Results appear to be backing an exit poll for the 2015 UK election that predicted a better than expected performance for the Conservative Party. It suggested the Tories will win 316 seats – not far short to the 326 seats needed for a majority. Meanwhile, Labour has gone backwards, falling to a predicted 239 (down from 256); the SNP has made record gains in Scotland, winning 56 seats; and the Liberal Democrats are in freefall.
Our expert panel is on hand to explain what it all means.
Victoria Honeyman, Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Leeds
It’s been an extraordinary night, largely because the exit polls had thrown absolutely everybody. Comres, IPSOS, YouGov and co had all said it would be very close. As soon as the exit polls came out it threw everything into flux. But there was no reason to doubt them – the 2010 exit polls were very accurate and the same people were involved this time around.
The Lib Dems saw it coming, but Labour certainly didn’t. In space of eight hours Labour supporters have gone from thinking their man would be in Downing St to wondering who their next leader is. It would be very surprising if Ed Miliband doesn’t now resign and yet this isn’t really his fault. Miliband was faced with a problem all party leaders have in common with football managers: they’re expected to gain success quickly. Leaders that can’t win elections know their time is up.
Miliband had two issues. Whether it was the famous bacon sandwich or because he looks like Wallace from Wallace & Grommit, the electorate never warmed to him as a leader.
He also tried to move away from New Labour rhetoric. Tony Blair said if you created wealth you could level a country up. Blair’s aide Peter Mandelson famously said he was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes”.
Miliband said he did care how rich you get. He wanted to return Labour to different ideology, creating a position where you rebalance society, and improve things for core members of society. But the public didn’t think he was selling a message they could get on board with.
Nick Clegg has hinted he may be stand down, but most predicted this anyway. An awful lot of his party’s old guard is also gone – people who would have possibly challenged him such as Ed Davey, Jo Swinson or Danny Alexander. This really does leave the party in a tricky position as there is such a small group of potential leaders left.
The Lib Dems are no longer the third party – that’s the SNP, by quite a margin. A new leader will help but the party really needs a totally different strategy. Moving into government for the first time is very difficult process for any party as they go from being able to promise anything to a position of being practical. Seen historically, parties tend to find it tough – just look at Labour in the 1920s. The Lib Dems must regroup and that means rebuilding from the grassroots. This is what built their support in the 1990s as the party went from occasional victories in local politics, to running councils, to winning more MPs, and eventually the big breakthrough in Westminster.
The SNP had a number of things going for them. First Alex Salmond was no longer their leader. This had a massive impact. Salmond was a “Marmite figure” – you either loved him or you hated him. Nicola Sturgeon is very astute, and much more popular.
The party was also selling an easy anti-austerity message, very popular with voters tired of spending cuts. No one wants to be in the position of selling austerity. The SNP also hooked onto the idea that Scottish Labour was too integrated with its Westminster counterparts.
There is a natural tendency to believe SNP voters all support independence. But many SNP supporters simply want MPs who will go to Westminster and fight to get the best deal for Scotland, which they believe Scottish Labour MPs couldn’t do. That is their job after all; to do the best for Scotland.
Rainbow Murray, Reader in Politics at Queen Mary University of London
Labour is normally the best party for women so the Tories have gained at women’s expense. Austerity has hit women hardest because women are the primary beneficiaries of welfare services and benefits that got cut during austerity. Many of the public sector workers who got laid off were women. The Tory manifesto promised more cuts including more cuts to benefits and more emphasis on the Big Society, which asks volunteers, who are usually women, to take over services that used to be provided by the state.
Nicola Sturgeon is one woman who has been very successful with SNP making huge gains in Scotland. There’s a dual effect – she has been an extremely successful leader and there is also a legacy from the independence referendum. The Scottish people decided not to secede from the Union but have asserted their national identity by voting for the SNP in the majority of cases. So the next parliament is going to be very interesting – we’ll have a referendum on Europe and we may well have another referendum on Scotland.
The story that’s rocking academia is that the opinion polls were so far off in their prediction. Congratulations must go to the exit poll team. When they announced their poll at 10pm, many people said they were wrong but at 6am it looks like they were accurate. How did every other pollster get it so wrong? One phenomenon put forward as an explanation is “shy Tories” who won’t admit to voting Conservative and yet do.
