Fawkes team – I had been one of the token Lib Dems I think amongst lots of Tories and then later at the National Liberal Club where I sat with then President Ros Scott, her husband Mark Valladares and others which had been fascinating in itself). I was alongside a panel including a couple of academics and a comedian (two comedians if you include Lembit Opik) all overseen by the excellent Julia George. We had various local political stars pop in to be interviewed including Al Murray the Pub Landlord who remained in character for the entire interview, Sir Roger Gale who my political antennae suggest will be one of the thorns in Cameron's side from the right and many others. The format was very free flowing and we were encouraged as panel members to chip in and ask questions which I must confess I took full advantage of!
As the night wore on and the extent of the Tory (and SNP) success and the relative failure of the other parties (despite in the case of UKIP and the Greens getting many more votes than they ever have done before) it evolved into the single most absorbing political event I have ever experienced (and probably will ever experience again).
The sheer number of political careers that were ended in the space of a few hours is unparalleled. I stayed up most of the night back in 1997 when I was a mere strapling living in Liverpool watching it on TV (alongside a die-hard Labour supporter and a Tory) and even that cannot compare. Instead of one “Portillo moment” there were almost too many to count as minister and shadow minister alike fell like ninepins. Douglas Alexander, Vince Cable (who looked like he had just been punched in the stomach at his declaration), Simon Hughes, Jim Murphy, Ed Davey, Ed Balls, David Laws, Danny Alexander, the list just went on and on. Even the Tories didn't entirely escape unscathed with rising star Esther McVey losing her Merseyside seat (I'm sure my Liverpool die-hard Labour friend was delighted with that small victory).
And of course it wasn't just those who lost their seats. By half way through the next day, three leaders of large political parties that between them had received more than 50% of the vote were gone. Ed Miliband first, followed by Nigel Farage and finally, inevitably Nick Clegg who had presided over almost certainly the most devastating election for a UK party in modern political history.
The Benefit of Hindsight
Already we are starting to see history being rewritten. I recall hearing the highly insightful Matthew Parris saying on a recent Times political podcast episode that whatever the eventual result was, everything that had happened through the campaign would be filtered through that prism and that is indeed what has started to happen. The slight stumble at the end of the BBC Question Time grilling of Ed Miliband will be played as much as Kinnock falling over in the sea has been. The moment in that same episode when Miliband refused to accept Labour had spent too much and there were audible gasps from the audience. The ridiculous obelisk. The late night dash to touch the hem of a loquacious comedian agitator. They will all be pointed at as now obvious missteps. Which they were of course but the Tories had their own, we'll just never hear about them again because they don't fit the narrative. Political history is effectively written by the winners.
For me though the problems with Labour go much, much deeper than a six week election campaign. Since the very start of the coalition I have felt that their attacks have been opportunistic and to a large extent hypocritical. To have listened to their spokespeople who between them have pretty much opposed every single cut that the previous government made. This then meant that when latterly during the parliament they tried to adopt the mantle of “fiscal responsibility” it very much did not ring true and they struggled to be heard and trusted on the issue. I was saying that in podcasts, broadcasts and in writing for years but I think the Labour people who engaged with me generally just thought I was attacking them because I was a Lib Dem and even when I left the Lib Dems because I was still a fellow traveller with them. But that was not true. I always want to see a strong opposition holding the government to account. This was simply not happening.
Despite a few flashes of what Miliband was capable of (preventing war in Syria which however you look at it was remarkable, the fuel price freeze that dominated the political agenda for weeks amongst the more notable ones) his opposition was generally leaden, managerial technocratic and unengaging. I was surprised in the end that his party actually lost seats but I never seriously thought they would overtake the Tories in seats following the election campaign.
I think and hope Labour have learned an important lesson about where elections are won from and it's not from the left. There are some noises off I have heard claiming that Miliband was not left enough. If they are allowed to prevail it will precipitate the end of the party as a serious political force (as I predicted could happen within a generation back in 2011 to not a little derision).
