Only hours before the polls closed, a Facebook friend invited me to join the People’s Assembly Against Austerity’s demonstrations to make sure that the Tories would not ‘Occupy Downing Street’ without a Parliamentary majority. People envisaged mass political strife as David Cameron, akin to the ageing dictator of some banana republic, looked poised to cling onto power against the will of a Labour/SNP dominated Parliament. Facebook groups emerged saying ‘F*ck the Tory Government – No to all cuts – Yes to real democracy’ and many Oxford students were urged to man the barricades: to join a people’s revolution.
There was a Tory coup on election night; but it was one that nobody had expected. Far from tanks on the streets, the Oxford and National Left woke up to find that it had dramatically misinterpreted the views of the electorate. Ordinary people, not the establishment, have rejected the prospect of a Labour government, and Ed Miliband has been forced to resign his leadership. Given that the BBC polls as late as last Wednesday had the Conservative and Labour Parties at 34 and 33 per cent of the vote respectively, the Tory majority from the election has deservedly caused a stir. Two great revolutions happened at the ballot box; and in each case the Labour Party lost out.
Most importantly, to anticipate the future that will emerge from this dramatically changed British political landscape, we first need to understand why this democratic coup has happened. The first inklings of the unexpected result came from the exit poll released by Ipsos Mori just after the polls closed. After months of debate and the promise of parliamentary grid lock, a sudden swing to the Tories suggested that they would win the election based on the views of undecided voters. The election was won, mainly in England, through the last minute decisions of ordinary people; a gut reaction against the financial policies, leadership, and reputation of the Labour party.
As much as anything, amongst the last minute Tory voting students I have talked to, English voters were afraid of the preponderance of Scottish Nationalist interests in a possible Labour/SNP coalition and therefore voted against this outcome. It is possible to argue that the Conservatives eventually secured their majority through fears of the instability of a Labour government, rather than because of any particularly positive messages given off by the party. For the voters that counted, a Tory majority was the lesser of many evils.
However, though some may be relieved by the stability a majority government will bring, I fear that a Tory government secured by English votes will further speed up the breakup of the United Kingdom. Although perhaps less of a surprise, the SNP’s 56 Scottish seats threaten to polarise dramatically the politics of our two nations. UKIP may only have managed to secure one seat this time around, yet this belies the fact that they secured as much as 12.6 per cent of the national share of the vote. Farage may have failed to secure South Thanet, but UKIP’s emerging role as an English nationalist party in response to the SNP is very real. As much as anything, the difference in the results between 2010 and 2015 for these two parties reveals that nationalism is on the march in Britain.
The most significant result of last week’s Conservative victory is that it has created the conditions for a referendum on Britain’s status as part of the EU in 2017. While the Conservatives may be more trusted to manage the economy than the Labour party, it remains the case that the agendas of those on the right of the party have the potential to seriously undermine Britain’s future global status through a narrow-minded drive for an EU exit. As far as pragmatism has meant that the silent masses of ‘shy Conservatives’ have swung this election for the Tories, we must also hope that pragmatism prevails in 2017. Leaving Europe would be a disaster for the economy, and for the millions of Britons that rely on the freedoms of movement, work, and speech guaranteed by the EU. Looking forward from the result, we need to begin to stand up for the rationale of reform and the European project before we let ourselves be overwhelmed by the irrational xenophobia of the Right.
Yesterday’s result may indeed have been a surprise; a coup for the realist voter hoping for a coherent economic plan and a stable majority government. It should also, however, be seen as a call to arms. The result is a recognition that both the Union and Britain’s position in the EU stand dangerously compromised by advancing nationalist groups across the country. In the town halls of Britain, people have cleared away the debris of Election Day. What at first appeared an unexpected Conservative victory will doubtless settle with the dust on the now redundant campaign posters. Yet, we moderates cannot afford to sit back and relax. The campaign for the defence of a better future has only just begun.