London—Anybody who says they saw this coming is lying. When the London bureau went out to cast its ballots at lunchtime yesterday, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and 11 separate polls were confidently predicting a photo finish with neither Labour or the Conservatives winning enough seats to form a government on their own. And since the same polls also all agreed that the Scottish National Party, whose leader, Nicola Sturgeon, had already pledged to “lock out” the Tories from Westminster, were on course for a historic victory in Scotland, it seemed as if the only question was whether Ed Miliband would have the stomach to claim the prize whose legitimacy David Cameron and the right-wing press were already beginning to attack.
When the polls closed at 10 last night, and the results of the BBC’s exit poll showed not just a larger-than-expected Labour collapse in Scotland, but also a failure to gain any significant number of Tory seats in England or Wales, my first thought was “This must be wrong.” To steady my nerves, I went on Nate Silver’s web site to remind myself that the wizard of odds had predicted 278 seats for the Tories, 267 for Labour, and 53 for the SNP—easily enough, with a little help from the Greens and the Welsh nationalists to put together a left-wing majority. If the exit polls were right, even my gloomy Labour insider, who on Saturday told me he thought a minority Tory government a real possibility, was too optimistic.
Of course, the reality turned out to be much, much worse. When I went to bed last night it looked like the Tories and Lib Dems together might just have enough seats to govern. I woke up to a Tory majority, the certainty of five more years of cuts to social services, and the very real prospect—especially given the 4 million votes across the country for the UK Independence Party—that Britain will leave Europe. By lunchtime the former Nation intern Ed Miliband was also the former leader of the Labour Party, though he was beaten in resignation by former Nation intern Nick Clegg, who saw his party reduced to just eight seats in the new Parliament, where in any case the Tories now have no need of Lib-Dem support.
How did this happen? Though some pollsters have apparently already identified the “shy Tory” factor—personally I’d have thought “shame” entirely appropriate—the more searching debate ought to be about what happened to the Labour Party. Since the recrimination and finger-pointing has already begun, let me sketch out my own sense of what went wrong—and begin by saying that although Miliband was far from a natural campaigner (and the Tory press ruthlessly underlined every awkward gesture) Labour’s defeat did not stem from any of the candidate’s personal failings. Indeed in the past few weeks the conventional wisdom was that the Tories had fatally underestimated Miliband’s quirky charm.