There was another, huge problem with Labour's approach during the last parliament which I raised numerous times, again to general derision from the left. It was that for a long time they seemed to be attacking the Lib Dems more than the Tories (my fellow former Lib Dem James Graham has also written about this very eloquently here). Even though the vast majority of the stuff that Labour didn't like were Tory policies, the Tories had 5/6ths of the MPs in the government and it is simply not possible for a junior coalition partner to force their entire programme through from their manifesto or indeed block everything in the larger partner's manifesto (the Lib Dems made their own huge mistakes in this area which I will come to later). All I seemed to hear from Labour for about the first two years was how the Lib Dems had “betrayed” their principles, how “you couldn't trust a word Nick Clegg said” and how “the Lib Dems only wanted to get their bums onto ministerial limo seats”. This last one by the way is utterly bizarre. Just put yourself in the position of someone like Nick Clegg or Vince Cable when they were beginning their climb up the political greasy pole. If either of them had been desperate to get their “bum on a ministerial limo seat” they would have joined other parties. Clegg would have joined the Tories (that would have been perfectly natural for him to do given he had been a SpAd for Leon Brittan in Europe) and Cable would never have left the Labour Party for the SDP in 1982, and then perhaps more importantly when it became clear there was not going to be a realignment of politics on the left he never would have stayed in the Lib Dems. The same applies to all other Lib Dems. If they had wanted guaranteed power they would have joined other parties. They are almost the definition of politicians who were willing to stick by their principles given they all chose to remain in a party that had not been in government since 1945. The idea that Clegg, Cable, Laws, Huhne etc. all had a Machiavellian plan to join a small party with little representation under a system that hugely favours big parties and usually gives them majorities and then bide their time just to wait until there was a once in a blue moon hung parliament and then, after just 20 or 30 short years “BANG! Ministerial limo seats!” is risible.
The net effect of all these attacks on the Lib Dems was of course to reduce their support. But the primary beneficiaries of this were, you've guessed it, the Tories. The majority of Lib Dem seats were places where the second biggest party was Conservative. It was obvious that if you spend much of your time attacking the Lib Dems the end result would be to increase the number of seats where the Tories could get a plurality of voters to plump for their candidate. And indeed a fair few of the seats that the Tories won last Thursday, the ones that made the difference between being maybe 20 seats short and having an overall majority were taken by effectively cannibalising their coalition partners. So the Labour attacks were very effective, they just meant that they gifted dozens of seats to their primary opponents. There is also the question of “opportunity cost” with so much of their focus on going for the Lib Dems at the expense of fighting the Tories. If the seats that Labour had taken off the Lib Dems were taken off the Tories instead (quite possible with a different allocation of resources) the Tories now would not have a majority. To have approached the election like this demonstrates the extent to which Labour were blinded by tribalism and how much they had begun to believe their own propaganda of “Lib Dem betrayal”.
They need to have a full “drains up” inspection of their machine, party positioning and direction if they are to have any chance of avoiding the period of 2010 – 2030 being a repeat of what happened between 1979 and 1997, i.e. finding themselves on the receiving end of repeated drubbings at the hands of the Tories.
The Lib Dems have come very close to being destroyed in this election. There are a myriad of reasons for this but for me the best way to sum it up is that before 2010 they positioned themselves as a party of the centre-left and in government they repositioned themselves as a party of the centre-right. Another important thing to note is that despite good intentions they let a lot of illiberal policies either through (e.g. secret courts) or remain completely unreformed (e.g. drugs policy) which although that won't bother the majority of people was devastating to the party's core vote.
There were of course individual mistakes, the most obvious of which was tuition fees. Indeed on this it's easy to forget what was agreed in the coalition agreement (which I voted for at the Special Conference in May 2010 when I was still a Lib Dem member). The agreement was that the Lib Dems could abstain on this policy. I was a little queasy about this thinking that even just abstaining would be damaging to the party but I was willing to trust the party leadership would play it well and make it abundantly clear they were not supporting any rise. In the end though many Lib Dem MPs* ended up voting for the rise, not least Vince Cable who was the principle author of the policy in his role as Business Secretary. This was catastrophic. I also think it is fair to say that the leadership would have struggled to get the 2/3rds majority they required from the Special Conference** had it been clear this is what would happen. I am sure that at the time Clegg thought the party would abstain. It was only during the time in government that they decided this was untenable due to Cable's role and I am sure motivated by wanting to improve things allowed Cable to steer the legislation through the Commons. Indeed the policy was both an improvement on what the Tories would have done alone, and in my view also the previous policy given how it reduced the average monthly repayments by increasing the salary at which it kicked in. In fact it was a graduate tax in all but name. But that's totally beside the point. Clegg had no mandate from his party to do what he did and the betrayal narrative that this act hugely strengthened in the party's opponents was set in concrete.