Eric Shaw, Senior Lecturer in Politics at University of Stirling
Labour has been contracting in Scotland for a while. There has been a certain reluctance to address trends which were eating away at the party’s strength, and have accelerated largely because of the referendum. Despite the warning, the party was caught unaware. No-one anticipated the Tsunami.
On television, commentators like Peter Kellner and Andrew Marr were quick to advise that Labour return to the “successful” Blairite New Labour formula with a stronger pro-business orientation, a distancing from the unions and working-class voters and an alignment with the (largely mythical) Middle England.
The calculation of New Labour strategists was that working-class voters had nowhere else to go so they could be largely ignored. But many abstained, and in Scotland they had another option – voting for the SNP, which many have taken in hordes.
There are no quick answers for the party in Scotland because the problems it faces are fundamental. Modifying policy won’t do, because most people take no interest in policy detail. What matters are question of purpose, identity and belonging; and of representation. It means Scottish Labour transforming itself into a movement, a cause and a vocation as well as an election-winning machine.
If the party was to make three changes in Scotland, I would suggest the following. First a radical alteration of the party’s relationship with the UK party, for example becoming an independent party but one affiliated to the British party. This could be along the lines of the relationship between the Bavarian CSU (which operates only in Bavaria) and the larger CDU which operates in the rest of Germany. The CSU is independent but in permanent alliance with the Christian Democrats.
Second, the party should launch a very wide-ranging and independent enquiry into what went wrong, talking to activists, officials and candidates, the unions, academic researchers and all interested bodies. Its tasks would include analysing social trends, shifts in cultural and socioeconomic patterns and motivations guiding voter decisions.
Most important of all, the party has to give deep thought to some absolutely basic issues. What do we exist for? What is the role of the party? What are the values and visions we wish to embed in social organisation? What do we really stand for – is there a Labour “soul”?
And it must above all avoid the bland, anodyne and banal platitudes in which New Labour in particular specialised, such as “opportunities for all”, “widening social justice”, “a more aspirational society” and “One Nation Labour”: all motherhood and apple pie. All in all, it will be a job that should take a while.
Stuart Wilks-Heeg, Head of Politics at University of Liverpool
Conservative Esther McVey has lost the seat of Wirral West to Labour candidate Margaret Greenwood. There are several constituencies in the north west where Labour has increased its majority or vote share, but with the exception of Wirral West, this follows a pattern seen elsewhere of Labour gaining seats from the Liberal Democrats.
I had thought four Lib Dems would hold on in the north west but it could be fewer than that. We’ve seen some really big vote shares for UKIP, which has been getting double-digit vote shares almost everywhere in the north west and the party will be very well placed to challenge Labour in the next general election.
UKIP is not going to make the kind of gains that its candidates hoped for on the east coast. I think UKIP has realised that in places like the north west where the Conservatives were long ago displaced as a serious contender, and with the squeeze on the Lib Dems over the past five yers, the opportunity is there to take on Labour. That’s a vacuum they are capable of filling in 2020.
The Lib Dems are being punished for some of the decisions they made. The decision on tution fees was catastrophic and led to a decline in their poll rating from which they’ve never recovered. This is a shocking result. People like Vince Cable losing their seats throws the party into crisis to an extent that no-one thought possible.
If there are only ten Lib Dem MPs left, and that’s what could be needed for the Conservatives to form a coalition government, then Nick Clegg and his colleagues face a massive decison. The prospect of being locked into another coalition for five years would destroy the party. Whatever they do they need to rebuild. It took them decades to build up to their 57 seats in 2010 and now they’ve been pushed back to where they were in the 70s and perhaps worse. They’ve got a huge task to rebuild from here – it’s going to be really tough.
Craig McAngus, Research Fellow at the University of Stirling
The incredible thing about these results is that it now looks as though the polls under-predicted what would happen in Scotland. We may well be looking at a clean sweep of seats and a share well in excess of 50%. In terms of what this means for a second referendum, it goes back to the two traditional wings of the SNP: do you take the fundamentalist approach and push for a new poll quickly or do you go with the gradualists and gradually build up to it?
