We are now all being wise after the event. It seems so obvious that this was an election that the Conservatives were likely to win, a fact only obscured by those misleading opinion polls suggesting it was too close to call. Able to claim credit for economic recovery, and having cleverly pinned the blame on Labour for the crash, the Conservatives had a winning platform. By contrast, Labour struggled with both its message and its messenger. The Scottish Nationalists also contributed powerfully to the outcome, not only by routing Labour in Scotland but also by enabling the Conservatives to play the English card to telling effect south of the border. Instead of ‘locking the Tories out’, the SNP helped to put them in.
So obvious now, it was nevertheless a remarkable outcome. A consensus of commentary had established that a fragmented electorate would ensure that majority governments were a thing of the past and that coalition-making was the pattern of the future. Yet, despite the fragmentation, a majority government still managed to emerge. Some looked at the mismatch between votes and seats and found new reinforcement for the case for electoral reform. Yet, on another view, it made the case more difficult. The central pillar of justification for the existing electoral system was that, despite its disproportionality, it delivered majority governments (‘governments that can govern’). When it ceased to perform this function (as in 2010) the justificatory pillar collapsed, seemingly beyond repair. Yet this year it was restored, if only just.
Does this mean that people prefer single party majority government to its alternative, if they can still get it? It is certainly possible. Among the reasons for the electoral massacre of Liberal Democrats was their proclaimed assumption that they would henceforth be in permanent office as part of a coalition, which went down badly with the electorate. Yet it equally possible that people are well disposed towards coalition government if they can be sure it will govern coherently. The problem at present, on display in the election, is that an adversarial political culture has not caught up with the fact that antagonists may also be putative coalition partners. The electorate seems to like the idea of politicians finding common ground and being prepared to work together, but if this is not the culture of politics then they might prefer to settle for one lot running the show.
The danger after any election is to read too much into the result. Sweeping conclusions are advanced and futures are confidently described. The first casualty is any kind of historical perspective. So it is this time too, above all in relation to the fortunes of the major parties. Had the polls been accurate, the Conservatives would be in turmoil, their leader probably gone, with both party and pundits agonising over the gloomy future of a party that had been unable to win an electoral majority in nearly a quarter of a century. The fact that this did not happen does not alter the fact that it seemed a real possibility; and it provides a necessary corrective to those accounts now describing a very different future for the party. The political facts on the ground are what matter, and these are as uncertain after the election as they were before.
If this need for perspective applies to the Conservatives, it applies even more to Labour. Here the prognostications are little short of apocalyptic in their gloominess. It was certainly a miserable defeat, provoking another of those bouts of ‘whither Labour?’ soul-searching that the party has regularly engaged in at difficult moments in the past, but it does not mean that it will never win again. After the Conservatives had snatched victory from expected defeat in 1992, it was widely asserted (by those who should have known better) that the party’s electoral dominance was now so established that Britain had become a ‘dominant party’ state, with Labour consigned to permanent opposition. Five years later came the New Labour landslide, the beginning of more than a decade of political dominance. Of course the world is not the same now, but the ability of politics to surprise is undiminished.
In fact it is not difficult to envisage a set of circumstances in which Labour’s fortunes are revived. Governments become unpopular and opposition parties start to prosper. The EU referendum will intensify Conservative divisions and deprive UKIP of its reason for existence. In Scotland the SNP record will come under closer scrutiny and challengers to one-party rule will appear. None of this guarantees that Labour will be the beneficiary, but it does indicate a political opportunity if the party equips itself with a persuasive leader and a plausible programme. Yet something more will be required too, at least if it aspires to be more than simply an office-seeking party that provides an alternative set of politicians when people tire of the Conservatives.
It will need a compelling narrative, a story that shows an understanding of how the world is and what kind of change is possible. The battle of ideas is not an optional extra but a condition for political success. At present this battle is being won by the Conservatives, defining the terms of debate on the economy, public finances, welfare and the size of the state, leaving Labour to snipe at the edges but without any developed alternative. For as long as this remains the case, it will be a fatal weakness. For all his limitations as a leader, Ed Miliband understood this and tried to put together the basis for a social democratic politics in hard times. His failure to convert this into a convincing narrative does not mean that such a project should be abandoned, but rather that the effort should be renewed.
This, after all, is what New Labour did. It did not just master the art of winning elections, or trade off the skills of a persuasive leader, but for a long period altered the terms of political debate. It commanded the narrative. That is also the task now, although in different circumstances. It could start by conscripting Adam Smith for a crusade against markets in which corporate power works against consumers, and by standing up for user against producer interests in both public and private sectors. It should stand for the little people against the big people, enhancing life chances and unblocking the routes to opportunity. It should stand for a kind of capitalism that does not strip workers of basic protections and securities, but which invests in people and skills. If such a project has an insurgent character to it, then so much the better, as that fits the times.