This was an example of Clegg ignoring what his party wanted once in government. There were many more examples. Ironically Clegg could have turned his party's structures into a strength. One of the reasons I joined the party in the first place was because of its internal democracy. The fact that the voting members at conference decided the policy. This could have been a strength for the former Lib Dem leader because of the dynamics of high level negotiations. Professional negotiators know that something that superficially can appear a weakness (the requirement to defer to others) can actually be a strength. I have experienced this in the business world when negotiating a large sale of a piece of software a number of years ago. The prospective buyers kept talking about “internal stakeholders” and every time we tried to edge forward they would say they needed to go away and talk to them. I don't know if these “internal stakeholders” even existed but whether they did or not was irrelevant. Using this device allowed them to go away and take some time to respond to various points. It also allowed them to play the “our internal stakeholders would never accept that” card to try and stymie our tactics. Bluffs can of course be called in these situations but they help to drive the dynamic of negotiations. Clegg had a perfect opportunity to play his party's internal democracy to his advantage. He could have insisted to Cameron on e.g. secret courts that he would have to defer to his party as it is an issue of core principle for his membership. Then when the party inevitably voted the proposal down he would have had democratic cover to order his ministers to vote against it. Instead of this though, Clegg became a champion of the policy and tried to persuade his membership of its merits. He also tried to use various procedural devices and timings to prevent the membership from expressing its view. And when this failed he then simply ignored the views of the membership and went ahead anyway (and this was far from the only time this happened). Some very good and long standing members of the party left as a result of that decision. I nearly did, although I bottled it in the end only to leave later that year anyway for slightly different but related reasons. The most memorable resignation over secret courts was Jo Shaw, a Lib Dem activist who was widely respected inside and outside the party and who had campaigned tirelessly on this issue. She resigned in a speech on stage at conference directly after the debate and the vote, the result of which she knew would be ignored by Clegg in one of the best political speeches I have ever heard. She channeled the ghost of Harry Willcock stating in her sign off that she is “A liberal and a democrat and I am against this sort of thing.”.
The Lib Dems will do a lot of soul searching in the aftermath of what has just happened to them. The sad truth is though that it will probably be decades before they can build back up to the sort of parliamentary strength they had in the last 10 years, if ever. With the fracturing of the vote and no prospect of the electoral system being reformed in the short to medium term they could simply cease to exist as a party in 5 or 10 years time.
Well blimey. Who'd a thunk it? Cameron back in No 10 with an actual majority.
The first thing to say is well done. Very few people thought this was even possible. Yes, I know his party only got 37% of the vote (which has been distorted into 50%+ of the seats) and he played fast and loose with the Union to get over the line but as a political power play it is essentially unparalleled in modern British politics. In fact from where we are now Cameron is starting to look like a Francis Urquhart type character whose tactics and strategy have been totally vindicated, at least from the perspective of someone who wants to win at any cost (which he did). He will now rank among the longer lived PMs of our history such as Thatcher and Blair. Everyone's perceptions will need to be adjusted and indeed that is already happening.
However it is easy to get carried away here. From where he started it is indeed a sweet victory to go from a minority position to a majority one and to have gained 25 or so seats. But his majority is 12. OK, 20 if you factor in that Sinn Fein do not take their seats. This is a majority lower than John Major had in 1992 and we all know what happened there.
I suspect that the rebellious nature of the Tory party in recent years will subside a bit and they will be a little more disciplined now the government does not have a majority of 70 (which is what the Lib Dems gave it previously) but even so it will only take a few backbenchers to vote against the government or abstain for Cameron to fail to get his legislation through. And a few by-elections could reduce that majority to nothing as happened with Major (although MPs are generally younger and healthier than they were 25 years ago).
My point is that despite all the plaudits Cameron and the current political capital and strength he has as he exercises his patronage and rides the inevitable honeymoon bounce he will eventually be in quite a weak position. Europe is going to dominate the first half of this parliament until the referendum is held and given the strength of feeling of a substantial number of his backbenchers on this issue he could effectively be held to ransom by them forcing him to go further on his negotiations and perhaps even meaning he eventually has to campaign for “out” rather than “in”. I don't think this is the most likely outcome but I can certainly conceive of it happening.
The strange thing though is that the government will probably not fall over the next 5 years as no matter what else happens Cameron's party is unlikely to lose a vote of no confidence. And with the Prime Minister unable to go to the country without a 2/3rds majority in the House a voluntary dissolution is also unlikely. All this assumes however that the Fixed Term Parliament Act remains in place which is not a given. I am sure even now Cameron and his close allies are wargaming the politics of potentially repealing it. He could say it had been necessary in a time of instability and coalition but it is not needed any more. If he wants to do this he'll need to do it quickly before he gets bogged down in the minutiae of the next parliament and while he is still riding high following his victory.
