Anyone who read my blog yesterday, or who has passed my house here at Trevadlock Cross and seen the Lib Dem poster supporting Dan Rogerson, our now-defeated MP, will understand that I am truly gutted by what has happened in this election. Far from rewarding the Liberal Democrats for their efforts to keep the Conservative right-wing from dragging the Coalition further from the centre, or for their many good ideas and hard work in government, it appears that they have been punished, while their erstwhile colleagues have got all the credit for the Coalition’s successes. To a degree, that is clearly true, though it is most unfair. But why?
First of all, it is the common experience of minor partners in a coalition (evidenced from across Europe where coalitions are common) to be slaughtered in a subsequent election. But two further factors are significant, I think. One is that if you look at the voting patterns across England in particular, there has been a shift to the right represented by the good performance of UKIP (thankfully not translated into seats) and the victory of many Conservatives in Lib Dem-Conservative marginals – for example, the whole of the south-west, from being a Liberal Democrat stronghold, has gone blue. Second, the Liberal Democrats' core supporters were alienated by their involvement in the Coalition, which seemed to many (though not to me) a betrayal of principle. The notorious U-turn on tuition fees, which the party acknowledges to have been a mistake on many levels, made this worse, and the press put the nails in the coffin, making the Liberal Democrats appear to be perfidious and unprincipled losers – not the kind of image you want going into a close general election! Paddy Ashdown has bravely said that they will be back, and that Liberal values are needed more than ever, and although I am not a member of the party, I agree that their particular contribution to the political scene is important and I hope they will take courage. Nick Clegg may seem an obvious target for blame, but a leadership change may not be the best thing at this stage, particularly as the party has lost many of its key leadership figures, including those who held ministerial posts in the Coalition. Clegg is at least in parliament, and I would imagine his position is secure at least for the moment – more than can be said for Ed Milliband.
Which brings me to the most salient lesson that has come out of this most surprising election – that is, apart from the fact that pre-election polls may not reflect the way people vote on the day, and that BBC exit pollers can deliver accurate predictions! The Labour party ought to have won this election, or at least to have been the largest party, and they should have done much better in Scotland. An unpopular government, an austerity programme that may have improved our debt position and may have turned our economy around for the present at least but in the process has reduced large numbers to penury, amid grave doubts as to whether the Conservatives are truly a One Nation party, whatever their rhetoric, should not have delivered an increased number of Conservative seats, matched by a few percentage points increase in the general vote (based on trends – the final results are not all declared as I write this). That it has done so casts enormous doubts on the quality of the Labour leadership, some of whom have lost their seats. Their failure has been not to deliver coherent policy ideas so as to make a real alternative to the simple and obvious stance of their opponents. This must stand as a huge reproach to them, and the Labour party must address not only the question of the leadership but also where the party is going, and where it wants to place itself on a spectrum that now includes support for the left-wing Greens, whose greater share in the vote has returned its one and only MP to parliament with an increased majority.
The spread of votes set against the balance of seats – with the two major parties winning the vast majority of the one-person constituencies that currently make up our parliamentary democratic system – must raise again the question, in voters’ minds if not in Westminster, as to whether the first-past-the-post system is delivering any real democracy. Internet activists such as 38 Degrees, Change.org, and their local one-issue counterparts have found ways to influence policy outside the ballot box, which is to be welcomed. Yet the composition of the Westminster parliament is still of enormous importance. The country voted against the particular version of proportional representation that it was presented with in that referendum conceded by David Cameron to the Liberal Democrats as part of the Coalition agreement five years ago (how long ago it now seems!). But the question must be debated again. The first-past-the-post system protects us from extremist minority parties gaining a foothold in parliament, and many will feel it has protected us in this instance from UKIP, who came second or third in a large number of constituencies and must have gained a significant proportion of the vote, but only one or two seats. The disaster for the Lib Dems would have been on a smaller scale with PR, since the loss of their popular vote looks to have been around 12-15% (bad enough), but the loss of seats far higher. In a PR system they would have ended up with about 50 seats, my rough calculation suggests, rather than the 8 or 9 they actually have.
Lastly, by talking up the SNP as an election manoeuvre to encourage people to vote for the Conservatives rather than Labour - whom they represented, probably misleadingly, as ready to set up a Labour-SNP coalition in the event of a hung parliament led by Labour - Cameron has landed himself with a real constitutional problem. Will we see greater regional autonomy across the UK, perhaps even some form of federalism? Or will the Scottish Nationalists merely make a nuisance of themselves at Westminster and demand another referendum on Scottish independence? Something needs to be done and quickly. Let’s hope that Cameron has the guts and determination, and the following in his own party, to do it.