The Conservatives did not fall to crisis levels, and could theoretically recover enough to win a majority in two years. Ukip came in second, but as the only credible anti-establishment party, they might have been expected to win (and surely would have done so had Nigel Farage been bolder and stood himself). Labour were irrelevant, but at least didn’t suffer any embarrassment, as they did when they were overthrown by George Galloway in one of the their safest seats. And the Liberal Democrats survived.
That simple fact of LibDem survival is the most important pointer to the future. When Chris Huhne stood down and triggered a by-election, the immediate thought must have been: this could be the moment Nick Clegg receives his biggest slap. But as campaigning started, the key strength of the party re-asserted itself: their on-the-ground organisation. Thousands of postal votes were bagged before anyone heard of the Rennard affair. The LibDems showed how hard they are to shift from their strong-holds, despite what the polls say.
If that’s true, then how can the Conservatives possibly expect to win an absolute majority? The powerful historical trend is for the two main parties to reduce their combined share of the total vote; with smaller parties eating their breakfast in Scotland, Wales, and in those pesky Liberal regions like the south-west. We can now be sure that trend will hold: Clegg’s narrative has suddenly improved, and even if a few seats are lost, the LibDem cache will be enough to make an absolute majority difficult for any party. Add that to the rise of Ukip (who will go on from here to do stunningly well in the Euro elections), and it’s hard to find any scenario in which the Tories gain enough to propel them out of coalition.
What about Ed Miliband? Can he improve enough to win without LibDem help? His performance as leader has improved, moderately, but he will never scintillate. He’s too wedded to his academic reasonableness, an attractive quality in an after-dinner debate, but a definite impairment to being a killer campaigner. Nor is his party yet signalling the collective strength to take on the burden. But I can definitely imagine him vying with Cameron to woo the LibDems in 2015.
However much the LibDems as a grass-roots party may loathe being in bed with the Tories, their parliamentarians won’t be free to choose who to return to government with: they will be ethically bound to side with whichever party has the most seats.
The next few weeks will see the inevitable, idiotic debate around Cameron about whether he should “shift to the right” to win back some Ukippers or whether he should redouble his efforts to occupy the centre. It’s idiotic because it’s obvious any national message must sound centrist, because most voters see themselves as being centrist. But that’s not enough. The centre is a mythological place. The persuadables, the ones you can win over, are to be found everywhere. The interesting thing about Ukip’s success is that they are taking significant vote share from all the parties – giving the lie to the homogeneity of voter-groups across a bell curve. The way to win a campaign in the modern, fractured, non-loyalist political landscape is to find messages that work in many different niches. To maximise, you simply must use the micro-targeting method, applied not just to messaging but to on-the-ground activism, that worked so well for Barack Obama in two elections.
But the main British parties seem incapable of grasping that concept, even though the LibDems are doing it right before their eyes. They prefer to operate at a higher plane. They think it’s all about a singular main message, some magical narrative that will make everything alright again. They fondly believe that’s what happened in 1997, and if they could just find the right tune to hum, those days of easy majorities will return.
I don’t think they will. Votes are becoming increasingly hard to win, as people stop believing in politics. Unless the main parties get smarter and work harder, we are heading for coalition. Which way that will go remains hard to predict.
Stephan Shakespeare is chief executive of YouGov.