John Lanchester writes: Hands up if you saw that one coming. I confess that I didn’t. The first line of the BBC announcement, ‘Conservatives largest party’, was no shock. Then there was a pause a few seconds long, and the projection of 316 Tory seats came up. I nearly fell off my chair. From that point on, the surprises only got bigger.
Why was it so surprising, though? If you’d asked me six weeks ago what was going to happen, I’d have said, a little reluctantly, that the likeliest outcome was a Tory minority government. From that point to an outright majority is a step, but not a gigantic one. If I’d been granted a glimpse ahead to the result, I’d have said the Tories did better and Labour worse than expected, but not amazingly, bizarrely, unforeseeably so. The thing which turned this into such a blindsiding shock was the fact that the election campaign was so flat and eventless. For six weeks, nothing happened. The numbers refused to move. Then everything happened at once. The talk in politics these days is all about ‘narrative’ and ‘momentum’, but there was almost no sign of that in this election. There was little evidence that the electorate were paying any attention. The Tory campaign worked spectacularly, but did so in a new and peculiar way: it was like a pill that the patient refuses to swallow, and holds off swallowing, and then downs all at once.
First-past-the-post is not especially fair, but it is supposed to deliver clear outcomes. In 2010, it didn’t. This time, against all expectations, it did. Lots more detail will come in over the next weeks as the data are analysed and the political scientists do their thing, but for me, a couple of things really stand out. If Labour had retained all of their 41 Scottish seats, the Tories would still be the majority government. So that must mean Labour got creamed in England, yes? Actually, no. Labour’s share of the vote in England went up by 3.6 per cent. That’s more than the Tories: their share of the English vote only went up by 1.4 per cent. Labour could even claim that they won the English campaign, in the same sense that the British army could claim it won the Charge of the Light Brigade. [Continue reading…]