Mhairi Black, a 20-year-old Scottish student created history on May 8, by becoming the youngest member of British parliament in more than 300 years. The young girl, representing the Scottish Nationalist Party, defeated Douglas Alexander, one of the senior-most Labour leaders by more than 6,000 votes in the British parliamentary elections. It launched the young girl’s career and, possibly, spelt the end of the Labour veteran’s political life. The Labour’s unexpected downfall and the SNP’s expected rise have been the highlights of the elections. But the real winner on May 8 were David Cameron and his Conservative Party.
While all opinion polls rightly predicted the sweeping victory of the SNP in Scotland, no one got it right at the national level. All pollsters predicted a neck-and-neck fight between the Labour and the Conservatives. Yet, when the final results were announced, the Conservatives scored an outright victory, pocketing 331 of 650 seats, leaving the Labour way behind at 232 seats. Another party, which suffered such humiliation, was the Liberal Democrats, who lost 49 seats, ending up with just eight. The right-wing UK Independent Party led by Nigel Farange won just one seat, although the party came third nationally in vote share.
Cameron said the result was a “positive response to a positive campaign”. “I remember 2010, achieving that dream of getting the Labour out and the Tories back in and that was amazing. But I think this is the sweetest victory of all,” he said. Although he was critical about the high tide of Scottish nationalism during the campaign, Cameron sounded a conciliatory note while delivering his victory speech at the Conservative Party headquarters in London and said it was time to mend divisions between England and Scotland.
The result was a major disappointment for the Labour Party and its leader Ed Miliband, who had hoped to oust Cameron. After it became clear that the Labour was in for a serious drubbing, Miliband announced his resignation from party leadership. “I am truly sorry I did not succeed. I am tendering my resignation,” he said. “We haven’t made the gains that we wanted in England and Wales, and in Scotland we have seen a surge of nationalism overwhelm our party.”
While Labour lost all but one seat in its one-time stronghold Scotland, to the SNP, Labour also failed to win important seats in the Midlands, the northwest and Yorkshire. In most of the seats in these regions, the UKIP voters threw their lot behind the Conservatives, beefing up their tally. However, in liberal strongholds like Southampton, the Liberal Democratic voters, who deserted the party, did not support the Labour. There are many in the Miliband camp, who believe that the SNP damaged Labour’s prospects not only in Scotland. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon was quite vocal about offering her party’s support to the Labour to keep the Conservatives out. It worked against the Labour in many English constituencies. “She ended up in an alliance with the Conservative Party,” said a Labour leader about Sturgeon’s tactics.
The political upheaval in Scotland has been another notable aspect of the elections. The Labour Party, which won 41 of 59 votes in the last elections in Scotland, got just one seat this time, while the SNP pocketed 56, making it the third largest party nationally. In the SNP surge, all major Labour strongholds, including Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, which had previously been held by former prime minister Gordon Brown, were lost by a margin of over 10,000 votes. It shows that the SNP’s performance in last year’s independence referendum was no fluke and secessionist tendencies are likely to grow stronger.
The election also proved to be disastrous for the Liberal Democrats, Cameron’s coalition partners in the outgoing government. From 57, the Lib Dems have come down to eight this time and most of its senior leaders, including business secretary Vince Cable, chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander and justice minister Simon Hughes lost the elections. The results forced Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg to resign party leadership.
Although the 48-year-old Cameron scored a comfortable victory in the end, his second term is likely to be tumultuous. One of his first challenges will be regarding the poll promise he made about holding a referendum by 2017 on whether Britain should stay in the European Union, which could accentuate polarisation among the Tories. While Cameron is in favour of staying on within the union, a large number of his colleagues to the right want out, which could considerably diminish Britain’s global and regional political standing.
The rising tide of Scottish nationalism, emboldened by the unprecedented election results will be another major challenge for Cameron. He may have to make significant concessions to Scottish voters to prevent a second independence referendum, including giving the Scottish parliament significant tax, welfare and spending powers. A far more contentious issue will be Sturgeon’s insistence on scrapping the next generation of Trident nuclear weapons, on which Cameron is unlikely to yield. “There is a lion roaring tonight, a Scottish lion. I don’t think any government, of any particular complexion, can ignore it,” said Alex Salmond, one of the prominent SNP leaders. As Britain gradually makes the shift from a bi-party system to a multi-party one, which is the norm in most continental European states, Cameron will have to master the art of carrying along disparate parties like the UKIP and the SNP to prevent the fragmentation of British politics and keep the country a key player in the international system.