The Enigma Election

Radhika Desai and Alan Freeman, author of The Benn Heresy, discuss the “surge of nationalism” and other enigmas in the recent UK General Election.

‘The most unpredictable election in the U.K.’s history has delivered a most inscrutable verdict. While correctly predicting the Scottish Nationalists would overrun Scotland’s 59 seats and the Liberal Democrats would be wiped out, all pre-election polls were also running the Conservatives and Labour neck-and-neck and predicting a hung parliament where either party might form a coalition government.

As Britain voted, leading political scientists were predicting weeks, if not months, of uncertainty as one party after another attempted to build a stable coalition out of a fractured verdict. However, the BBC exit poll predicted the Conservatives would fall only a few seats short of a majority, one that could be made good, for example, by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists. By early morning, revised calculations predicted the narrow Conservative majority, which the final results confirmed.


With all opposition leaders announcing their resignations, David Cameron celebrated the “sweetest victory,” recalling the Conservatives’ long march back to majority government (the first since 1992) before jubilant party workers.

However, like practically everything else about this verdict, the conservative victory is not quite what it seems. There has been no popular surge in support for Cameron’s Conservatives. Nationalism was not responsible for Labour’s defeat. Nationalism has not belatedly won in Scotland. And, above all, austerity policies have received no popular endorsement.

Cameron read his party’s victory as a mandate to “finish the job” his government began five years ago — pursuing austerity to put the country’s economy in order. However, the Conservatives’ majority is not only small, with a voting share 10 per cent below the previous Con-Dem coalition’s, but has been won on one of the lowest shares of the vote to deliver a parliamentary majority in modern British history.

The Conservatives won 24 additional seats with a mere 0.8 per cent increase in their share of the vote. By contrast, the Labour Party lost 26 seats even though it gained 1.5 per cent in vote share.

Ed Miliband blamed his party’s defeat on “a surge of nationalism” and during the campaign, the Conservatives raised the spectre of an SNP-Labour coalition to win English voters, with considerable effect. However, while the SNP won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats, apparently justifying Alex Salmond claim that “the Scottish lion has roared,” the reasons it could paint Scotland almost completely nationalist yellow are more complex.

Nationalism is never without social content. In reality, what surged in Scotland was not nationalism pure and simple but the effectiveness of the anti-austerity appeal directed at Scots. The same referendum that failed to create a separate Scotland revealed the core of the yes vote was made up of working people in Scotland’s bigger cities who were tired of austerity. The new SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, made a tactical decision to run an anti-austerity campaign and carried it out decisively and impressively, becoming the election’s star performer.

It was carefully calibrated: sufficiently against austerity to mobilize the support the referendum had revealed but no more so. Even so, it was the only clearly anti-austerity campaign in the 2015 election.

This doubled the SNP’s vote share and increased its seats from six to a stunning 56. This historic surge cost Labour 40 seats, reducing its Scottish tally of seats from 41 to one. As Sturgeon pointed out, even if Labour had won every one of its Scottish seats, it would have remained well short of a majority. Though Labour’s net loss of over 25 seats actually represented gains in England, it was Labour’s inability to mobilize the same constituency south of the border the SNP managed to mobilize in Scotland that really accounts for Labour’s disappointing performance.

With the centrist Liberal Democrats effectively crushed, leaving them only one seat in England’s prosperous south, once the Lib Dems stronghold, the anti-EU and anti-immigrant U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) went to 13 per cent from three per cent of the national vote, though it won only one seat. Undoubtedly a party of the right, its astonishing rise however played substantially to Labour voters whose party did not address their economic concerns. UKIP’s performance conveys the election’s most sobering message: economic discontent, if offered no reasonable political solutions such as were on offer in Scotland, may well turn to atavistic alternatives.

These enigmas of 2015 must be kept in mind as we assess how the Conservatives set about ruling a divided country from a narrowed social base, and how the two key constitutional questions that this elections has thrown up — federalism and electoral reform — are dealt with in the months and The Benn Heresy ebookyears to come.’


Radhika Desai is professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba. Alan Freeman is a visiting professor at London Metropolitan University, and a research fellow of Queensland University of Technology, Australia. His book, The Benn Heresy was recently republished as an ebook, with a foreword by Owen Jones.

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