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Swallowing Defeat: What Next for Labour and the Lib Dems?

11/05/2015 11:05 BST | Updated 10/05/2016 10:59 BST

Less than 24 hours after the most unpredictable general election in a generation, David Cameron waltzed back into No10 leading his first majority government. No one saw this coming. As the exit polls anticipated the Tories making a dramatic charge, even increasing their hold across the country, many assumed it had to be a mistake. "If this exit poll is right," former Lib Dem leader, Paddy Ashdown, said to the BBC's Andrew Neil shortly after 10pm on Thursday night, "I'll eat my hat." "I'll eat my kilt," promised Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's former spin-doctor, keen to play down any inkling of a defeat. YouGov had, after all, shown the race to be neck and neck. They being the pollsters that one would never usually question.

But this time the YouGov we trust got it wrong - spectacularly wrong. As Thursday night dragged on, it soon became clear that the result for Labour and the Lib Dems was far worse than either parties could ever have feared. Before lunchtime on Friday, three party leaders had resigned (Ed Miliband, followed by former DPM Nick Clegg and Ukip's Nigel Farage, who lost one of his two MPs), with many other senior politicians shockingly losing their seats: Ed Balls, Douglas Alexander, Danny Alexander and Vince Cable to name a few. Politics has rarely seen a day so dramatic in recent years. Cameron's team had hardly thought of preparing an "in the event we win a majority" speech. Indeed, it was said that rooms had been booked and sandwiches arranged for coalition talks in the days following the election.

So how did it happen? Clearly, the guidance of Lynton Crosby, the Conservatives' chief election strategist was an influence. From the very start, his vision has been to keep the Tories away from the limelight where possible, leaving Labour to grace the front pages with their mishaps. However, perhaps the biggest factor was the potential chaos that a Lab-SNP coalition could bring for the UK. Many Tory grandees saw this as a game changer. That, as well as the economy. The faint signs of a financial recovery had come just early enough for the public to trust the Conservatives with the deficit, Lord Heseltine stated just days before the election. All the Tories needed to do was "hold their nerve." Remarkably, he was spot on.

What next, then, for Labour and the Lib Dems? Many people talk of bringing back New Labour, believing that Miliband has dragged the party too far to the left. This must be true given the election's outcome, but past ideas may not be the best remedy for the party's future. Instead, as has already been acknowledged within the party, Labour needs to regroup, change strategy, appoint a new leader and question what they truly stand for. Tony Blair, the former Labour prime minister who knows a thing or two about how to secure landslide victories, commented this weekend that recapturing the centre ground was vital for Labour's recovery. Writing in the Observer, Blair stated:

"The route to the summit lies through the centre ground. Labour has to be for ambition and aspiration as well as compassion and care.

"Hard-working families don't just want us to celebrate their hard work; they want to know that by hard work and effort they can do well, rise up, achieve."

It's true that although the party connected with their loyalists, in exclusively doing so, they marginalised soft centre-right voters who may have questioned whether Labour would damage the middle-class incentives of aspiration and enterprise. Similar thinking is needed within the Lib Dems. Clegg paid the price after five years in government with the Tories, the heaviest being his reputation amongst young voters who believed he would keep his promise on tuition fees. Recovering from defeat cannot be done in a few months. If both parties can do marginally better in 2020, it would be a step towards recovery. Changing public consensus on party beliefs can sometimes take up to a decade. Unexpectedly, there won't be another snap election for any party to test the water anytime soon. At least not until the Conservatives come down from their euphoria, giving way to the party's Eurosceptics to start causing trouble. But that'll take years...probably.