On the day after the morning after the night before, the only certainty is that Britain's electoral map is in an entirely unprecedented condition. There have been surprises and exceptions everywhere and the forecasts of pollsters and commentators have, in many instances, been confounded.
Scotland swung towards Labour; England towards the Conservatives. In East Anglia, Labour has been almost wiped out. Wales has eight more Tory MPs and in the southern areas of England where Labour re-drew the map in 1997, only Oxford East, Southampton Itchen and Southampton Test have remained Labour. The Lib Dems did nowhere near as well as the polls had been suggesting. Maybe when all the excitement died down, during that critical moment alone with a ballot paper, many voters returned to what they knew. No pollster or psephologist can ever be entirely sure of human nature.
Then there were the unexpected, counter-intuitive outcomes. Who would have seen a small swing towards Labour at the expense of the Lib Dems in Rochdale, following Brown-Duffy? Or that Labour would hold on to Birmingham Edgbaston and lose Norwich South?
Several of the Conservative “A-listers” were rejected by the voters. The 'Cameroon' poster girls and boys, Joanne Cash in Westminster North, Shaun Bailey in Hammersmith and Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, the self-styled “black farmer” standing in Chippenham, all failed to be elected. Maybe the electorate has a resistance to candidates being fast-tracked to prominence and presented to them as stars.
Smaller parties and independents have not generally done well. Though the return of Caroline Lucas (Brighton Pavilion) as the UK's first Green MP and the success of the non-sectarian Alliance Party in Northern Ireland in taking a seat from the DUP, are real advances for the progressive cause and must not be overlooked amid the general post-election white noise.
Esther Rantzen, standing in Luton South on a self-promotion ticket and campaigning largely by name-dropping, has been treated by the voters with the contempt she deserved, gaining just four per cent of the vote. The far more admirable Richard Taylor, who has represented Wyre Forest for two parliaments, following his campaign to save acute in-patient care and the A&E department of Kidderminster General Hospital, came a close and creditable second to the Conservative – the voters of his constituency, presumably feeling that his task had been accomplished, returned to wider issues.
The BNP were given their marching orders in Barking and Dagenham, gaining only 14 per cent of the vote and losing all their council seats. Nick Griffin's response will surprise no one. Blaming his party's poor showing on “Africans”, he announced that the BNP would withdraw from the area on the grounds that an influx of immigrants had made the seat unwinnable. In the face of this odd logic, and provided that democrats continue to combine against the BNP as they so effectively did in the “Hope not Hate” campaign (http://www.hopenothate.org.uk ), the process will eventually leave the racists with nowhere to go.
UKIP, predictably, also failed to win any seats. More significantly, they polled only three per cent nationally, failing to reach the target five per cent with which they had promised to “shake up the general election”. In defying the convention that the Speaker is returned unopposed, their emphatic defeat in Buckingham will perhaps remind the Tory right that veering towards extremism is unlikely to be effective.
The country is, beyond doubt, politically fragmented. In England, the Tories took 39 per cent of the vote, with 49 per cent in the south east. Labour were in first place in Scotland and Wales with 42 per cent and 36.2 percent respectively. The old certainties have been swept away by an electorate which does not like any of the main parties sufficiently to entrust them with government. Any politician inclined to complacency or to trying to continue with 'business as usual' is not reading the signs of the times. An essentially decent, progressive majority has said “enough”.
The two overwhelming challenges facing the new administration when it is finally constituted: to deal with the budget deficit in a manner which will not further harm the most vulnerable and needy of our fellow-citizens, and to bring about reform of our broken voting system as quickly as possible, must be considered in the light of that verdict.