Bravehearts?

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What Did British Voters Just Say?

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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What did British voters really just say?

Judging by the composition of Britain's next Parliament, the opinion polls leading up to Thursday's election were spectacularly wrong. An army of "shy Tories," those too embarrassed to say they'll vote for the perceived party of the rich, drove the Conservative tally above 50 percent of all 650 seats.

Scotland's Independence Bid

The corollary is that Labour was left in the dust -- not only in Scotland, where opinion polls had predicted the wipeout, but also in England -- leaving the party with almost 100 fewer votes than the Tories in Parliament.

What's more, the Tories increased their share of the vote and seats after five years when they not only held power, but also carried out unpopular spending cuts. No wonder Labour leader Ed Miliband resigned so quickly. Click here for live results. Here's a snapshot of the provisional results: 

Source: Bloomberg

But if the U.K. had an election system based on proportional representation, one that took account of all votes cast and not just those of the winners in each constituency, the people's message would look a little different. 

To begin, Prime Minister David Cameron and the Conservatives won with less than 37 percent of the popular vote -- one of the lowest bases of support for the winning party in the history of U.K. elections. That tally is beginning to look like the norm now that more small parties are gaining significant vote shares. Labour was six percentage points behind. So the opinion polls, the last of which collectively predicted a 34 percent to 33 percent victory for the Tories, were significantly wrong. They weren't egregiously, embarrassingly wrong, however, until they tried to translate the popular vote into a forecast of seats. 

Were it not for the debacle north of the border, which saw swings as high as 35 percent from Labour to the Scottish National Party, the gap between the two main contenders would have been narrower. And given that, on economic policy, the SNP are more Labour than Labour and simply took over many of the party's voters, the U.K. arguably chose Cameron's message of economic security over Miliband's pitch of fairness and redistribution by a margin of about four percentage points. 

What else did Britons say? Clearly Scots said they want a stronger and more definitively Scottish voice at Westminster. Not all Scots, mind you. The SNP appears to have won about half the popular vote, while gaining 56 of 59 possible seats due to the peculiarities of the first-past-the-post system. The party's surge in popularity is certainly due to its success in staging an independence referendum last year, which sparked new pride and interest in politics among Scots. But Thursday's SNP sweep is not a mandate for independence, or even for a quick repeat of last year's referendum. 

The rising tide of SNP yellow does demonstrate how much stronger leftist sentiment is in Scotland than England. That makes a powerful argument for regional devolution and for giving the Scottish national parliament more responsibility for setting tax rates to go with their increased rights on spending. Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP's canny leader, understands this -- which is why, for now, she's soft-pedalling the implications for independence, her fundamental goal. Instead, she's hammering away at austerity with the gusto of Greece's Syriza party, as if the U.K. had no deficit problem, because it isn't her problem. 

This is also why I suspect Sturgeon and the SNP aren't too unhappy that the Conservatives won. The SNP can remain a protest party at Westminster, and a governing party at home -- a good position for a separatist party to be in. 

And what about Europe? This election was not decided on the question of whether the U.K. should remain in the European Union. That was almost invisible as an election campaign issue, in part because Cameron has promised a separate referendum but also because the EU never tops the list of voter concerns. 

At the same time, the U.K. Independence Party increased its share of the vote to more than 12 percent, which may not be a bad approximation for the number of English voters who care more about stopping immigration and pulling Britain out of the EU than they do about the economy. 

Most puzzling is what happened to the Liberal Democrats, whose vote share collapsed from 23 percent in the 2010 election to just under 8 percent. That may reflect the usual fate of protest parties that go into government -- they tend to get hammered. More worrying is the suspicion that the LibDems suffered because they occupied the political center ground, which has become untenable. 

That's important. If Labour draws this conclusion from its defeat, the party may head further to the left, encouraged as well by the evidence that this is what it would take to regain a foothold in Scotland. If, on the other hand, Labour decides it lost because Miliband pandered too much to his base and abandoned the floating voters who won three elections for Tony Blair, the party will head back to the Blairite center. 

All of this suggests a more fractured and less settled outlook than Cameron's 330-or-so seat majority would imply.

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:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net