Britain’s general election outcome – a narrow majority for the Conservative Party – was unexpected. Polls and pundits had predicted a hung parliament, too close to call whether Conservative or Labour would be the largest party.
Much of the pre-election talk was of a minority Labour government, sustained by the smaller anti-austerity, anti-Trident (Britain’s controversial nuclear weapons system) parties which were surging in the polls.
In the event, the Conservatives emerged as clear winners with 331 seats and 36.9% of the vote, surprising even themselves, and forming a majority government for the first time since the 1992 to 1997 government of John Major. The real losers were the Liberal Democrats, previously in coalition with the Conservatives, with their number of parliamentary seats reduced from 56 to 8. They were roundly punished by their electorate for putting a Conservative government in power for five years with its massive ideologically driven austerity programme, redistributing wealth from ordinary people to the rich: after five years of coalition government the rich have never been richer.
Labour fell short of its expected outcome, with 232 seats and 30.4% of the vote. It had failed to present an alternative economic strategy, accepting the Conservative narrative that deep spending cuts were necessary, and widely known as the party of ‘austerity-lite’. Insufficient numbers of voters were prepared to vote Labour on this basis, particularly when Cameron was able to point to some current economic indicators, suggesting that the economy was going into recovery and it was better to stick with the Conservatives’ ‘safe pair of hands’. Labour had failed since the last election in 2010 to effectively challenge the Conservative assertion that Labour was responsible for Britain’s economic crisis – rather than fighting back on the grounds that this was a global economic crisis – and it was now too late to bust this myth.
There are two particularly significant factors to this election. Firstly, the Scottish National Party – the remarkable success story of the election – which took 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland, mostly at the expense of Labour which was previously dominant in Scotland and has now been reduced to one seat. The SNP previously held 6 seats, but has now become the third largest party in the UK. Since the No vote in the Scottish referendum campaign last year, there has been an extraordinary resurgence in grass roots political activism and engagement in Scotland, based around the Yes campaign, manifested in a kind of radical nationalist awakening which has resulted in this transformatory vote. The SNP campaigned on a strongly anti-austerity and anti-Trident platform – working closely with Plaid Cymru (the Party of Wales) and the Green Party, whose three women leaders completely altered the dynamic of the pre-election debates. The SNP managed to break through the constraints of the first-past-the-post electoral system, partly because of the nature of their policies and the continuing strong sentiment on independence, but also because the SNP has already formed the government in the devolved Scottish parliament where a form of proportional representation is in operation. From that start it was possible to break the mould in the Westminster election.
This brings us to the second significant factor – that this election can be understood as the latest stage in the ongoing and increasing crisis of Britain’s electoral system. Under the first-past-the post-system, large numbers of voters are completely unrepresented in parliament and this election has made it very clear. The number of seats gained by the SNP would suggest they won virtually all the votes, but in fact they polled about half the votes cast. Take two other parties who have had surges in support this time round: the far-right UK Independence party got the third highest share of the vote – 12.6% or almost 4 million votes but took only one seat; and the Green Party which took 3.8% or around a million votes also took only one seat. The demand for electoral reform is now accelerating; PR already exists in Scottish and Welsh parliaments, the European elections and the Greater London Authority election and it will be increasingly difficult for the government to hold onto such a transparently unfair system. There are already calls for a constitutional convention on this question and Labour will now have understood why change is necessary – with PR it wouldn’t have lost virtually all its seats in Scotland to the SNP. A change in the electoral system would also provide the possibility for the development of an electorally viable radical left party.
Meanwhile, in the days since the election, there has been an upsurge in protest and street activity – the prospect of five more years of austerity is galvanising people into action, to defend what remains of our welfare state and defeat the false narrative of neo-liberalism. Public contempt for and mistrust of the establishment had never been so strong; drawing together these factors provides the basis for working in unity to organise for an alternative.