Stunning victory

Print edition : May 29, 2015

Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife, Samantha, at Number 10 Downing Street in London on May 8. Photo: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

Ed Miliband of the Labour Party and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats at the Victory in Europe day ceremony at the Cenotaph in central London on May 8. Photo: Peter Nicholld/Reuters

Niccola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party. Photo: Russell Cheyne/Reuters

David Cameron’s Conservative Party beats all predictions and emerges as the winner in the general election.

THE Conservative Party’s stunning victory in the fiercely fought general election in the United Kingdom on May 7 was wholly unexpected. As the outcome of the election unfolded on May 8, it became apparent that everybody—political parties, candidates, pollsters and the media —had got it monumentally wrong. This was not the hung parliament situation leading to a coalition arrangement with the smaller parties playing a dominant role that polling pundits had been predicting for the past two months. Even as it became apparent that the Conservatives would coast to a comfortable victory with sufficient numbers in the House of Commons to form a government on their own, the magnitude of the defeat faced by the Labour Party and the Liberal Democratic Party hit home.

In the course of the day, three party leaders resigned their posts —Edward Miliband from the Labour Party, Nick Clegg from the Liberal Democrats, and Nigel Farage from the anti-immigration Eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip). Farage stepped down after he lost his South Thanet seat to a Conservative candidate.

The Conservative Party won 331 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons and 38 per cent of the votes polled. The Labour Party won 232 seats and 30 per cent of the votes. The stellar performance of the Scottish National Party (SNP) is the story of the 2015 election. The party was poised to do well, but the 56 seats (out of the 59 Scottish seats) it won surpassed its own expectations. Its victory, with only 4-5 per cent of the total vote, brought to an end the historical dominance of the Labour Party in Scotland. The right-wing Ukip secured 13 per cent of the votes, but only one of its candidates got elected. The Green Party retained its lone Brighton Pavilion seat, which was held by Caroline Lucas. The Democratic Unionist Party of Ireland won eight seats and the Welsh Plaid Cymru won three.

The first signs of a vastly different result from what pollsters and media analysts had predicted came at 10 p.m. on May 7 when exit polls were announced. The poll findings were greeted with incredulity, with Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democratic leader, even declaring that he would “eat his hat” if the exit polls were right. Once the election results started coming in, leading pollsters such as YouCov, Ipsos Mori, and Survation were hard-pressed to understand what went wrong with their pre-election forecasting models in which, for the past several months, Labour and Conservatives were neck and neck in the 33-36 per cent range in respect of vote share.

Labour losses

For the Labour Party, the defeat has been so hard that it is now seeking not only a leadership change but perhaps a redefinition of what it stands for. The Labour Party was expected to lose heavily in Scotland, its traditional base where it held 40 seats in the previous Parliament, but it was wiped out by the SNP landslide. Jim Murphy, the Scottish leader of the Labour Party, lost in East Renfrewshire, a seat he had held since 1987. The party’s campaign chief, Douglas Alexander, lost Paisley and Renfrewshire South to Mhairi Black, a 20-year-old woman SNP candidate. Margaret Curran, another prominent Scottish Labour Member of Parliament, was also ousted by the SNP. The defeat of Labour, however, cannot be blamed on its losses in Scotland. As Niccola Sturgeon, the charismatic and capable leader of the SNP told the media, even discounting its performance in Scotland, the Labour Party would have been far short of the necessary numbers. The party lost heavily to the Conservative Party in central England and Wales.

However, in spite of facing heavy losses elsewhere, Labour increased its control of London, improving on its past performance to take 45 of the 73 seats, seven more than its previous tally. Its biggest loss was the defeat of Ed Balls, the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, in his Morely and Outwood seat in Leeds by a narrow margin.

Lib Dem punished

The Liberal Democratic Party suffered major casualties. The party held great promise when it won 57 seats in 2010, but the compromises it made while in the coalition, especially on the issue of college fees which it had promised to abolish but reneged on when in power, was not forgotten by the electorate. While Clegg won his Sheffield Hallam seat, the party lost all the seats it had held in its stronghold of south-west England, and was wiped out in London.

