Swings, surprises and a resignation: 24 hours in the political life on Britain

Click to follow
Indy Politics

In one way it was entirely predictable. Tony Blair stood outside 10 Downing Street yesterday to claim a place in history as the only Labour leader to have won three elections in a row. Across London the Conservative leader Michael Howard announced that he would stand down as Tory leader having failed to take his party back to power. And on the steps of his party's headquarters in central London, Charles Kennedy was proclaiming the arrival of the era of true three-party politics after the Liberal Democrats' best showing for 80 years.

In one way it was entirely predictable. Tony Blair stood outside 10 Downing Street yesterday to claim a place in history as the only Labour leader to have won three elections in a row. Across London the Conservative leader Michael Howard announced that he would stand down as Tory leader having failed to take his party back to power. And on the steps of his party's headquarters in central London, Charles Kennedy was proclaiming the arrival of the era of true three-party politics after the Liberal Democrats' best showing for 80 years.

But if the outcome might have been forecast from early on in the election campaign, what few would have anticipated was the churn of political influences which produced it.

For, in the end, one of the most dull and predictable of election campaigns produced a slew of results which made election-night exciting and produced an outcome which introduces a series of unexpected new factors to the political landscape.

Something of that became obvious from the outset. When the first result came in, at 10.44pm, from Sunderland South, Labour's majority was significantly reduced. It was a trend that was to be reproduced throughout the country, leaving Mr Blair not just with his previous majority more than halved, but also as the Prime Minister with the lowest share of the vote in modern times.

Which is why he found himself outside No 10 yesterday saying: "The great thing about an election is that you get out and talk to people for week upon week, and I have listened and I have learned" - though what he learned, to judge from his pledges on sorting out immigration and re-establishing respect in classrooms, seem to be drawn as much from the Tory manifesto as from concerns of real voters.

On one of these he could not acknowledge what it was he might have learned. The ghosts of Iraq which had haunted the election from the outset figured as prominently in the results as Labour strategists had privately feared.

Just over an hour after the polls closed, at 11.05pm, the first word came that the substantial majority of the sitting Labour candidate in Bethnal Green & Bow, Oona King, was under serious threat from the former Labour maverick and leading anti-war candidate, George Galloway. Five hours later, he was declared the winner.

And in seat after seat in the 40 constituencies where Muslims constituted more than 5 per cent of voters the Labour vote was down.

The anti-war backlash was not devastating - the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw held on to his seat in Blackburn, which has a sizeable Muslim population, with only a slightly reduced majority - but it was significant in the rise of the Liberal Democrat vote throughout the country.

In his Sedgefield constituency, Mr Blair acknowledged that the Iraq war had been a "divisive" issue for the country, but insisted that people now wanted to "move on". Yet he then had to stand through a moving speech by one of his challengers Reg Keys, whose son was killed in Iraq, and who pooled 10 per cent of the vote in the Prime Minister's own constituency. Mr Blair bit his lip as he listened. In his heart he must fear that Iraq will never be over for him.

The next decisive indicator of the shape of things to come was just after midnight when the Tories took Putney from Labour - Mr Blair's party took a 9 per cent drop in its vote. Soon after, they took Wimbledon from Labour on a 7 per cent swing. It was a pattern which was to be replicated for the Conservatives in many places across the South-east, where they had a 2.3 per cent increase in the share of the vote. Most symbolically they retook Enfield South, perhaps the Tories' most famous loss in 1997 with its defining "were you up for Portillo?" moment. The Schools minister Stephen Twigg who lost his seat there was not the only ministerial casualty; the Tories also removed the Health minister, Melanie Johnson, in Welwyn Hatfield and the Constitutional Affairs minister, Chris Leslie, in Shipley.

Nor were all the Tory gains at Labour's expense. They took Newbury, Guildford, Ludlow, Devon West and Torridge from the Liberal Democrats. It is a measure of the task the Conservatives face to re-establish themselves that most Conservatives seemed content with this limited revival.

The best they had hoped for in this election was an honourable second place. Mr Howard delivered that, but the party's 33 per cent share of the vote is not much of an improvement on their share in 1997 and 2001.