If there had been a Labour government, it would have been much more suited to the gradualist argument. But because the SNP will be in opposition, the emphasis will switch much more to the Scottish parliamentary party, and its ability to affect progress towards independence. With the SNP as part of the opposition, it’ll have to act in reaction to what the UK government does as opposed to being in a position to affect what it does.
The legitimacy question in Scotland is going to be even worse than the darkest days of Thatcher. It will mean that any action by the UK government that materially affects big issues like the constitution, or welfare, or economic policy could become the sort of change that Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly said might be grounds for a second referendum. This will be much more the case than if the SNP was backing a minority Labour government.
Then of course there is the EU referendum, which now looks more likely than the polls suggested. If the UK votes to leave but Scotland votes to stay, that is certainly seen as the sort of material change that Sturgeon had in mind.
Peter Lynch, Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Stirling
In Scotland, it looks like the exit poll is proving completely accurate. When you see results like Douglas Alexander’s in Paisley, losing by 5,000 seats, it’s not even close.
It was thought that Labour would scrape home in some of these seats with a couple of hundred votes, but the party is getting buried. It’s not even like a normal landslide, where the other parties still get to keep seats. The only scuttlebutt looks to be the Labour seat of Edinburgh South. If it wins there, it will be through tactical voting.
I was quite sceptical about this. Even this week I thought the SNP would win 30 or maybe 40 seats. I have always been a first-past-the-post sceptic. It was very tough for the SNP in the Scottish election in 2007, and even in 2011. It was having to overturn majorities in places where the people had voted Labour or Lib Dem for many years. And it was always particularly rubbish in Westminster elections. Until recently, the SNP even struggled to get its activists to take those elections seriously.
The big question is the implications of another Tory-dominated government. Of course the Tory offer to Scotland, with input from the other parties, is contained in the proposals from the Smith Commission.
No doubt there will now be discussions between the SNP and the Tories about what more might be included. The tenor is likely to be that the SNP will be told that it can have more powers, such as in welfare, but it will have to finance them from within Scotland. There was a potential deal between the coalition and the Scottish government prior to the Scotland Act on the basis that there would not be a referendum. Strangely we are now more or less back to that position.
Louise Thompson, Lecturer in British Politics at University of Surrey
As the results are now beginning to flood in we are seeing the sheer scale of change in this election. We all knew we would see massive SNP gains in Scotland and that the UKIP vote would be strong, but seeing the size of the swing to Sturgeon’s SNP in the latest results is astonishing.
For such a long time British politics has felt predictable to voters in safe seats and voting at all has felt pointless, but now we are seeing big political figures losing their seats as Scotland turns from red to yellow. Whatever the outcome, the people of Scotland certainly won’t be complaining that their votes don’t count.
Jennifer Thomson, PhD Candidate, School of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University of London
An interesting night for the DUP: they have retained seven of their seats, gained one more, in East Belfast, while losing South Antrim to the UUP. Naomi Long, Alliance, won East Belfast in 2010. This was a bitter defeat for the DUP, and winning it back was key for them this time around. Gavin Robinson now represents the seat for the DUP.
The UUP are back at Westminster with one representative after their candidate Danny Knahan beat the DUP incumbent Willie McCrea in a shock result. Nonetheless, with 8 seats the DUP will now probably be the fifth largest party in Westminster.
The party were outspoken in the run-up to the election. They said they would be open to a deal with either of the two main parties on the basis of two key conditions: the removal of the bedroom tax and a referendum on EU membership. A deal with the Conservatives has always appeared more likely, and they may potentially be in line to form a coalition or prop up a minority government.
Roger Scully, Professor of Political Science at Cardiff University
In Wales, the Conservatives look set to have their most seats since the height of Thatcherism in 1983, while it’s a disaster for the Lib Dems. The Tories have won seats in the more Anglicised parts of Wales, such as Brecon & Radnorshire along the border and Vale of Clywd, near to north-west England. The party has the same appeal in these areas as it does in rural England.
Plaid Cymru’s vote share has gone up a bit, and it has done ok in terms of holding onto existing seats. However it looks like it’s missed out on target seats and will score fewer Welsh votes than UKIP. Given the higher-profile the party enjoyed thanks to Leanne Wood’s participation in the debates this has to count as a failure.
