Incredible as it may seem, it was only four days ago that we received that exit poll; that stunning, improbable exit poll. Five minutes before the poll, you would have got quite fantastic odds from the bookmakers on Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, and Nigel Farage (sort of) resigning within the next 24 hours; the SNP failing to hold the balance of power; or of any party winning an overall majority (or on Paddy Ashdown eating his hat …)
I say this because the political picture has been utterly transformed by the Conservative victory, and has taken many by surprise. As the night unfolded I was reminded of the advice the pastor of my church gave when we prayed as a church for the Scottish Independence referendum last September: “Pray for the peace of Scottish people, because if the opinion polls are accurate, at least half the nation will wake up the next day deeply unhappy.” I watched the results, and was painfully aware that the result was not going to be palatable for many voters.
As a Conservative I was naturally delighted that the country voted for David Cameron to continue as Prime Minister with a clear majority. I was also however aware of the human story behind the election – while my party colleagues and I were celebrating, many very decent and hardworking public servants were losing their jobs in the brutal glare of the public eye, and many equally hard-working party supporters were utterly heartbroken by the results. Of course, no-one enters politics without recognising defeat is part of the business – it is why I admired Esther McVey recognising after her defeat in Wirral West that the rough and tumble of electioneering, and the pain of defeat, is all part of the political game. But it is also wise to recognise those hurting after the election, and I think there are two fitting responses to this.
The first is by those participating, and with the notable exception of George Galloway (and to a certain extent Nigel Farage) it is striking that most of those members who lost their seats did so with incredible grace. Those who lost recognised they had lost the challenge this time around, and conceded that it would be the next election before they can step up and make their case again. Whether you find yourself interested in politics or not, I would encourage you to watch Jim Murphy’s resignation speech – it was justifiably described by the BBC’s David Dimbleby on the Election Night coverage as a ‘model concession speech.’
The second is for us as participators in the democratic process – and I include myself in those who should listen and learn. There was a feature on the BBC three years ago that attributed our relative stability to a free press allowed to criticise and (especially) to satirise the government – not least through political cartoons. There is a challenge for all of us to model a response to the democratic process that is grace filled in every sense – not just for those defeated to follow the lead of defeated MPs in gracefully accepting the result, but for defenders of the government to bear with good grace the robust challenges that will come from those opposed to the new government.
This is an important challenge to get right – it does not benefit democracy for opponents of the government to suggest that the result is illegitimate or that the electorate were somehow duped – we all knew the rules of the game, and in this election more than any other the option for a progressive coalition was quite clearly put forward and not difficult to vote for. But equally, democracy is not benefited if defenders of the government become precious about criticism. Our democracy is made stronger where the opposition robustly hold the government accountable for their actions, and where advocates of the government are able to equally robustly defend the government’s record – for both, one hopes, with a reasonable amount of respect and decorum!
I posted just before the election that the hard work would begin on Friday morning. I absolutely stand by that. I want this Conservative government to deal with the big issues facing the country – not least to heal the rift that has developed between Scotland and the rest of the UK. While we have won the election, the Prime Minister would be unwise to ignore the 3.5 million voters who voted for UKIP, but received a single MP (my own thoughts shortly forthcoming), and while I voted Conservative because I believe their policies are the right policies to look after the material well being of the nation, I still anticipate that there will be a need for voters nationwide to express their desire for the kind of One Nation Conservatism that David Cameron spoke of in his victory speech, and ensure that the party provides the basis to improve the material conditions of the disadvantaged.
There is however a bigger challenge, and while I want my party to rise to it, it really requires the whole nation to rise to it. Many of you may have seen this article in the Independent, which offers one explanation why the opinion polls were so badly wrong. It speaks prophetically into where we have reached as a nation – some of us fearful to express an opinion lest we earn the vitriol of the radical left, and a third of the electorate so disengaged that they abstained from voting. The election was only one end point – it determined who governs us for the next five years. For all us, life after the election means modelling mature political debate – and in saying that I recognise my own need to be challenged by friends to ensure I live up to the standard I am urging us to. It means disagreeing while not being disagreeable; having the courage to applaud someone for holding true to their values even if you do not share them; and challenging anyone who adopts the attitude that a person’s political views make them the legitimate targets of threats or abuse.
I do not dispute that this will be hard work, but I fervently believe that modelling this kind of grace filled behaviour will have a transformative effect on the way our nation does politics.