The election was always due to be surprising, and many expected that we would be left with a somewhat chaotic mix of parties out of which a coalition would have to be cobbled together. Pollsters, journalists, the bookies all presumed a hung parliament without any clear winner. They were all wrong. With David Cameron pulling the biggest electoral shock since 1992 and Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP decimating support for Labour and the Lib Dems in Scotland, the shape of British politics may be changed forever. Those two are the big winners from last night, but for the three other major party leaders, it appears their careers are over. Nick Clegg and Farage have already resigned, and it’s likely Milliband’s will be in by the end of the day.
Of the three, it’ll be Farage who will likely to be remembered as having gone down swinging. UKIP have won around 12% of the total popular vote- overtaking the Liberal Democrats to become the UK’s third popular political force- but this has added up to a grand total of one MP, Douglas Carswell in Clacton. Farage’s own bid to enter parliament has failed with a narrow loss in South Thanet, but he will probably be remembered as the man who transformed a party that in 2010 was basically a non-entity into a true political power in England (obviously, they are not well supported Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland). Where UKIP go next will be a major question, given that Farage was so much the lifeblood of the party. Carswell seems the obvious candidate for the leadership, but he lacks Farage’s charisma and will have to try and rally a party that has been left with only him in parliament. UKIP made exceptional gains off Labour in the North of England, and the plan has always been to try and convert these gains into seats in 2020, but whether they can do so without their figurehead is the issue. Carswell can likely turn UKIP into a more professional political output, but UKIPs core voters won’t want to support a party that may become more of an ‘establishment’ party, given that Farage always rallied against such.
In contrast, Nick Clegg appeared a completely broken man, even after clinging on to his seat in Sheffield Hallam. The Liberal Democrats were routed, losing 46 MPs leaving them with only 8. Never in the history of the Liberal Democrats have they had so few MPs, and, it appears that Clegg’s decision to take them into coalition has destroyed his own party. Major figures such as Vince Cable, Danny Alexander and Ed Davey all lost their seats last night presumably as a result of a backlash against propping up the Conservatives. How the Liberal Democrats respond is going to be fascinating, as they are at their lowest ebb since the Liberals of the 1951 election. Losing so many MPs loses the party funding, loses them constituency offices and loses them a huge amount of influence, and they are now the joint fourth largest party in parliament with the DUP, behind the SNP. The next leader will have to rebuild from the ground up, and will likely go back to the old liberal traditions, education; social justice and issues of equality in order to try and create a party identity that can rebuild support among Lib Dem voters who appear to have abandoned them for the Conservatives in England or the SNP in Scotland. Clegg will likely be out of British politics in the year, no doubt David Cameron will repay his coalition partner with a position as EU Commissioner, and whoever fills his shoes has the hardest job in British politics on their hands.
For Labour, the night was almost as bad. Going into the night, it looked like they would have an opportunity to put Ed Miliband in Downing Street with SNP support, but along with the near total wipe-out in Scotland, they failed to make any gains in England and are now faced with five more years of opposition and no clear way of ever getting back into government. For Ed Miliband, last night was his political obituary, and it makes for hideous reading. Leading the Labour Party against a government that has stripped back welfare spending, failed to tackle immigration and made radical reforms to education and the NHS, he should never have lost to this extent. Whether it was fears of Scottish Nationalism, people voting for continuity over change or Miliband’s inability to engage voters with policy or charisma (the Moses moment will surely go down as one of the biggest election gaffes ever) the Labour Party failed entirely to capitalise and saw their vote decimated by a late surge of Conservative voters.
There were moments when Labour felt that they may have the right man: his rousing, no notes, 2011 conference speech; his better than expected performance in the debates; his ability to present popular socialism in a credible fashion, but too often he failed to make dents in the armour of David Cameron. Now he will be remembered in the hall of terrible Labour election defeats alongside Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock. How the Labour Party deals with replacing Miliband will be intriguing, with only one seat left in Scotland it appears that they can no longer count on that as their heartland. In order to make gains in England, it would seem like they would have to return to the New Labour style of Tony Blair, as it is apparent English voters will not accept the socialism-lite of Miliband.
Last night was career defining, for Cameron it means legitimacy, a full mandate for another five years. For Sturgeon, one of the biggest swings in British electoral history. For Farage, he can leave with his head held somewhat high, but Clegg and Miliband leave at the lowest point in either of their parties’ recent histories. For UKIP, the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party now is a time for introspection, and how to move on in a political landscape that has been entirely re-shaped with the events of last night.