Will the five different polls that took place on 5 May 2011 prove to be a watershed for politics in Britain? It depends where you see the axis for change and the key tipping points. There are at least two distinct ways of narrating differential outcomes.
Those who want a more representative or proportional voting system at Westminster look to have had their aspirations set back significantly by the AV referendum result. The balance between DUP and Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland’s uniquely shared assembly has been maintained. And Labour’s gains in Wales and across England, combined with a relatively good survival rate for the Tories south of the border and massive pain for the Liberal Democrats, appears to have strengthened the Conservatives within government and also maintained Ed Miliband’s revival hopes. So the ‘big two’ can be seen to have kept their heads in front across the UK.
But the more dramatic story, as this column indicated when most were assuming that there would straightforwardly be a Labour First Minister in Scotland again, is north of the border. There, a sophisticated electorate used the Additional Member System to deliver a verdict that holds warnings for everyone. The Scottish National Party certainly achieved their “historic breakthrough”, but the evidence is that people will vote for a different left-of-centre polity in UK elections.
This plural approach, combined with the abject failure of the UK two-party horse race “beyond Berwick” (as Westminster types think of it) threatens to undermine traditional London-based hegemonies from the so-called periphery. It also means the SNP will be pushed to the brink of an independence referendum they know they will not win. The Greens, overlooked by the mass media, have made progress too, strengthening the influence gained by Brighton Pavilion MP and figurehead Caroline Lucas – who, as their single Westminster representative, punches way above her weight on the national scene.
So there are both immediate and longer-term signs of fresh impetus within a set of national, local and voting reform polls that provide a diverse snapshot of realigning politics and new stress points. Can the SNP force a further step-change in the way Scotland is run, economically as well as politically, in line with their aspirations for more Scottish autonomy? How will further evidence that the Conservatives and Labour are predominantly English parties affect their hegemony, credibility and development at a UK level? Can the Lib Dems recover from virtual wipeout?
“Politics is about rough and tumble, but this was still a mighty tumble,” a Liberal Democrat spokesperson told the BBC the morning after the night before, with many results still to come but the overall demography of 5 May all-too-clear, nevertheless.
All of which comes back to the overlooked ‘English question’. Viewed from the citadels of Westminster, and with the prosperous southern English electorate seemingly disposed against any major new deal, the future of the UK continues to be about ‘cohesion’ and functional majority identities. From Scotland, however, the emerging game appears very different.
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted from his May 2011 regular 'Westminster Watch' column for Third Way (http://www.thirdwaymagazine.co.uk/), the magazine of Christian social, cultural and political comment.