The UK Election Disaster

Photo by Loz Pycock via Flickr

People were sharing a clip from Patrick Keiller’s film London on Twitter this morning. In the film an unnamed narrator trawls through post-Thatcherite London with his friend “Robinson.” The scene was filmed on polling day in 1992. The polls had been predicting a hung parliament after years of Tory rule, but things didn’t turn out like that: by 4 AM it was clear that the Conservatives had won. Again.

“It is difficult to recall,” says the narrator, “the shock with which we realized our alienation from the events that were taking place in front of us. Robinson’s first reaction was one of spleen. There were, he said, no mitigating circumstances—the press, the voting system, the impropriety of Tory party funding—none of these could explain away the fact that the middle class in England had continued to vote Conservative because in their miserable hearts they still believed that it was in their interests to do so.”

Yesterday’s general election felt uncannily similar. I’d sat down in front of the TV with muted hopes. Campaign polling for the past few weeks had showed Labour and the Conservatives to be neck and neck. There were a few unknown quantities—it was clear that a resurgent Scottish National Party, reeling from a narrowly lost referendum on Scottish independence—would pick off many of Scotland’s hitherto safe Labour seats. There was some fear that UKIP—a deeply ugly English nationalist rabble preaching isolationism, low taxation, and anti-immigration through the stench of beer and cigarette-stained teeth—would make wild gains. But until the eleventh hour it seemed that the Tories and Labour would be closely matched, and that Labour might even be able to form a coalition government with the SNP on an anti-Tory ticket.

I trawled my curated Twitter feeds and was pleased to see that everyone agreed with me. We were complacent on Facebook, sharing our “General Election 2015” emoticons, writing caveated endorsements of Ed Miliband and New Old New Labour. At worst we thought we would be in for another hung parliament, our rulers decided after a few weeks of wrangling. The right-leaning London Times had urged Prime Minister David Cameron to “occupy” 10 Downing Street even if he didn’t have a majority in the commons after the election, and plans were laid to noisily dispute his presumption this Saturday.

That was until a few minutes past 10 PM, when the first exit polls were released. I should have gone to bed then, but it seemed there was still a sliver of hope. Party grandees poo-pooed the polls, as is their wont. Paddy Ashdown, ex-leader of the Liberal Democrats, promised that he’d eat his hat on live television if the exit polls were accurate. It was pointed out to him that he didn’t own a hat. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s bulldog, promised to eat his kilt.

What seems to have done for Labour is the same thing that did for them in 1992—the “shy Tory” phenomenon: people reporting to pollsters that they’re planning on voting for a left-leaning party while in the privacy of the ballot box reverting to type, skewing the results. Pollsters say they are careful to build this bias into their models, but it seems they didn’t do this quite carefully enough this time round. An investigation has been launched into their inaccuracy, though quite whom this will help is unclear.

By 4 AM it was clear that the exit polls were correct. The Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives’ coalition partners for the past five years, were wiped out, losing forty-nine of their fifty-seven seats. Labour lost almost fifty seats in Scotland to the SNP. By morning it was evident that Cameron wouldn’t even need to form a coalition to govern. In the end he had almost one hundred more seats than Labour and a twelve-seat majority in the House of Commons. He scuttled off to Buckingham Palace to tell the queen.

Then came the resignations. First to go was Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats. There was some schadenfreude in this—Clegg had publicly and vocally pledged to end university tuition fees before the last general election only to promptly and enthusiastically allow them to be raised to £9,000 per year as soon as he became part of the coalition. Next was Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, who had failed to win his seat. During the previous general election he had been involved in a light aircraft crash when the banner trailing behind his plane caught in its wheels on landing. He looked more shocked this time round. Finally, wearily, Ed Miliband resigned.

All day I’ve been walking around in a daze. Who are these shy Tories, secretly living amongst us like pod people? Not in London. The symbolic home of Cameron’s government is the area of Oxfordshire in which his constituency is located. This is where he used to have “country suppers” with Rebekah Brooks—Rupert Murdoch’s right-hand woman—until she was brought down by the phone hacking scandal. Here is where he chews the fat with Jeremy Clarkson, spokesman for middle England, who was sacked from his TV show last month after punching a producer because no hot food was available. Here is where Cameron attends food festivals run by ex–pop star turned cheesemonger Alex James. It is a nightmare of a place, but the association confirms what we probably all already knew in our heart of hearts—barring London, England is a terribly right-wing place, and it is ashamed of the fact.

With the news of Cameron’s victory stock markets rallied. The value of shares in Foxtons, a notoriously gentrifying London-based estate agent, went up 13 percent. Middle England was happy. In Keiller’s London, the narrator goes on:

Robinson began to consider what the result would mean for him. His flat would continue to deteriorate, and his rent increase. He would be intimidated by vandalism and petty crime. The bus service would get worse. There would be more traffic and noise pollution and an increased risk of getting knocked down crossing the road. There would be more drunks pissing in the street when he looked out of the window and more children taking drugs on the stairs when he came home at night. His job would be at risk and subjected to interference, his income would decrease, he would drink more and less well, he would be ill more often, he would die sooner. For the old, or anyone with children, it would be much worse.


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