Friday, May 8, 2015

A Conservative Majority: Huh?

Well, this wasn't supposed to happen, right?

Let's briefly recap developments in yesterday's General Election:

1. The Conservative Party not just picked up seats in Westminster. They picked up enough seats to form a majority government (a total of 331, or 7 more than the 324 for a majority), albeit barely. This means the coalition arrangement with the Liberal Democrats is no more.

NOTE: A majority is 326 out of 650, but Sinn Fein members do not take their seats and the Speaker does not traditionally vote. This means a working majority is 324.

2. The Liberal Democrats went from 57 seats to....8. Liberal Democrats, in particular, established themselves as a constituent service party and many members built solid independent brands in their seats. This did not work in this election at all. LibDem voters either voted SNP (in Scotland) or Conservative (in England). Many of the Conservative gains in England came at LibDem expense. Nearly all the major figures in the party--Danny Alexander, Vincent Cable, Charles Kennedy, and Ed Davey--lost. So, too, did Jenny Willott--the LibDem Whip from Wales featured in the BBC's Inside the Commons.

3. The Scottish Nationalist Party picked up 50 seats in Scotland, controlled all but THREE of the 59 Scottish seats. Labour, to put it bluntly, got eviscerated in its traditional stronghold. Even the head of the Scottish Labour Party, Jim Murphy, lost his seat.

4. UKIP effectively became the third party in British politics, displacing the Liberal Democrats. But, because UKIP support was spread out, they managed only one seat. Nigel Farrage, the colorful UKIP Leader, did not win the seat in South Thanet.

5. Labour had an awful night. While they improved their vote share overall nationally and gained 15 seats in England, they lost all but one seat in Scotland and most of what they gained in England came at the expense of the Liberal Democrats and not at the Conservatives. They also lost one seat in Wales. Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, lost his seat. This would be roughly analogous in the US to the Majority Party Leader losing his seat (so, think Eric Cantor losing in the primary back in 2014). Labour did pick up some marginal seats, but these gains were cancelled out by Conservative picks up. By and large, marginal seats targeted by Labour went to the Conservatives in England.

6. David Cameron will be going back to Number 10, but he'll be facing a new opposition leaders at Question Time. Ed Miliband has announced his resignation, as has Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage.

No one expected a Conservative majority. Every preelection forecast indicated a hung parliament with conservatives losing seats and a Labour-SNP coalition government forming. What happened? Here are three quick ideas.

1. Polling was off. Nicol Rae, my Dean here at Montana State and a Scot, reminded me that there's been a tendency to under-count the conservative vote--this was the case in 1992 when John Major won a surprise victory and was returned to Number 10. Perhaps this happened again--and made a difference in a lot of close races.

2. The campaign mattered. Maybe the polls weren't so much wrong as that undecideds swung overwhelmingly in one direction. The Conservative campaign counted heavily on two messages: We've brought you a strong economy and a vote for Labour will put that in jeopardy was the first message. The second was that a vote for Labour is really a  vote for a coalition government with SNP. That likely hurt Labour among "soft" conservative voters who abandoned the Liberal Dems. What is perhaps more interesting is the question of working class voters. They might have abandoned Labour and voted UKIP, which might have helped conservatives win some marginal seats. That question needs exploration.

3. Losing the independence campaign helped, not hurt SNP. Why? Two reasons. First, SNP built a solid campaign organization that they could then easily employ less than a year later in a general election campaign. Second, one of the pillars of the independence campaign was a vote for independence was for a more progressive Scotland--a more progressive Scotland that Conservatives, the coalition, and frankly Labour under Blair, had not provided. Voters in Scotland voted their interests, which is for more progressive policies, and supported the party that could provide that, SNP. The irony is, of course, that those progressive policies will not be pursued by a Conservative government, but that same government seems willing to grant additional power to Scotland--which can then implement those progressive policies on their own. What, exactly, was the downside to voting for SNP? It wasn't clear--especially given that Nicola Sturgeon was fantastic in the leader debates and, in my estimation, was the only real presence on the stage that could go toe to toe with Cameron.

What will happen next? There will be a lot of soul searching among Liberal Democrats and Labour, but if there's one thing that's clear to me it's this: fundamental constitutional change is afoot. That genie is out of the bottle--and perhaps, it was out of the bottle once Scotland and Wales were granted their own legislative assemblies in the late 1990s. Was John Major right after all in 1997: devolution would create the seeds of a constitutional break up? Perhaps he was. As a student of American politics, though, I see another solution: a federal union. If that happens, I'll have to change a lot of lectures and a lot of slides!

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