Plaid ran a decent campaign but has been a weaker party than the SNP for at least a decade – and Wales didn’t have a referendum to rally people behind the idea of independence.
The party tried to get “fair funding for Wales” – parity with Scotland – onto the agenda but it doesn’t seem to have worked. The big issues were largely the same as elsewhere: the economy, jobs, health and immigration.
Despite its relative failures, Labour should remain Wales’s biggest party in terms of both votes and seats, for the 20th election in a row. But this won’t be reflected in Westminster, where the Conservatives look set to run the government. In the 1980s this split between Wales and Westminster stirred up nationalism which led to devolution a decade later. We won’t see anything as dramatic this time around, but Labour badly needs to put things back together before Welsh assembly elections next year.
Sophie Whiting, Lecturer in the Department of Politics at University of Liverpool
Few of Northern Ireland’s 18 seats were predicted to change hands during this general election campaign. East Belfast however has been one of the key battlegrounds during the 2015 campaign.
Rewind to 2010 and the shock of the general election in Northern Ireland was Peter Robinson, leader of the DUP and First Minister, loosing his seat in East Belfast, a seat he had held since 1979. With a majority of more than 1,500 votes, Naomi Long gave the Alliance Party their first seat in Westminster.
In 2015 the DUP threw everything they could at recapturing East Belfast, including a fresh faced parliamentary candidate, Gavin Robinson (no relation to Peter) and agreeing to an electoral pact with the Ulster Unionist Party. The UUP agreed to step aside in East and North Belfast to increase the chances of a DUP win whilst the DUP stood aside in two other constituencies – and it paid off.
A win in East Belfast for the DUP by more than 2,500 votes has helped maintain DUP hopes for returning a sizeable block of MPs to Westminster. After losing South Antrim to the UUP, East Belfast was even more important for the DUP if they wanted play a decisive role at Westminster. The party have been clear that they would be happy to support either a Labour or Conservative minority government under certain conditions. For the DUP, East Belfast is a step towards more power and influence in Westminster politics.
Jonathan Tonge, Professor of Politics at University of Liverpool
If the Conservatives come up short of a majority, and get 316 seats as the exit poll suggests, then they could be carried over the line and into government by a confidence and supply deal with the DUP’s eight predicted MPs, and the UUP’s new MP. These nine extra seats could take the Conservatives past the 323 seats they realistically need. DUP members prefer the Conservatives to Labour at a ratio of seven to one, and rank 8/10 on a scale toward the right of the political spectrum, which makes them natural bedfellows for the Conservatives.
This would be a good thing for the Conservatives – the DUP are a disciplined party: if they say they’re going to work with the Conservatives, then they will. Realistically, the Liberal Democrats are not going to be keen to do another deal, given the damage the coalition has done to them for this election. In contrast, a deal with the Conservatives would be unlikely to damage the DUP in Northern Ireland.
When it comes to coalition negotiations, the first demand on the table will be more money for Northern Ireland. A figure of £1 billion has been floated, but this is not the official position of the party. The DUP support more money on defence, and are keen to see the UK reach the 2% NATO target on defence spending. They also support a referendum on EU membership and tougher immigration controls.
The only sticking point might be the bedroom tax – the DUP do not support the tax and would like to see it scrapped across the UK. The DUP are right wing in a lot of ways, particularly on constitutional issues, but they have a strong working class support base. So there might be arguments about the bedroom tax, but it’s unlikely to be a dealbreaker.
Another consideration is that the DUP would be looking for guarantees to secure Northern Ireland’s devolved power on matters such as same sex marriage and abortion – the latter is almost illegal in Northern Ireland. There would be pressure from within the UK – and to some extent from within Northern Ireland – for more liberal laws, but the DUP would be looking for assurances that these matters would remain devolved.
Michael Saward, Professor in Politics at the University of Warwick
The big story of the night is Scotland. I don’t know if you can have a revolution by electoral means these days but if you can, this is as close as it gets.
With the SNP predicted to win almost all of Scotland’s 59 seats and with Alex Salmond in Westminster, a second independence referendum certainly looks a few years closer than it did yesterday. Given Nicola Sturgeon’s insistence that this was not a vote about independence, Salmond will have to play it carefully politically but a complete lack of Scottish representation in the UK government would only add more pressure for a referendum.
