In which I reflect on the morning after the night before

So it’s the morning after the general election. The Conservatives have won. The SNP basically own Scotland. Labour had a bad night, only made less awful by comparison with the Lib Dems who did exactly as well as you’d expect for a party who’ve spent the last five years doing pretty much the precise opposite of everything their followers believe in.

But apart from those obvious things, what can we learn from the 2015 election? Well, I’d suggest these things:

 

1. Polling in a multi-party election using a constituency-based first-past-the-post system is tricky. Really really tricky.

There’s a lot that polling organisations have to try to factor in when trying to forecast the result of a general election. There’s how well the votes for each party actually hold up on the day; there’s whether the undecideds split in a predictable way; there’s the popularity of specific local MPs or candidate that might differ from a national average; there’s how the parties’ popularity is spread around the country, and about 1001 other things beside. There are also specific known phenomena like the ‘shy tory’ which is the effect caused by conservative voters being less likely to disclose their voting intention.

However, even given all that the polls leading up to this election were quite consistently wrong, and it’s that consistency that ought to concern pollsters and politicians in the future. Polls have a margin of error on them, and you should always expect there to be a few outlying polls during any campaign, but actually during this campaign the public polls were incredibly homogenous, and looking at the politicians’ initial responses to the broadcaster’s exit poll, it seems like the parties internal polling was much the same. Either Labour or the Conservatives could be the largest single party, and the share of the vote between Labour and the Tories was too close to call. Neither of those things were true. The next few days and hours are likely to be dominated by party leaders falling on their swords – there are probably a few senior poll designers wondering if it’s time for them to do the same.

 

2. All the parties struggled to win outside their heartlands.

The Tories did best, and they took a couple of unexpected seats in the North of England, most obviously from Ed Balls, but they also lost seats like Wirral West. A lot of the Tory gains were from the Lib Dems in the South West of England. For Labour the former heartland of Scotland turned away from them, and they didn’t make inroads into the Tory vote in the south. And the Lib Dems don’t really have a heartland – they paid the price for that lack of ‘unloseable’ seats last night. What does seem to be happening is a fracturing into a SNP block in Scotland, a predominantly Labour stripe in northern England, and a big Conservative wodge in the south. David Cameron used the phrase ‘one nation’ in his speech in his constituency, and has a massive challenge now in holding the nations together. Is David Cameron the right person for that job? An Eton and Oxbridge educated, English, career politician is a tough sell in northern England, let alone Scotland. It’s going to be hard.

 

3. The Conservatives will need to get better at Commons party discipline

In 2010 the coalition government held 363 seats at Westminster. With that number of MPs on side, the government still lost votes on the EU, military action in Syria, and a number of smaller issues. At this election David Cameron is likely to have 328 or 329 MPs – that’s a tiny majority. It would only take a couple of bad byelection results to destroy it altogether, and Cameron will need to get all his MPs out to vote on every key issue. That’s going to be a challenge. The hard right-wingers and the EU sceptics on his backbenches will expect their backs to be well-scratched in return.

 

4. Rumours of the death of print media have been exaggerated (also known as: Twitter is a bubble)

Most of the mainstream print media in the UK has a right wing slant. There are exceptions – The Guardian amongst the broadsheets, and the Mirror amongst the tabloids – but the general mood is on the rabid end of Tory. In the closing days of this election campaign much has been made of the reprinting of pics of Ed Miliband eating in an untelegenic sort of a way, and of the personal attacks on Miliband’s personal life. Over in social media land though there has been a fightback with hashtags like #JeSuisEd and #milifandom and lots of hyperbole about how this was the social media election. But. But your twitter feed is a very narrow and selected. We all tend to follow people who are fundamentally like us, and the rest of the world is full of people who might not be like us, and those people have valid opinions too, whether they create a humourous hashtag for them or not.

