Politics as a whole is more unpredictable - and that gives us hope

Ron Beadle - a winning Lib Dem council candidate on May 7 - says the parties that lost the election can still find a way back

Steve Parsons/PA Wire Nick Clegg
Nick Clegg

Sir Winston Churchill once quipped that the job of the politician was to confidently predict what would happen in the future and then to explain why they got it wrong.

Like almost everyone else, I didn’t see the election result coming. Two months ago I wrote in this column that I had never met so many people who were genuinely undecided and my best explanation for what happened on May 7 was that these people decided to vote Tory.

What I predicted correctly was the almost complete annihilation of my own party in Parliament – we have more councillors in Gateshead today than MPs in Westminster.

As someone who opposed going in to Coalition in the first place I have been warning of this for five years but as late as election night my own party’s leadership didn’t see it coming. Hubris is a powerful thing.

Since the election a number of questions have dominated analysis. First, a lot of ink has been spilled analysing why the polls got this so wrong. Second, the Labour party’s defeats to the SNP and losses to Ukip have led to another cycle of existential self–doubt. Even one of their leadership candidates, Mary Creigh, claims that the party might not survive failure to re-connect with its core support.

The result in Scotland has significant repercussions for Labour’s quandary. Whilst ‘New Labour’ people claim they were too left wing in 2015, the left uses the result in Scotland to claim that they weren’t socialist enough.

The third question is Scotland itself. It is difficult not to conclude that another independence referendum is on the way.

Fourth, the next two years will be dominated by the In-Out debate.

But this too enhances the prospects for Scottish independence because many in the nations outside England are arguing that we should not leave unless all four parts of the UK agree.

The consequences of Britain’s exiting the EU on the basis of English votes may include the break-up of the UK itself.

Fifth is the renewed evidence this election provides for the case for electoral reform.

Ukip and the Greens have now replaced the Lib Dems as those complaining loudest about a system which has given the SNP 56 seats for 1.5 million votes but Ukip and the Greens just two seats for nearly six million votes.

That said, the chances for electoral reform are as distant under this Tory government as they have been under every other. What we will get is boundary reforms reducing the number of seats in Scotland and the North and hence making it even harder for Labour to win in 2020.

Some of the Tories’ opponents take comfort from the comparison with 1992. For the last time an unexpected Tory win produced a wafer-thin majority, it was followed by five years of infighting and collapsing support so some argue that the referendum will have similar consequence this time.

My judgment differs. Harold Wilson managed to keep Labour together in the 1970s despite his ministers featuring on both sides of the European referendum debate and Cameron will surely do the same.

In 1992 Tory resentments in government had had 13 years to fester and the party had not healed from the coup against Mrs Thatcher. David Cameron is, on the other hand, the first leader to give the Tories a majority and leads a party that can barely believe its luck.

Another significant feature of this election has received very little comment. That is the extent to which people voted differently in the two elections that took place.

Nick Forbes’ confident prediction that the Lib Dems would be wiped out in Newcastle is a case in point; of the six seats the Lib Dems were defending Labour only won two; in Gateshead Labour won none of their Lib Dem targets but our parliamentary votes collapsed in both.

More dramatically Ukip won Thanet Council but the same voters denied Nigel Farage the Parliamentary seat. As never before people voted for different parties in different elections; the tribal voting that dominated the 20th century is truly a thing of the past.

And that provides hope, to my battered party and to the 13,000 people who have joined us since May 7 and to Labour’s crestfallen warriors also.

It wasn’t just the result on May 7 that proved unpredictable, politics as a whole is more unpredictable. Success is not guaranteed, but nor is failure.

Ron Beadle was re-elected as a Liberal Democrat councillor for Low Fell, Gateshead, on May 7.


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