The most prominent Liberal Democrat to lose was Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasure, in Scotland. Former Business Secretary Vince Cable lost in Twickenham, while Simon Hughes, a senior Liberal Democrat and MP of 32 years’ standing, lost in Bermondsey and Old Southwark to Labour by around 5,000 votes. Another major defeat was that of George Galloway, leader of the Respect Party, who lost Bradford West—a majority South Asian constituency—to newcomer Naz Shah of the Labour Party. Galloway, who left the Labour Party over its support for the invasion of Iraq, is a colourful figure on the left in Parliament and a powerful speaker whose interventions are heard with interest and admiration, even if grudgingly. He won the Bradford seat in a byelection and on the strength of his strong opposition to the West-led wars in West Asia. He was, however, seen as a polarising figure, and the loss of his seat is an indication of his alienation from a section of the electorate that once voted for him.

Prime Minister David Cameron lost no time in getting his new all-Conservative Cabinet—mostly a refurbishment of the old—together, announcing the return of Theresa May as Home Secretary, Phillip Hammond as Foreign Secretary, George Osborne as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Michael Fallon as Defence Secretary.

With an incontrovertible vote delivered by the electorate, the whys and wherefores of the election victories and defeats will be examined.

The foremost question here is why the electorate voted back a party committed to austerity for the next five years. The legacy of the last Conservative Party-led coalition is a contested one. While the party claims that it has led the country into economic recovery and created two million jobs, the economic reality is that one million people in relatively affluent Britain still depend on food banks for their survival. The number of people in poverty, according to a report from New Policy Institute, has increased in the past two years by 800,000, from 13.2 million to 14 million. The numbers in “deep poverty” has increased from 8.9 to 9.6 million, the same report states. And yet, the Conservative Party has won on a stated programme of making welfare cuts of £12 billion over the next five years in order to reduce the deficit. This will only erode the living standards of ordinary working families further.

Julia Unwin, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a charity that focusses on poverty, warned of the dangers of deficit reduction through public spending cutbacks. “If further deficit reduction does not protect the incomes of the poorest, and the economy continues to produce a large proportion of low-paid, insecure jobs that trap people in poverty rather than acting as a spring board, levels of poverty may increase further in the next parliament,” she wrote in her blog.

April 2013 was the point at which the major benefit changes began, according to the New Policy Institute report on poverty, with the bedroom tax, the overall benefit cap and the council tax support cuts acting together to cause a fall in income for those affected.

While the Labour Party promised a better and fairer deal for the working people of Britain, it nevertheless presented the deficit as an economic issue that could only be reduced by spending cuts. Miliband promised that his government would ring-fence health, education and foreign aid from spending cuts. According to Professor Ivor Gaber from the University of Sussex, in times of economic austerity “people prefer to stay with whom they know”. The Labour Party under Miliband was well left of New Labour under Tony Blair, but it is still seen as a party that offers a form of Austerity-lite. Secondly, the electorate may have been more impressed by Cameron as a future Prime Minister than Miliband, Gaber told Frontline. Cameron scored consistently higher in public polls as a leader who would make a more decisive Prime Minister, and although Miliband’s ratings improved considerably over the period of the campaign, he always lagged behind Cameron. Combined with other factors, this may also have played a part in people’s choices.

On the issue of immigration, which was one of the central concerns of the electorate, both Labour and Conservatives played to the Ukip’s populist though poisonous prescriptions. Natalie Bennett of the Green Party, in her election campaign, referred to this as trying to “Out Ukip Ukip”. When addressing the immigration issue, Miliband did not sufficiently distance himself from the Conservatives. His remarks on immigration were always preceded by the assurance: “Labour has changed its position on immigration,” and he spoke the language of the Conservatives, highlighting “controls” and “border patrols”.

The Labour Party failed to craft a credible position on Scotland, resulting in a shift of the left and social democratic support to the SNP, which is now the organisation seen as fighting the economic case for Scotland. The party must now redefine itself clearly if it wishes to remain relevant to British politics.

A major challenge before the Cameron government is the conduct of an in-out referendum in 2017 on whether Britain should remain in the European Union, and the consequences of that. Here, too, the terms of the debate has been set by the Ukip, which strongly advocates that Britain should leave the E.U. Cameron has succumbed to the narrow nationalistic politics of this demand and, as Prime Minister in the last government, has clashed with E.U. leaders on the question of treaty renegotiation and reform. His bargaining position today will be the stronger for his electoral mandate, although this is an issue fraught with political and economic uncertainties.

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