I was initially disinterested in this election. I expected Labour to have a somewhat reduced majority, the Lib Dems to make huge gains, and the Tories to win maybe a few seats. When I woke up to the election results the next morning, I was surprised to see that there was no overall winner.
Yes, Tony Blair's party may have won its third term in office, but they weren't exactly victorious. Polling less then 10 million votes, Labour won, but with the lowest ever share of the vote for any governing party! Still, the War in Iraq didn't turn out to be as divisive an issue as the press made it out to be. Muslims by and large stayed loyal to Labour. It seems that ultimately, it was the day to day issues that mattered most to them.
The Tories managed to gain 33 seats but did not make the breakthrough they expected, their share of the vote has been stuck at around 33% for the last three elections. The Tories fought a negative campaign which didn't endear them to voters, Michael Howard's personality proved to be a liability.
The Liberal Democrats were the main gainers in this election in terms of the popular vote - up from 19% to 23%. For so long a centrist party, they positioned themselves to the left of Labour, particularly in their opposition to the Iraq war. This helped them to win votes from disaffected Labour voters, but it also helped them to lose votes in traditionally strong Tory seats where they are seen as too left wing.
All the political parties are now faced with a dilemma:
Labour badly needs to continue its modernisation of public services and stay in the political centre in order to retain the Tory voters it won over in 1997. Unfortunately, with Labour's majority slashed, the authority of the Prime Minister has taken a battering and the MP's on the left of his party are in no mood for compromise.
The Liberal Democrats are in some ways in the worst situation of all. If they want to avoid being more than a protest party, they will have to make up their mind about what they stand for. If they want to position themselves to the left of Labour, they will have to risk losing votes in some of the traditionally Tory constituencies. On the other hand, there is also a danger that in four years time, the Iraq war may be a distant memory and with Gordon Brown in charge, wayward Labour voters may have returned to the fold.
And then there are the Tories who in some ways have the most to gain...if they play their cards right. Whilst immigration is uppermost in many voters minds, the Tories muddled the issue by trying to be populist and opposing immigration on principle. As a result of this and their negative campaigning in general, they have come across as a "nasty" party. What they should have done is campaigned for fairness. Fair play, for so long a fundamental part of what Britain stands for has been undermined by New Labour, it's something the Tories neglected to campaign for. Fairness, so we have an immigration system that admits skilled workers and not terrorist sympathisers. Fairness, so we have a criminal justice system that puts the victim before the offender, fairness that ensures we are governed by our elected MP's and not be an unelected Government in Brussels, and fairness that ensures hard working people don't have their earnings confiscated by an increasingly pervasive Nanny State. It may be a centre right message, but it's a positive one nonetheless, and one that Labour with its rebellious MPs will find hard to counter.
But ultimately, there is one further factor that will help the Tories. With the Economy looking shaky, any economic downturn tends to be blamed on the Governing party. Labour may lose their reputation for economic competence, and the Tories will be able to capitalise on this. From this point of view, this election may turn out to be an one the Tories were glad to lose!