There was a precedent. The last time the polls suggested an election was close – in 1992 - the Conservatives emerged with an eight-point lead and an overall majority. This time the Conservatives are seven points ahead and David Cameron has just managed to win a majority.
2015 thus looks set to join 1992 an election the pollsters would prefer to forget. Indeed following on from that precedent, the British Polling Council and the Market Research Society moved speedily to announce the formation of an independent enquiry into the pollsters’ methods.
It may be that there was a late swing to the Conservatives. After all, the polls did a perfectly good job of anticipating the SNP, Ukip, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. Or perhaps, despite the industry’s constant efforts to learn the lessons of 1992, it continues to overestimate Labour’s strength.
Still, unexpected as it was it was very firmly an English and Welsh victory, not a British one. In Scotland the Conservative vote fell to a new all-time low of just 15%. In England and Wales, in contrast, the party’s vote increased by one point, making it the first time since 1955 that a government has succeeded in increasing its vote after a full term in office.
As the party had itself anticipated, the Conservatives’ path to a majority was paved by the electoral difficulties of the Liberal Democrats. Three quarters of the seats the Tories gained were garnered at the expense of the Liberal Democrats, whereas the party actually suffered a small net loss of seats to Labour. Mr Cameron has it seems, Nick Clegg to thank for the prospect of another five years in power.
The Liberal Democrats themselves had long comforted themselves with the thought that their supposedly popular local MPs would be able to stem the ebbing electoral ride in their own constituencies. Yet in practice the Liberal Democrat vote fell by 15 points in those seats that one of their current MPs was trying to defend, almost identical to the decline the party suffered across the country as a whole.
As a result the party registered its worst result since 1970 – which was back in the days when the party often struggled even to find a candidate in many constituencies. Having spent 60 years clawing its way back up the ladder of power it has slipped all the way back to the bottom rung after just one term in power.
But the Liberal Democrats were not the only party that was knocked for six. So also was the Labour Party in Scotland. The party’s vote fell by no less than 18 points north of the border, and it could do more than hang on to one seat by its fingernails. It had looked as though it was on a hiding to nothing ever since last September’s referendum when around two in five of its supporters disregarded the party’s advice and voted Yes.
However, even south of the border the party must be bitterly disappointed to have done no more than increase its share of the vote by three points on what had been one of its worst performances ever in 2010. The one bright spot Labour was in seats with relatively diverse ethnic populations in which the party’s support increased on average by as much as seven points. As a result the party’s vote increased more in London than in any other part of the UK.
Labour’s failure in England and Wales took the gilt off the gingerbread of the result for the SNP. The party exceeded its wildest expectations so far as its own tally of seats was concerned, and won almost half the votes north of the border. Nevertheless it still found itself denied the role of kingmaker it hoped would enable it to make a Labour government to whistle a more progressive tune.
Still the SNP will now be the third largest party in the House of Commons, while Ukip achieved the even more remarkable feat of displacing the Liberal Democrats as the third largest party in votes. As had long been anticipated the fewer the number of graduates in a constituency, the more the party advanced. However, this still left the party’s share of the vote too evenly spread to overcome the first past the post electoral system, with only Douglas Carswell managing to secure election.
Even so the outcome gives Ukip a new target at which to aim – at trying to win the European referendum that David Cameron has promised he will deliver. The election will leave this – and the future of Scotland – hanging over a government that, once the celebrations are over, will have to face the difficulties of trying to govern with a small majority – much as John Major had to do after his unexpected success in 1992.
John Curtice is Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University
Record turn-out: Participation at 18-year high
The proportion of registered voters who cast their ballot papers in Thursday’s general election was the biggest in 18 years, with more than 66 per cent of the electorate – 46,425,386 people – turning out.
Fears of a hung parliament, as well as sunny weather, are believed to be among the reasons for the rise, making it the strongest show since 1997 when 71 per cent of the country participated in Tony Blair’s landslide victory for New Labour.
Scotland’s independence referendum last year – which had a turnout of 84.6 per cent – has also helped to engage more people in politics, particularly north of the border.
The Scottish constituency of East Dunbartonshire saw the largest turnout on Thursday, with 81.9 per cent of the electorate casting their votes.
In contrast, Manchester Central maintained its traditionally low performance, with only 46 per cent of its electorate voting.
The UK ranks low in the world ranking of electoral participation and is currently number 76 on the list. And despite the fact that this year’s turnout is the largest in almost two decades, it’s only 1 per cent higher than in the 2010 election. In 2001 and 2005, the figures were 59 per cent and 61 per cent respectively.
By Katerina Kravtsova
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