I’m pretty much as puzzled as anyone by the election and its results. But I think there are three clear outcomes from the results so far (10.15 am on Friday). One is the pretty obvious one – of differential patterns of voting across the UK. Not only did Scotland and Wales vote more strongly for Labour than did England, but even in Northern Ireland neither Unionist party did well (and Traditional Unionist Voice failed to show up to any material extent). The Conservative surge failed to materialise in Scotland, where both Labour and SNP’s share of the vote grew and the small increase in support for the Tories appears to have been due to declines in votes for the Lib Dems or Greens rather than anything else. Even their only sitting member, David Mundell, increased his vote only by a hair.
In Wales, Labour’s share of the vote fell (and they lost 5 seats), while Tory gains only took them to 8 seats, not the 12 they needed for a Westminster majority. For good or ill, Wales has proved not to be an electoral happy hunting ground for the Tories – and not to vote in a way that is like England.
Meanwhile, in England, the Conservatives got their votes mostly from Labour and only to a limited extent from the Lib Dems; a pattern that becomes pretty clear if one looks at the English vote on a regional basis. They did well in traditionally-Labour areas (notably the north and the Midlands), much less well in southern parts. (Credit to Phil Cowley, the resident psephologist on Radio 4, from which I got most of my election news, for pointing this out.) The expected Lib Dem surge may not have materialised, but their vote mostly held up against the Tories.
Second, the Conservatives’ territorial electoral strategy appears to have done poorly. They claimed to represent the whole UK, and made much of their alliance with the Ulster Unionists as meaning they were contesting seats across the whole of the UK. But, as noted above, this didn’t work in Scotland or Wales. And in Northern Ireland, the UCUNF arrangement failed to help the Ulster Unionists, the DUP didn’t do well (not helped by Peter Robinson’s personal troubles), while Naomi Long for the Alliance and Lady Sylvia Hermon as an independent won their contests, in what would have been regarded as traditionally unionist seats. The Conservatives’ vision was that – by contesting seats across the whole UK and winning at least some seats in all parts of it – they would get a broad mandate for their vision of the Union. As matters stand, the Conservatives don’t have that.
Third, if the Tories do form the UK Government, that in turn means that they will need to think harder about the territorial make-up of the UK and tread more carefully than they might have expected. They will need to reflect carefully about how to balance the various demands of their immediate mostly English constituency and MPs with wider ones. This is going to be tough for them. There’s much more to strong defence of the Union than a rhetorical assertion of it in a manifesto, and my devolution analysis suggests that the Conservatives’ grasp of the wider implications of devolution is shaky at best. One thing that is inimical to that defence of the Union is cutting deals with parties from the devolved parts of the UK (whether the SNP, Plaid, the DUP or the Ulster Unionists) to advantage those parts, in order to secure a Parliamentary majority. Seeking such deals is what parties representing particular parts should be expected to do, but that doesn’t mean a party claiming to support the Union should agree to them without having a wider vision. The Union may need to become looser, and will inevitably be asymmetric, but if there’s to be a Union there needs to be more to it than just a set of convenient bilateral deals to fix particular short-term problems.