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6 things you should know about the UK's historic election

British Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to stay in power.
British Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to stay in power.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
  • British Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative Party has defied pre-election polls and secured a narrow parliamentary majority.
  • This will allow Cameron to ditch the Liberal Democrats as coalition partners.
  • The Lib Dems and the Labor Party — which was the main opposition party — both suffered large electoral losses, and both party leaders are resigning.
  • The Scottish National Party is expected to win an overwhelming majority of Scottish seats. That's a sign of rising separatist sentiment in a region that voted to stay in the United Kingdom just last year.

1) Conservatives appear to have won a slim majority

In the days before the election, most observers (including us) were predicting that no party would come close to the 326 seats needed for a governing majority in Parliament. That would have led to an awkward post-election period in which the two largest parties — the Conservatives and Labour — tried to recruit other parties to help form a majority coalition.

But exit polls and completed counts in the majority of constituencies now suggest the Conservatives will enjoy a slim majority with around 329 seats.

This means Britain's current large but ideologically awkward coalition between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will come to an end in favor of a traditional majority government in which Cameron simply has little margin of error as party leader.

2) The Scottish National Party's huge win puts independence back on the table

Last September, Scotland voted against independence by a comfortable 55 to 45 majority. But now the Scottish National Party, which was responsible for last year's referendum, has won at least 50 and perhaps as many as 58 of Scotland's 59 seats.

Most SNP candidates won outright majorities in their districts, suggesting that Scottish support for independence has risen somewhat since last year's referendum. Obviously, this casts the future of the 300-year union between Scotland and the rest of Britain into doubt.

The rise of the SNP was terrible news for Labour and the Liberal Democrats, both of which have won Scottish seats in previous elections. This time around, Labour won about 30 percent of the vote in many Scottish constituencies, but as I write this the party appears to have captured only one Scottish seat. The Lib Dems may not have won any seats in Scotland.

3) The election brings Britain closer to leaving the EU

"Incumbent gets reelected" scenarios normally don't lead to substantial policy change. This election result is different, because it means the Tories will no longer be sharing power with a Liberal Democratic caucus that is broadly pro-European Union and pro-immigration. What's more, the fact that Cameron's electoral win was decisive but his actual seat margin is narrow means that conservative back-benchers — who tend to be the most vociferous Euroskeptics in the caucus — will have a lot of leverage.

Cameron has already committed to holding a referendum on whether the UK should leave the EU by at least 2017.

He personally opposes such a move, but many in his party favor it. Two key questions concern the timing and the wording of the referendum. Cameron's ideal scenario would be to use both levers to load the dice against an "out" result, win the referendum, and put the decades-long intraparty division over Europe to rest. His back-benchers won't want to let him get away with that, setting up considerable tension.

4) Joining David Cameron's coalition has been a disaster for the Liberal Democrats

In 2010, Liberal Democratic leader Nick Clegg made the fateful decision to join a coalition government headed by David Cameron. It was the party's first opportunity to be part of the government in decades, and Clegg and Cameron saw eye to eye on some areas of economic policy.

But the result has been a total disaster for the Lib Dems, with the party's seat count expected to fall from 57 seats in 2010 to 12 or fewer in the new parliament.

Two factors appear to have contributed to the party's disastrous decline. One is the rise of the SNP, which robbed the party of several seats in the far north of Britain.

But the larger problem was that joining the Conservative coalition robbed the Liberal Democrats of much of what had made the party distinctive. The center-left party had run on a mixture of socially liberal and fiscally conservative positions. Joining the Cameron government seems to have shattered the Lib Dem coalition, alienating some left-leaning Lib Dem supporters while causing others to shift their allegiance to the Conservatives.

The Lib Dems have suffered setbacks before, so it would be foolish to write the party off. But spending five years as part of the Cameron government will make it harder for the party to convince voters that it represents an alternative to the two major parties.

5) Labour will likely move to the right

In 2010, Ed Miliband ascended to the Labour Party leadership with a come-from-behind victory against his own older brother secured by positioning himself to the left of David Miliband and to the direction that Tony Blair had taken Labour. In the end, he did not campaign in 2015 on an especially left-wing platform but the perception was certainly that his desire was to take the party back in a more Old Labour direction.

The defeat is overwhelmingly likely to lead to a backlash, with Blairites crowing "told you so" and mobilizing to regain control of the party.

6) The vote count looks very different from the seat count

The UK has a parliamentary government, but the electoral system resembled the one used for the US House of Representatives. Consequently, in a multi-party race the distribution of seats looks very different than the distribution of votes.

The Conservatives' narrow majority is based on just 37 percent of the vote. The Scottish National Party won just 5 percent of the vote, but its highly efficient concentration in Scotland let it win the third-most seats. The Greens got almost as many votes (4 percent) but are scattered across the country and will get no seats. The UK Independence Party's 13 percent of the vote will net it only one or two seats, and the Liberal Democrats' caucus will be smaller than the SNP's even though with 8 percent of the vote they are considerably more popular.