The second biggest story is the EU referendum. The certainty of a vote on UK membership has firmed up and there will be pressure to hold the vote in the earlier half of the next parliament.
If the Conservatives come away with anything above 210 sets, the most likely outcome is a Conservative minority government. The right of the party will not want to team up with the Liberal Democrats again and would most likely prefer an informal arrangement with the DUP. A Conservative minority government could lose a vote or two in the House of Commons but could continue with the confidence of the House.
The exit poll is probably right, which means Paddy Ashdown will have to eat some sort of hat. I think he knows that. And opinion pollsters will have to re-examine their navels. They had thought they had resolved their biggest issues a few years ago but they are going to have to have a rethink.
Neil Matthews, Research Fellow, School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy at Queen’s University Belfast
Declarations are trickling in across Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies – and set against the “electoral tsunami” occurring in Scotland, events across the Irish Sea might appear rather dull. That said there has been one shock in the form of the UUP’s Danny Kinihan ousting the DUP in South Antrim. This sees a return for the UUP to the green benches of Westminster.
Elsewhere, as widely anticipated, the DUP has held its seats in Lagan Valley, North Antrim, Strangford and Upper Bann – indications are that it will also record a gain in East Belfast and see Westminster leader, Nigel Dodds, returned in North Belfast.
The SDLP has succeeded in Foyle and is polling well in its two other strongholds of South Belfast and South Down. It is likely then that the party will retain its compliment of three seats.
For Sinn Fein there is only one result to report – comfortably returning an MP in West Tyrone.
Catherine Happer, Research Associate at the Glasgow University Media Group
So far the TV coverage has been coloured by the exit polls, which have genuinely astounded people. Because the politicians all prepare what they are going to say, it’s made them particularly cautious, stilted and unwilling to talk about hypotheticals. They are stuck in a bubble of disbelief. It could have been a very exciting night, but we have become bound by a sense of interviewees not being able to take this seriously yet.
My moment of the night so far would be Paddy Ashdown saying he would eat his hat if the Lib Dem forecast of 10 seats came true. He simply refused to believe the polls. Then he said a bit later that he would eat his hat if it was made of marzipan. By the end of the night, he’ll probably be saying, “bring the hat over here”.
More broadly, the influence of the press is one of the big stories of the night. There was much discussion prior to the exit polls that had Miliband managed to make it into office, it would have been a historic win because he would have done so without much press support. Now we are back to the old picture of “It Was The Sun Wot Won It”.
Obviously we saw very strong press backing for the Conservatives and scaremongering about Ed Miliband. Some of it has been vile, not over his policies but about how he eats a bacon sandwich or tripping over the stage on BBC Question Time. The other big angle has been the demonisation of the SNP, of course.
The jury is still out on the impact of the TV debates. They probably gave Miliband a chance to represent himself in a more three-dimensional light. But on television, the press were able to very much narrow the parameters of the debate, forcing the focus on the deficit, Labour’s record in office and so forth.
Charles Lees, Professor of Politics at the University of Bath
If the exit poll is accurate and the Conservatives are able to govern alone, the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland could well be over within a decade.
A minority Tory government will not only have to manage a hostile House of Commons; it will also be at the mercy of its Eurosceptic backbenchers. David Cameron has pledged to hold a referendum on Europe but, under pressure from these backbenchers, the negotiations will be more difficult than they might have been. A sceptical and perhaps hostile EU will not be in a position to grant Cameron all he needs to please them.
If the UK as a whole (that means England) looks likely to leave the EU then the SNP will go to the country in the Scottish polls seeking a mandate to run a second referendum. In the current climate, it might well win.
Any Scottish exit from the UK, especially combined with a UK exit from the EU, would destabilise Northern Ireland in unforeseeable ways. Certainly, nationalists and republicans would want Northern Ireland to throw in its lot with the republic and remain in the EU. The Unionists would be torn between loyalty to the union, an instinctive affinity with the Scots, and also fears of commercial meltdown for a province with a fragile economy, that is reliant on trade with the south but now stranded outside the EU.
No-one can be sure how this would all end but you would have to be a supreme optimist to think it would end well. At the very least, a Constitutional Convention will be needed with a radical brief to think the unthinkable. The UK tradition of evolutionary change will no longer suffice.
