The one prediction everyone got right is that this election was unpredictable. But not for any of the reasons most had thought.
This weekend was supposed to be filled with intense negotiations over which parties would form a new governing coalition. That common prediction turned out to be wrong.
The results are still difficult to believe. The 2015 General Election saw a number of major national figures and upcoming stars lose their seats amidst crumbling support.
Labour lost Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls and a number of its leading MPs in Scotland in a SNP bloodbath that saw Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy out.
Liberal Democrats lost Simon Hughes and their statesman Vince Cable.
The Tories lost Minister of State for Employment Esther McVey. Ukip lost Mark Reckless and with him half their MPs.
It was a bad night for several parties. Liberal Democrats saw their support crash. Their 57 MPs in 2010 are now reduced to a mere eight in 2015. As I predicted, the Lib Dems failed to retain Berwick upon Tweed or Redcar. These results were widely expected. While Labour won its target seat in Redcar, it failed to make ground in its other targets of Stockton South, Carlisle and elsewhere.
Ukip made much of their promised Purple Revolution that was more fantasy than reality. Even Nigel Farage lost. In news that would shame other parties into a swift permanent vacation, their candidate for Sedgefield John Leathley was forced to apologise for making ‘sexist, racist and violent’ comments about the well-known journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and their North East Hampshire candidate Robert Blay was caught on camera threatening to shoot his rival Tory candidate if he became Prime Minister. You couldn’t make these stories up. No surprises then to see only one MP sent to Parliament.
The one revolution we saw was led by the SNP, not Ukip. Nicola Sturgeon’s nationalist party took all but three seats north of the England border leaving Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories with only one MP each in Scotland. While a big win was expected, few had seriously thought likely such a landslide.
So why did everyone get the election so wrong? The opinion polls claimed the public split between Labour and the Tories. This was not what happened at polling stations. There are two possible explanations.
The first is that people told pollsters porkies about their voting intentions. Why? Ukip support is a good example. Many Ukip supporters hide their intentions knowing that the party does have such a negative image. But I don’t think the problem is the public said one thing and did another at the ballot box.
The second and more likely explanation is that the opinion polls were right, but that Tory supporters were more motivated to turn out and vote than others. The reason is not an endorsement of Cameron’s policies as much as they are a rejection of everyone else’s.
Few voters I spoke with over the election campaign were enthusiastic about the coalition government. But there were concerns raised that motivated Tory voters most such as the need to outperform the threat from Ukip and worries that Labour might form a government supported by the SNP.
Labour seemed to believe former Liberal Democrat voters would come their way. But instead it looks like those keen on a non-mainstream alternative either stayed home or went for another such party.
A further problem is that Labour spent too much time appealing to its core vote than targeting voters more widely. This conservative – with a small ‘c’–strategy may have cost them dearly. You can already hear the Blairites saying ‘I told you so’. They might be right.
Elections end with governing parties winning the day, but it’s unclear if the electorate has won, too. Whatever the interest in the campaign, voters seem more disillusioned with Westminster politics as usual than ever before. And this is despite significant efforts by many a MP and peer to address this problem.
Over the next 18 months we’ll hear much about the EU and the democratic deficit between Parliament and Brussels. But it’s worth reflecting on the growing democratic deficit in the UK between the governed and their government. Cameron’s hope for a ‘Big Society’ was a poor attempt at filling this void.
Perhaps the biggest political challenge for the parties is not how they might be in government, but how they can be relevant by motivating and inspiring current and future generations.
Thom Brooks is Professor of Law and Government at Durham University and tweets at @thom_brooks