Who won? What next? (6 May 2005)
Not since 1974 has it been less clear who has most reason to be pleased with an election result.
The Conservatives are clearly back in business as an opposition, have chalked up some impressive if patchy gains and improved their organisation in many key seats. But they are still almost certainly the wrong side of Michael Foot’s 1983 Labour low-water mark of 209 seats, and their ability to follow through to victory in a future election must be regarded as doubtful. Their vote share, in the third successive election, is in the low 30s.
Labour have another term in power, albeit with a dismally low national share of the vote of around 36%. Never has a government been elected with such limited support from the voters. From the heights reached in 1997, their vote share has slid most of the way back to where it was in 1992, before “New Labour” came in.
But perhaps this masks some structural strengths. This was not an easy time to have an election, and the government was boxed in to calling it for May 5th. Labour did not feel particularly popular and the Prime Minister was the focus for a lot of complaints – even aggression – from the electorate. Labour lost a lot of “natural” supporters in this election. Next time Blair will not be leader and the Iraq war will be several more years in the past. These voters need not be lost for good.
This is the Lib Dems’ dilemma. They shed some rural seats to the Conservatives (but also, to be fair, picked up a few new ones in return as well). But they cut deep into Labour’s vote across the country, and gained some massive victories in some of the most intellectual and academic Labour seats such as Manchester Withington, Cambridge and Bristol West, and claimed second place in swathes of urban England.
Their fear is the other side of Labour’s hope – that these are temporary protest votes that will return home next time. If so, and if the Lib Dems continue to hare after liberal-left votes, they are setting themselves up for future disaster in their traditional rural seats. They will eventually have to make choices that will alienate one substantial element of their current appeal.
The minor parties and odds and ends did well, a sign that there is discontent with the three-party system, let alone the two-party system. Labour rebel Peter Law won in Blaenau Gwent; George Galloway was elected under the Respect banner in Bethnal Green and Bow; and the amiable Richard Taylor held Wyre Forest quite easily. The Greens polled well without winning in Brighton Pavilion. And, worryingly, the BNP racked up considerable votes in several constituencies. The failures among the minor parties were UKIP, sidelined after last year’s Euro election success, and Veritas, as Robert Kilroy-Silk went down the plughole in Erewash and his colleagues polled derisory votes.
The campaign in 2005 may have been dull, but election night was thrilling. We live in political times again, after the strange lull between the 1997 election and the Iraq war. It’s going to be a turbulent parliament, a fascinating, rough ride for everyone. I can’t wait for the next election. Place your orders now for the Politico’s Guide to the General Election 2009…