With the polls contentious and showing a close result between the Conservatives and Labour and a near certainty of a long government formation ahead, the night of May 7 was expected to be an exciting night. However, the predictions for the elections results were almost immediately upended after the polls closed. All polls prior to the election had been projecting both major parties to get approximately 280 seats, with the Liberal Democrats halving their numbers of seats from 52 to about 25. The BBC exit poll, however, gave an extremely different picture. The exit poll showed the Conservatives winning 316 seats increasing their representation in Westminster by 10 seats from 2010. Labour was projected to fall from 256 seats in 2010 to 239 seats. The Liberal Democrats, already looking at a disastrous election, were devastated by the exit poll, which had them retaining only 10 seats!
From the release of the exit poll, all coverage came with some sort of qualifier on the validity of the result. Even the representatives for MORI, the company conducting the exit poll, advised caution in interpreting it. The poll was so wildly different from what everyone had been projecting for the month before the election that nobody was sure how accurate it was. Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon, whose party the exit poll said would win all but one seat in Scotland, tweeted skepticism advising its supporters to “treat the exit poll with HUGE caution.” Paddy Ashdown, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, stated that if the exit poll was right, he would publicly eat a hat. As the night wore on and results kept coming in, it became more evident that the exit poll was indeed correct. The final total actually showed the BBC exit poll in fact underestimated the performance of the Conservatives. The Conservatives were projected to still be short of a majority, but they ended up winning 331 seats, a slim five seat majority. Labour and the Liberal Democrats overperformed, and only won 232 and 8 seats respectively. By the next morning, Labour’s Ed Miliband, the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg, and UKIP’s Nigel Farage had all resigned as party leaders.
The Liberal Democrats suffered the most in the election. The centrist party had long been the standard protest party in British elections and slowly built up to a high of 23% of the vote in the last election. However, 2015 saw them plummet from 52 seats to just 8. Going into the next parliament, that result puts them on par with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party. Additionally, they suffered many historic defeats. Treasury Secretary Vince Cable and Business Secretary Danny Alexander both lost their seats. Former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy lost his seat in Ross, Skye, and Lochaber. Even in seats where they kept their seat, the Liberal Democrats performed badly. In Orkney and Shetland, they only beat the SNP by 817 votes. This was a monumental shift from 2010 when Orkney and Shetland had been the safest Liberal Democratic seat. In fact, the constituency had voted for the Lib Dems and its predecessor Liberal Party in every election since 1950. While other prominent party figures such as Clegg and Tim Farron kept their seats, it is clear that the Lib Dems will be reduced to near irrelevancy in the years and possibly decades to come in Westminster politics.
Arguably one of the biggest winners of the election were the Scottish National Party. They only held 6 seats before the election, and the aftermath of Scotland voting to remain in the United Kingdom last year led many commentators to believe the party’s rise was at an end. However, there was a feeling in Scotland of support for Nicola Sturgeon’s party leadership after the independence referendum and a feeling that the referendum itself benefitted Scotland just by giving the people a voice. Going into 2015, the SNP only continued their surge, and the election showed it as they came within a hair of a majority of the popular vote in Scotland. The vote by constituency saw one of the largest political shifts in Scotland’s history. The SNP won 56 of the 59 Scottish seats. Each of the three major UK-wide parties only retained one seat each; Orkney and Shetland for the Lib Dems, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale, and Tweeddale for the Conservatives, and Edinburgh South for Labour. The rise of the SNP came at a cost, however. While the party possesses its largest ever contingent in Westminster, a Conservative majority means that Scotland can effectively be ignored in the next government. However, this could increase support for the SNP during the next five years and increase support for a second independence referendum.
For the smaller parties, the Greens and UKIP ended up with 1 seat each. The Green Party kept their Brighton Pavilion seat, but despite a significant increase in support failed to capitalize on the divisions of the election. UKIP, on the other hand, got over 3.8 million votes, of 12.6% of the popular vote but only won 1 seat in Westminster. Douglas Carswell kept his Clacton seat after defecting from the Conservatives to UKIP, but fellow defector Mark Reckless and UKIP leader Nigel Farage both lost their elections in Rochester and Strood and Thanet South. UKIP’s rise in support can be credited to the party having largely replaced the Lib Dems as the primary protest party in the country. Outside of the standard discussion of British party politics, the Northern Irish parties saw a couple upsets. The Ulster Unionist Party, who made an electoral alliance with the Conservatives, unexpectedly returned to Westminster with victories in South Antrim and Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
Now that the Tories have won a majority, where does Britain go from here? For now, at least, it looks like the Conservative policies of austerity and push to renegotiate the United Kingdom’s role in the European Union will continue. Labour will have to recover from losing their traditional constituency base in Scotland, but could still find fertile ground in the north of England and in cities if the Conservatives make further benefit cuts now that they don’t have the Lib Dems as a moderating balance. For the Liberal Democrats, though, they will likely have to go through a major rebranding and rebuilding if they want to become relevant again. The rebranding efforts already appear to be starting. Tim Farron, who is likely to be the next leader of the Liberal Democrats, has already made signs that he wants to change the name of the party back to the Liberals, which would signify a break with the past three decades after they merged with the Social Democratic Party in 1988. Meanwhile, it definitely looks like the UK political system is still very much in flux, and Scotland, the EU, and electoral reform will very much remain prominent issues for Cameron’s government.