What the Liberal Democrats did do was eat substantially into the Labour vote. That much was evident with a succession of victories for Labour's big names. The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, heard his result just before 1am with its 6 per cent swing to the Liberal Democrats. The same swing was there in Kate Hoey's seat of Vauxhall in London. And David Blunkett's in Sheffield Brightside. It was not long before the swing was transformed into wins, as Lorna Fitzsimmons lost Rochdale to the Liberal Democrats on an 8 per cent swing. They unseated the former minister Barbara Roche on a 14 per cent swing.

But it also became apparent that the Liberal Democrats could not make the same inroads in Tory seats. At 1.09am the party held Torbay but with a reduced majority which indicated, correctly, that they were to lose more seats to the Conservatives than they were to gain from them.

The much-trumpeted Liberal Democrat "decapitation" strategy to unseat the former Tory chairman Theresa May, the shadow Home Secretary David Davis and Oliver Letwin, and even Mr Howard, failed in southern constituencies. The Tories all retained their seats with increased majorities.

Only one member of the Tories' top team - the Education spokesman Tim Collins - was defeated, in Westmorland and Lonsdale.

The extent to which this posed a problem for Mr Kennedy's future strategy was revealed by what happened in the cities, particularly those with substantial student votes.

At 1.27am the solid Labour seat of Manchester Withington announced a recount; it eventually fell to the Liberal Democrats on a 16.4 per cent swing. The same thing happened in Cardiff Central, Birmingham Yardley, Bristol West and Cambridge. As the night went on this tendency was consolidated, with the Liberal Democrats taking Hornsey from Labour with a 15 per cent swing.

Mr Kennedy's dilemma is that what obviously played well in such seats - issues like Iraq, tuition fees and the proposal to replace the council tax with a local income tax - were equally unattractive in Tory seats. It poses a real headache for the future and exposes the hyperbole behind Mr Kennedy's notion that his party is "well poised" for a real breakthrough at the next general election.

Even so, he has broken a significant barrier. For many elections the Liberal Democrats remained stuck on between 17 and 19 per cent of the vote. This time they got 22 per cent - and their best result in numbers of seats since the days of Lloyd George.

There were revealing changes in Wales and Scotland. At 3am the Conservatives took Monmouth from Labour, gaining their first Welsh MP since 1997. Labour lost three Welsh seats to the Tories in what was, until yesterday, a Conservative free-zone.

Many factors were in play here but an additional influence became evident when an independent candidate, Peter Law, took Blaenau Gwent, Labour's safest Welsh seat. More than that, it was totemic, for the seat had previously been held by the iconic Labour figures Aneurin Bevan and Michael Foot.

But the local party and the voters, it turned out, resented the imposition of a lawyer from London. It was evidence of the resentment at increasing centralisation over the past decade.

It was not a good day for nationalists. In Wales, Plaid Cymru went down from four seats to three. In Scotland, though the SNP achieved the six seats it targeted it lost in its share of the overall voting, making the Liberal Democrats now the second party north of the border. This has implications both within the Scottish parliament and for the party in the UK generally.

Overall the result was good for democracy. Turnout is up around 2 per cent with big increases in marginal seats. There are now more independents in Parliament than before - indeed more than in any since 1945. In addition to George Galloway and Peter Law, Dr Richard Taylor - the Keep Kidderminster Hospital Open candidate - won again in Wyre Forest.

Small parties fared less well. The British National Party, which stood in more seats than ever before, slightly increased its share of the vote, but failed to take any seats. The BNP leader, Nick Griffin, took 9 per cent of the vote in Keighley, and a few of its candidates did not lose their deposits. The anti-Europe party UKIP sank in the polls. And Robert Kilroy-Silk's new party, Veritas, made little impression. He failed to win Erewash from Labour, polling just under 3,000 - only 6 per cent of the vote - and only just saved his deposit.

In the end it is hard to disagree with Mr Kennedy's verdict: "Overall this general election has clearly resulted in a new House of Commons which I think will be healthier in the party political sense than what the last eight years have been.

"The Government cannot ride roughshod over people's instincts, people's aspirations and people's views and we will have a major role to play in that," he said. "I think it is going to be a very different House of Commons from the one we have had over the past eight years, and I think that is going to be very healthy, whatever people's political views".

And if that is not what Mr Blair would have wanted, he should - after a night of election results like that - count himself lucky that he has got as much as he has.

Comments