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What Just Happened in England?

Hands up if you saw that one coming. I confess that I didn’t. The first line of the BBC announcement, ‘Conservatives largest party’, was no shock. Then there was a pause a few seconds long, and the projection of 316 Tory seats came up. I nearly fell off my chair. From that point on, the surprises only got bigger.

Why was it so surprising, though? If you’d asked me six weeks ago what was going to happen, I’d have said, a little reluctantly, that the likeliest outcome was a Tory minority government. From that point to an outright majority is a step, but not a gigantic one. If I’d been granted a glimpse ahead to the result, I’d have said the Tories did better and Labour worse than expected, but not amazingly, bizarrely, unforeseeably so. The thing which turned this into such a blindsiding shock was the fact that the election campaign was so flat and eventless. For six weeks, nothing happened. The numbers refused to move. Then everything happened at once. The talk in politics these days is all about ‘narrative’ and ‘momentum’, but there was almost no sign of that in this election. There was little evidence that the electorate were paying any attention. The Tory campaign worked spectacularly, but did so in a new and peculiar way: it was like a pill that the patient refuses to swallow, and holds off swallowing, and then downs all at once.

First-past-the-post is not especially fair, but it is supposed to deliver clear outcomes. In 2010, it didn’t. This time, against all expectations, it did. Lots more detail will come in over the next weeks as the data are analysed and the political scientists do their thing, but for me, a couple lanchestermoneyof things really stand out. If Labour had retained all of their 41 Scottish seats, the Tories would still be the majority government. So that must mean Labour got creamed in England, yes? Actually, no. Labour’s share of the vote in England went up by 3.6 per cent. That’s more than the Tories: their share of the English vote only went up by 1.4 per cent. Labour could even claim that they won the English campaign, in the same sense that the British army could claim it won the Charge of the Light Brigade.

So what did happen in England? The Tories smashed it in the marginals. In the battleground constituencies Labour were down on their 2010 performance by 0.7 per cent. Labour’s overall improvement in England was driven by success on their own turf: 3.5 per cent increase in the North East, 6 per cent in the North West. Where there was a genuine contest with the Tories, the Tories did better. People sometimes say that election campaigns don’t matter, but that is manifestly not the case this time. The Tories out-campaigned Labour in the places where they needed to.

What’s odd about that is that none of this showed up in the polls in advance. Lord Ashcroft has been regularly polling the marginal constituencies, and he found no evidence of this huge shift to the Tories. The Guardian’s last story about polls had the headline ‘Labour has one-point lead over Tories in final Guardian/ICM poll.’ The sample was twice the usual size, which means that it ‘gives more scope than usual for looking for different types of parliamentary seat. Doing so provides additional grounds for Labour optimism. In the English and Welsh battleground constituencies… the poll found the opposition running well ahead.’ That story was posted at half-past twelve yesterday lunchtime. This is the biggest and most embarrassing failure the polling organisations have ever had, and it comes after they’ve had more than two decades to learn from their roughly equivalent failure in 1992. It’s all the odder because the same methods that didn’t work in England worked fine north of the border, where the polling organisations accurately forecast the SNP triumph. The pollsters did something or things very wrong. We’ll find out what soon enough, but it was probably a mix of ‘shy Tories’ and people deciding at the last moment to buy the line about having to vote Tory to keep out the SNP.

As for Nick Clegg and his party… Byron once said that ‘I think it great affectation not to quote oneself’. In that spirit, I’m going to quote the last LRB blog entry I wrote after the last general election in 2010, as the lineaments of the Tory-Lib Dem deal became apparent:

As for the Lib Dems, I imagine about half their voters and activists are feeling physically sick this morning. Let’s hope that referendum on AV feels as if it is worth it. I don’t think Nick Clegg could have played his hand any better, in terms of extracting concessions from the Tories. But his concern must surely be that a. he has permanently alienated a vast segment of his own supporters and b. any moderating effect on Tory actions will benefit David Cameron more than if benefits the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems have wanted power for a long time. As all grown-ups know, more tears are shed over answered prayers.

John Lanchester writes for the London Review of Books, where his coverage of the British elections has appeared. His latest book is How to Speak Money.

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