I also think it is unlikely that the Tories will make all the welfare cuts they said they would during the campaign. I suspect the policy has served its purpose to help with their “scrounger vs striver" narrative and in reality they will find a way to fiddle around a bit, claim they have actually made the cuts but fudge it so there is not as much pain as an actual £12bn cut would cause. Oh and by the way it will suit both the Tories and Labour to pretend that the cuts have really happened, Osborne to burnish his “tough” credentials and Labour to continue their “Tories are heartless” campaign. This will be a reflection of what happened in 2012 when Osborne actually did change course quite significantly (effectively a Plan B) and allow various fiscal stabilisers to do their job properly whilst pretending he hadn't and it suited both main parties to pretend it hadn't happened.
The SNP's success in Scotland since they lost the independence referendum last September has been simply stunning. They have gone from around 20% odd of the vote to around 50% and in the wake of this taken all but 3 of Scotland's 59 constituencies. Indeed many of their seats now have majorities of 10,000 or more making this a semi-permanent fixture of the political scene.
Yes, Cameron helped to stoke separatist sentiment in both countries with his EVEL speech the morning after the referendum result but even without that it was clear something special has been happening in Scotland's politics. Indeed Jim Murphy sensed the way the tide was going in 2009 when he told Gaby Hinsliff of The Observer that he was going back to Scotland to “Fight the Nats”. Gaby was somewhat confused but Murphy had just sensed what is now obvious to us all, that the SNP were on the rise.
The question now is what will Nicola Sturgeon do with her Westminster troops. The truth is a Tory majority might just be the best outcome for her. Now she doesn't have to worry about making deals with Labour and being perceived as “collaborating with the enemy”. Instead she can oppose the Tories whilst at the same time insisting the election result demonstrates that Scotland need more and more powers as otherwise they are being dictated to by politicians who are simply not representative of what Scots want. And it will be very, very difficult for Cameron to counter this. In fact I don't think he'll even bother. I think he will give the SNP almost everything they demand short of actual independence but to all intents and purposes they will have won what they wanted. Another referendum in 5 or 10 years time will result in formal secession but by their actions in the general election of 2015 the Scots have already essentially written the cheque for the end of the Union and signed it. They just haven't cashed it in yet but that will surely come.
UKIP and the Greens
There is a lot less to say about these parties at least in parliamentary terms than they deserve but that is a simple function of the fact that although between them they got around 17% of the vote they only got 0.3% of the seats. Yes that is totally unfair. In fact it is monstrously, egregiously unfair and long term readers of this blog will know how utterly frustrating I find this. But this is where we are and the fact that we now have a Tory majority, given they are the party most wedded to the First Past the Post system we are not going to see any change in the next few years.
But it is remarkable what UKIP have achieved in vote share terms at least. To have gone from around 3% to around 13% quadrupling their vote is astounding. Under a fairer system that would be a stunning result and the party and its leader would be lauded. As it is, because Farage didn't win his seat in South Thanet (or any of their other target seats) and overall UKIP actually lost one of the seats it won in last year's by-elections it is widely perceived that the party has failed. I personally think that is a misreading. They still have parliamentary representation and in terms of vote share they are the third biggest party in the country. They are also in second place in a lot of constituencies now and in some ways that is more important than how many seats they got this time round as it positions them very well to capitalise in 2020.
As for the Greens, well they still have one MP who has managed to increase her vote share and also they have managed to go from around 1% to around 4%, like UKIP a huge improvement. I suspect in years to come they will continue to take votes from Labour from the left and assuming Caroline Lucas regains the leadership they could do even better next time. They came close in a couple of other constituencies this time around.
We are literally living in a different political world. Scotland has gone SNP yellow. Great swathes of England outside of the North and London are blue. The Lib Dems are almost nowhere to be seen and for the first time in nearly 20 years we have a majority Conservative government at Westminster. It will take time for all of us to adjust to this new reality.
One thing I am almost certain of though is that I will never again witness a night of politics as exciting or devastating as the one I watched from a chair in a makeshift radio studio in Margate last Friday morning.
*Before anyone says, yes I know not all Lib Dem MPs voted for it, indeed many backbenchers did not but that is almost beside the point. The party leadership and its MPs in government did vote for it and that was devastating.
**I am aware that technically the Special Conference was not required as constitutionally within the Lib Dem Party it is a back-stop that is only needed to be used if the minimum 75% majority from the parliamentary party and the Federal Executive cannot be achieved which in this case it already had been. But once the Special Conference had been called (which Clegg probably correctly judged was politically necessary even though it wasn't technically required), they had to get the 2/3rds majority or the coalition would have been dead in the water. It is also worth pointing out that the parliamentary party and the FE may well not have got over the 75% threshold if the way the tuition fees situation would play out had been properly understood.