 

5. The campaign for 2020 starts now. Sorry. But it does.

Because actual three week long campaigns are meaningless. The Question Time programme with the party leaders demonstrated that. The audience was properly angry, but largely angry about things that happened between 2007 and 2011 – the financial crisis, the recession, the start of austerity. If Labour want to win in 2020 they can’t repeat Ed Miliband’s strategy of keeping his powder dry until election year. Miliband was criticised throughout the parliament for being indecisive and not taking clear policy positions. Whoever is Labour leader when the dust settles needs to decide what Labour is for and start being that party straight away. One key difference between Labour and the Conservatives in this election, and between Labour now and Labour under Blair, is that Labour recently haven’t seemed proud of who they are and what they stand for. They need to fix that now, because voters decide early who they trust.

 

So there are my thoughts. I could probably come up with at least five more if I sat here long enough (stuff like – having a referendum really doesn’t close an issue down, does it? Proportional representation, Scotland anyone?) I shan’t though. I need to sleep. Good night (or morning or whatever it is) all.

In which I wonder if we’ve got it wrong about… coalition building

So, Ed Miliband won’t do deals with the SNP. Nick Clegg has ruled out deals with any party also doing deals with UKIP or the SNP. Politicians are ruling out all sorts of possible post-election coalition permutations. It’s sort of the precise opposite of what happened last time, and in a way, suggests that politicians have matured a bit in their approach to coalitionbuilding. Unfortunately they haven’t really matured enough. Last time Nick Clegg was like a toddler in the playground, and David Cameron bounded up to him and showed him some gravel he’d found. Fifteen seconds later they were bestest bestest friends and running up and down Downing Street playing aeroplanes. This time around our politicians are more like teenagers. They’ve got their little friendship groups and the risk of looking stupid by getting rejected by anyone else is just like totes beyond horrendous, so they’re all making very clear that they’re the ones doing the rejecting.

So they’ve grown-up a bit, but not so much that any of them are prepared to talk about what they would do in a hung parliament, and the only thing any of the polls in this election are predicting with any confidence is that it will be a hung parliament. The Conservatives seem to have just about nearly sort of inched ahead in terms of number of votes, but the vagaries of our electoral system means that there’s no guarantee that that will equate to winning the most seats.

It’s looking increasingly likely that, in addition to no single party being able to form a majority government, it’s going to need more than two parties to form a majority coalition. So that probably means either the Tories plus UKIP plus the Ulster Unionists plus the Lib Dems, or Labour plus the SNP plus the Lib Dems, but both of those options include alliances that have already been ruled out.

So why are politicians so keen to rule out what could be workable coalition options? Well some of them relate to points of policy – it’s difficult to imagine the uber pro-European Lib Dems as natural bedfellows of Nigel Farage, and that’s clearly also a stumbling block for pro-United Kingdom parties when it comes to doing deals with Scottish or Welsh Nationalists, but there can’t be very many people who genuinely think that Labour can make it into government without support from the SNP. The numbers simply don’t add up. The Tories position isn’t much better; if they can’t get both the Lib Dems and UKIP on board their numbers look equally unlikely to get them to the magic 326.

Even if Labour attempt to form a minority government they’ll only be able to do anything if the SNP vote with them, and that’s where we get to the problem with all this ruling out, because it’s a very specific form of ruling out. Announcing that you won’t do any ‘formal deals’ is very specific, and in no way rules out only attempting to pass legislation that you already know other parties definitely agree with.

Realistically as soon as the polls close on Thursday every party will be running around desperately trying to do deals with every other. And that’s not a good or a bad thing. It’s just the reality of the fact that the two parties who’ve dominated UK politics for the last century are increasingly under pressure from smaller parties. First past the post, like most electoral systems, only consistently gives you single-party majority governments if you only have two significant parties in the race. Multi-party politics creates coalitions, and minority governments who need to negotiate with opponents and make concessions and compromises to get legislation approved.

That’s not a bad thing. It’s just true. What is a bad thing is politicians pointing each other and using the fact that deals will be brokered and compromises made as a stick to beat the other with. What is a bad thing is the media printing pictures of party leaders as the whipping boys of their coalition allies. Because that just suggests that we all need to grow up a bit more – past the teenage stage and into the elusive functioning adult stage. Hung parliaments look to be here to stay; it’s probably time we all got over that and got used to the idea that compromise and talking to people you disagree with might not actually be the end of the world.

So that’s it. The election campaign is all over bar the voting, so tomorrow will be all books and loveliness on the blog with my (slightly belated) 52 Weeks: 52 Books update for April.