David Cutts, Reader in Political Science at the University of Bath
It’s very unlikely that the exit poll is too far off. At most they may have over-egged it by about 20 seats for the Conservatives.
The exit polls are indicating that 15 or 20 Conservative seats have gone to Labour, which is just over a 1% swing. It suggests that Labour is doing better against the Conservatives in Labour strongholds, but in the marginals it is flatlining completely.
I would expect UKIP to do very well in Labour-held areas. Its strategy is to get as many second places as possible. The story is about Labour voters that feel Labour doesn’t represent them and see UKIP as a viable alternative.
It looks like UKIP will hold Clacton and win Thurrock because of support from Labour voters. The question will be what happens to them in places like Boston & Skegness, Great Yarmouth and of course Thanet South, where it looks like Nigel Farage might not win. In relation to the exit polls, the question for UKIP is how spread across the country its vote is. In reality we are expecting UKIP to take support from across the population.
With the Lib Dems, the same sort of logic could mean that they end up with rather more seats than the 10 that was forecast in the exit poll. It is possible that if it got less than a 6% vote in about 580 to 600 seats, it could mean it got over 30% in a good number of others. If they drop to 10 seats that would suggest capitulation in the Conservative-Lib Dem battlegrounds.
My estimate is that the SNP will win about 52 seats in Scotland. It would be wrong for the left in England to blame the SNP for Labour’s failure. If Labour was seeing swings of 4% or 5% in Labour-Conservative marginals, it would be looking at winning 40 or 50 seats in England and not just 15 or 20. Labour’s failure to take seats away from the Conservatives is really what will have stopped it from winning at the UK level.
John Van Reenen, Director, Centre for Economic Performance and Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics
If the polls are right the Conservatives have done much better than expected – they’d be in the driving seat. There seems no chance Labour could form a government.
A Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition seems the most likely option, and this will almost certainly mean a referendum on EU membership. This will be the main issue over the next few years – a Brexit could cause serious damage to the UK economy. Markets like stability, and the uncertainty could make the UK a less desirable destination for foreign direct investment.
Conservative economic plans may be tempered to some degree by the Lib Dems but the two aren’t all that far apart. Adjustments will be made through tough cuts to public spending rather than tax rises.
The past five years have been a pretty awful time for the UK economy so it’s surprising the economic narrative has been so positive. GDP per head is still 17% below the long term expected level, and living standards are still down.
Over the past year however things have gone relatively well and people remember recent events more clearly – a triumph for Conservative and coalition strategy. Still, the 2.4% growth rate isn’t much more than the average over the 50 years before the financial crisis – you’d expect strong growth post-crisis but we haven’t seen it. From an economist’s perspective it has been a bad performance.
Labour should have done more to defend its own record though – the high deficit being due to the global financial crisis rather than mismanagement of public finances, for instance. Its strategy of appealing to the base with more regulation, rent control, price control and not reaching out to business was different from Blair’s “middle ground”. A stronger defence of its record probably wouldn’t have won them the election, but it should have reached out more to the middle.
Frances Amery, Lecturer in Politics at University of Bath
Everyone is quite shocked at the moment. Somebody somewhere has screwed up, whether it is the pollsters or the exit polls.
The YouGov poll aligns more with our expectations, so it’s interesting to see the BBC’s coverage hasn’t reported on it at all. Too early to give reasoned commentary. Wait and see.
If the broadcasters’ exit poll is indeed right then a Conservative minority government is the most likely outcome. Michael Gove and others claiming a “clear victory” would be right as there simply wouldn’t be enough anti-Tory votes to form a rainbow coalition.
It will be interesting to see what happens with a big SNP block though. Another independence referendum is certainly likely as the Conservatives have been so antagonistic towards Scottish voters. This raises constitutional questions about the future of the UK. We may well see some sort of reform on English votes for English laws (EVEL) – though in many cases it’s very hard to determine what is specifically an English issue.
I specialise in women’s issues. If the exit polls are correct, five more years of David Cameron in number 10 would not be a great thing at all for women. Austerity has been worse for women than men, and we’ll see further big welfare cuts. Very damaging for women in the UK.