“UK Election: What the hell?” was Jason O’Mahony’s blog title on Friday and I can well understand why. Absolutely no one, except my mother, saw that result coming. How did it come about?
In fact, it was all to do with the remarkable decline of the Liberal Democrats. The Conservative/Liberal coalition had a majority of 78, and it stood to reason that if the Liberal Democrats began to lose serious numbers of seats to the Conservatives (i.e. seats which already contributed to the parliamentary majority), the Conservatives would themselves then stand a chance of forming that majority alone. Most polls suggested, however, they would lose only a handful of their 57 pre-existing seats to their coalition partners (and a by-election told the same story), making this largely irrelevant.
Only they did not lose a handful. They lost 27. That alone gave the Conservatives a working majority, and from there it was only a matter of trying to hold on to the ground they had.
That was not supposed to be easy, however – Lord Ashcroft’s constituency polls suggested they would lose a net 41 seats directly to Labour.
In the event, they lost just two (net) plus one more to UKIP.
It is, therefore, a relatively simple story of how the Conservatives turned a similar vote share (up just under a percentage point) into an overall majority, regardless of Scotland. This was mostly to do with Conservatives voting the same way they did last time, plus a breakdown in the Liberal Democrat vote causing a split which enabled Liberal seats to be gained easily where the Conservatives were the main challengers.
The fundamental point to all of this is that, in times of possible difficulty and even fear, voters’ emotional response is always to shift to the right for protection. As this is predominantly an emotional response, many sympathetic to the left simply discount it as possible – leaving them exasperated when the results come in. That is to leave quite aside the discussion that Labour “can only win from the centre ground” – which is another way of saying that Labour, and left-leaning people in general, need to come to terms with the fact England as a whole is positioned further to the right than they care to admit.
I am still astonished, though, at how the pollsters got it so remarkably wrong and thus led us all down a different narrative. We’ll come back to that!