Those seeking drama on election night certainly got it. The exit poll signalled what was to come when it underestimated a prediction that the Conservatives would not only be the major party but well ahead of a Labour Party facing decimation in Scotland while their former coalition partners getting annihilated across the country.
Not only that but their were seven Portillo Moments alone in this election. The Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Ed Balls, the Shadow Foreign Secretary and chief campaign strategist Douglas Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, key coalition negotiator David Laws, Business Secretary Vince Cable, Energy Secretary Ed Davey and former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy all lost their seats. The loss of the Ed Balls is the biggest shock, for unlike Douglas Alexander and the Liberal Democrats among that list, it had nothing to do with the SNP surge north of the border, or a violent swing away from the Liberal Democrats. Meanwhile we weren’t far away from including a clearly despondent Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg on this list as well. The Liberal Democrats are back to the position they were in the 1970s, with a great deal of distrust and irrelevance gloomily hovering over the parties fortunes.
It’s safe to say that Labour and the Liberal Democrats are in a complete state of utter shock. Both of their respective leaders are due to resign anytime soon. Far more worrying for both isn’t what just happened but what’s about to come. Labour can be expected to have a nigh on impossible situation to contend with made more difficult as the Tories consolidate their power with electoral boundary changes that will heavily favour the Conservatives at the 2020 election. Labour have lost their Scottish heartlands, most likely for a generation, and the Tories are now the party of the south given the Lib Dems wipeout plus UKIP’s failure to turn votes into seats. The challenge now is finding a way to enter deep into Tory, and former Liberal Democrat, heartlands. Failure to do so will result in Labour becoming irrelevant at the national level all together.
Both parties have deep existential questions to ask and answer quickly. With the obstacles now facing Labour, it has no choice but to redefine the left and carve a new identity which southerners and northerners alike can find appealing. Social democracy has limited appeal in the south, the Labour comfort zone must be abandoned. Yet a return to Blairism will only alienate Labour voters in the areas Labour still have strong majorities in, increasing the popularity of UKIP up north. The working classes no longer share the values of Labour and many young people don’t know what a trade union even is. In the long term it looks very bleak for Labour. It could easily take a decade for Labour to carve an identity, let alone exploit it to win a general election.
The Liberal Democrats face a more immediate threat to their survival. The new leader, most likely to be Tim Farron, will have to evaluate what they stand for post-coalition. Will the Lib Dems become a fringe protest party again or will they take some of the experiences of coalition and try be an opposition voice to the current government. The biggest threat to the Liberals isn’t finding a new identity as such, but ensuring they don’t cross the fine line between survival and extinction. The Liberals have the benefit of a rich tradition that could appeal more progressive inclined southerners. Some of they key seats the Liberal Democrats lost were close enough that with the right strategy and vision in place they could regain them potentially, especially if the Tories lurch too far to the right, getting them back into double figures. This alongside Labour ruthlessly exploiting the rebellious nature of the Tory right could in fact save both parties.
Meanwhile the Conservatives will lead a majority government unhampered by any pesky Liberal Democrat MPs. The biggest threat to Cameron now is if the 1992 election repeats itself for ill for the Tories, while avoiding the collapse of the Union and economic uncertainty resulting from an EU referendum. Having such a small majority made John Major vulnerable to the eurosceptic “Tory Bastards” that made that administration dysfunctional. If a repeat were to occur, the natural advantage the Conservatives now have over Labour could dissipate. To preserve the union David Cameron must lead the nation as a whole, despite a negligible presence in Scotland and the North of England. Devo-max must be granted to Scotland, the emphatic result of the night is the Scottish people voting for their autonomy. The Tories ran on a Thatcherite-lite platform in the election campaign, but run the country like a one-nation Tory. Is it possible for him to accomplish this?
For the Liberal Democrats and Labour introspection is needed to assern who they are and how they wish to appeal to voters. Yet the Tories have a key weakness, the potential for government instability. Both parties causing as much trouble as possible can give both parties a significant tactical advantage while granting time for both to determine what they want to be. The aim for the Tories is to be competent in government and stable, if it can achieve this it can shut Labour out for a considerable length of time.