Cameron's Stunning Win
Shy Tories! Neil Kinnock, former leader of the Labour Party and a world authority on ignominious defeat, warned just before the U.K. election that the polls might be underestimating support for Conservatives because of the "shy Tory" factor. How right he was.
The idea is that a lot of Brits are embarrassed to tell pollsters they'll vote for something as crass as lower taxes. Instead, they say they're supporting Labour for the good of the community. (Why are they embarrassed about liking low taxes, you ask? You must be American.) Kinnock and Labour confounded the polls in much the same way back in 1992, getting thrashed by a supposedly diminished post-Thatcher Tory Party. Statisticians recognized this interesting phenomenon and began to adjust their numbers accordingly. Evidently, further adjustments are needed.
An election that was supposed to be neck-and-neck has given Prime Minister David Cameron a memorable victory and Labour a drubbing so bad that Ed Miliband, the party's leader, had to resign immediately. Ed Balls, who was shadow chancellor, and one of the party's most forceful intellects, didn't need to resign: Like many others, he lost his seat. The blow this election has dealt to Labor's confidence and sense of purpose would be hard to exaggerate.
After Tony Blair's third-way centrism was impaled on the spike of Iraq, Gordon Brown moved Labour a bit to the left, then Miliband moved it more. He struck an anti-business, anti-finance tone and proposed left-pleasing measures such as rent controls and higher taxes on the rich. To be sure, this was not "Old Labour." Core Blairite principles such as fiscal conservatism and market-driven prosperity weren't overthrown. But voters suspected, perhaps, that they might be.
Kinnock reportedly greeted Miliband's appointment as leader in 2010 by saying, "I've got my party back." That comment, one can now see, foretold disaster and should have caused weeping in Labour HQ -- because Kinnock's Labour Party was optimized for losing elections. Labour's next leader won't have to confront the challenge of reinvention that faced Blair. That was nothing less than a revolution. But the party will have to recognize that Blair's approach to political positioning was basically correct, and it will find this hard to stomach.
For now, Tory joy will be unconfined. Remarkably, Cameron has a narrow majority in the Commons and can rule without the Liberal Democrats' support -- which is fortunate, since the Lib Dems have been virtually wiped out. As a result, the next few weeks will be a much more orderly affair than anybody had expected.
Rest assured, though, that the calm won't last. British politics remains on course for constitutional upheaval.
The polls were right about one thing: The Scottish National Party crushed Labour in what was once its northern stronghold. Scotland has moved to the left -- even of Labour -- and has strongly backed a pro-independence party. The rest of Britain has moved to the right, and will expect to call the shots for the country as a whole.
You could argue it's the best possible outcome for the SNP. The bad news, from the party's point of view, is that it won't be sharing power with Labour, as seemed possible until election-day; the good news is that the result will inflame the sense of alienation that drives support for Scottish nationalism. It's a trade-off Nicola Sturgeon, the party's leader, will be delighted to accept.
As Cameron deals with Scotland, he will also have to grapple with the small matter of the U.K.'s future in Europe. He's promised to renegotiate terms and offer a stay-or-go referendum by 2017. Historians can debate whether that promise helped to secure this election victory. (The idea was to stifle an anti-EU rebellion in the Tory ranks and blunt the United Kingdom Independence Party's attack on marginal seats; it seems to have worked.) Sadly, he now must either keep his promise or find a way to break it. Neither option looks easy.
If Cameron holds the referendum he's promised and the country votes, against his advice, to quit the EU, he won't be remembered for his election victory of 2015. The same will be true if he presides, also against his will, over the dismantling of the United Kingdom. What's startling is that both of those things could actually happen. If they do, Kinnock and Miliband notwithstanding, Cameron will have no rival in the annals of British political failure.
You beat the odds, Prime Minister. Warmest congratulations.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
To contact the author on this story:
Clive Crook at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at email@example.com