For weeks, public opinion polls in the UK have shown the contest for leadership of the UK government to be a dead heat, likely to require a complicated negotiation to achieve a new governing coalition. Nearly every poll showed the Conservatives and Labour to be hovering around 34 percent support each. No one was expected to win an outright majority. Late last night, however, exit polls showed something radically different: David Cameron’s Conservatives beat Labour 37 to 31 in the popular vote, and would hold an outright majority in Parliament, while the Scottish National Party won nearly every seat in Scotland.
Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, called the result “cruel and punishing” for his Liberal Democratic party, which had been part of the governing coalition with the Conservatives. The Lib-Dems would be left with only 8 seats, and Clegg would resign as party leader. Results were also bruising for the Labour party: Ed Milliband would also resign as party leader, after falling even further behind the majority Tories. Yesterday’s vote was only the 3rd time since World War II that an incumbent party expanded its number of seats in the House of Commons.
This morning, a phenomenon known as “the shy Tory” wended its way into the news cycle. Pollsters know that in a surge of support for the Conservatives, there is a segment of the electorate that wants to vote Conservative, but doesn’t want to appear insensitive to social concerns that Labour or the Lib-Dems might prioritize. Polling directors have cited a miscalculation about the “shy Tory” effect as accounting for much of the error in the pre-election polling.
Maybe the most significant shock to the British political system is the near total victory of the SNP in Scotland, which won 56 out of 59 seats in the Scottish Parliament. Nicola Sturgeon will have not only a clear mandate to govern in Scotland, but also the burden of an historic responsibility to shape the nation’s future in a concrete and comprehensive way. While the Scottish independence vote sided with remaining in the UK, yesterday’s election shows there is an appetite for real and persistent promotion of Scotland’s interests.
The 56 seats the electorate gave to Sturgeon and the SNP suggests a vote of support for the SNP pledge to protect Scottish interests in the wider UK system. Many analysts, including the outgoing Labour and Lib-Dem leaders, believe the Tories’ surge was in part a response to the surge in Scottish nationalism north of the border.
The 2015 UK elections marked a quiet revolt of the voter against the public opinion machinery of party politics. Voters, it seems, are saying: we have been told to want one thing, one standard, one dynamic for how power shifts, at this moment, and we are going to ask for a different way forward. In Scotland, there is a desire to match careful collaboration with clear and decisive promotion of national interest. In the wider UK, there is a desire to ensure that, as with the Scottish vote, power is not allocated elsewhere.
It is not clear that David Cameron’s victory provides a clear path to success in government. He and the Tories will have a narrow majority, and the many divisive and thorny issues that played a central role in shifting the mindset of the electorate will likely create unwelcome tensions. Given that, the Tory majority does appear to be a vote of confidence in the Prime Minister’s ability to safely navigate such turbulent waters.
From afar, I think there is a demand from the electorate for a great recognition of the voice of the citizen in British politics: the choices that were made in this quiet revolt say parties, campaigns and experts should not decide, but rather the will of the people to build a future that makes sense, according to local interest and personal values, should govern. The challenge, for David Cameron, Nicola Sturgeon, and the new Labour and Lib-Dem leaders, will be to respond to that subtle but near universal demand, in a way that achieves unity, dignity and reliable prosperity, at the human scale.