The results are in, and everything went pretty much as expected, the major surprise being the slim majority of Labour: the party now has 355 seats, 31 over the 324 needed for a simple majority in the House of Commons. What does this mean for the UK and for British domestic and foreign policy?
It means that Blair will have to go one of two roads: he will either take measures to gain the support of the more leftist Labour backbench, or work on forming more ad hoc alliances with the Tories on some issues such as public service reform. The second option seems extremely unlikely, given Britain’s traditionally good party discipline, and the disagreement between Conservatives and Labour on the best methods to reform public service (Labour wanting more money and limited privatization, Conservatives basically wanting privatization). Therefore Blair will push ahead with topics such as his African agenda, which appeal to the more socially conscious Left within Labour yet don’t alienate his middle ground. Reform of the House of Lords would seem to be another topic for which he could gain more broad cross-party support.
As for that third party, the Liberal Democrats saw about a 4 percent rise in their share of the vote, winning an extra 10 seats, though they did not do well against the Conservatives, losing more seats than they picked up. The Lib Dem gains came at Labour’s expense alone. The question is what now for the Lib Dems: their policies are a strange mix of personal freedom, high taxation and policies that redistribute from the rich to the middle class, and their foreign policy appeals mostly to the moderate left (joining the euro, more integration, no intervention). Despite this Charles Kennedy has claimed that his party is an option in the middle. Lib Dems gained due to the protest vote, but their challenge now is to consolidate these gains while simultaneously generating a coherent set of policies that could actually guide a governing party. I had, as I said before, hoped that the Lib Dems would pull off a total surprise and, together with the Conservatives, force a hung parliament, but that having not happened, I must admit that Labour was and still is the best governing option at present.
Smaller parties that had hoped to gain seats did not; the only one to pick up a seat was ex-Labour MP George Galloway’s Respect, winning a London seat heavily populated by Muslims. The Euroskeptic UKIP and the nationalist BNP failed to pick up seats. The SDLP did not sustain the heavy losses predicted, maintaining three seats in Northern Ireland, although it lost one seat to Sinn Féin and picked up another due to Unionist divisions. It was the Ulster Unionist Party that was basically wiped out, as former First Minister David Trimble lost his seat and the party was reduced to one MP. The DUP meanwhile took nine seats at Westminster. NI Alliance failed to win any seats—the “middle of the road” is not a productive political strategy at present, especially in a single-member-district system.
As Blair heads into his third and final term, his agenda remains alive and well. His legacy of leading Labour to the political center is certainly mixed in people’s opinions, but succeeded grandly in bringing the party out of the political wilderness. The next question is whether either opposition party can formulate a better agenda for Britain. The Conservatives must redefine their core principles, as has been said several times before, and not try to be “Labour, just slightly differently”; the Lib Dems must discover what would tie all of their proposals together and reformulate them to make them more practical and coherent. The party to succeed first in doing this might well be the one that shares the political arena with Labour in the future. Whatever results, it will definitely be an interesting process of evolution.