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On the night it threatened to regress, British politics changed more than anyone expected

Jack Winstanley

The key rhetoric in all of the media over the last few years has been first the development of two-party politics into three-party politics (at the 2010 General Election) and then the development of three party politics into multi-party politics in 2015. Pollsters across the country were predicting the rise of UKIP, the SNP, the Green Party, Plaid Cymru and others who would disrupt the traditional structure of British politics for good.

But then it appeared they were all completely wrong.

Not in the sense that the polls didn’t predict a Conservative majority but that they predicted a fractured dispersion of seats amongst lots of parties. Sitting anchoring the General Election show for Cam FM, Amatey Doku, presenter of The Weekly Brief, and I watched on as we saw what seemed to be Britain returning to two-party politics, at least in England, and Scotland becoming effectively a one party state.

No one predicted the Liberal Democrat vote to collapse quite as spectacularly as it did but the redistribution of the seats it once held was telling. They didn’t all change the same colour but became red and blue, or yellow north of the border. Liberal Democrat voters in 2010 were polarising in England back to Labour and the Conservatives, not wanting to pick another ‘third’ party like the Greens or UKIP, not wanting to take another risk.

Now all of this seems fairly gloomy, suggesting that Britain went backwards on Thursday night rather the progressing to the much anticipated and widely predicted age of multi-party politics.

Instead, it triggered a new start, albeit an unexpected one, but we will need to wait until 2020 to see this change in any tangible sense.

Soon after their defeats on Friday morning, Nigel Farage, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband all resigned as the leaders of their respective parties. They each cited different reasons but all of their fates, to an extent, were becoming increasingly likely as the results filtered in from the constituencies.

Farage had lost the election battle in South Thanet to the Tory Craig Mackinlay, promising to resign if he did, Nick Clegg’s party had lost 49 out of its 57 seats, which brought down veterans like Vince Cable and Simon Hughes, and Ed Miliband had led his party to a worse showing than 2010.

The question is: How does such a devastating collapse in the parties who nationally polled second, third and fourth bring us to a better place?

Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband alluded in their resignation speeches at the need for their parties to soul search and then perhaps reconsider their core values. It is far too soon for any post mortem to explain the defeat of Labour and the collapse of the Lib Dems and hence neither was able to predict or advise on the direction their party should turn next, that will be down to a new leader.

Nigel Farage, meanwhile, is stepping down from the leadership of a party which has been called in some quarters a ‘one-issue party’. The situation of the party reminds some of the BNP situation in 2010, who lost 99.7% of their vote on Thursday. UKIP, albeit in a slightly different way to Labour and the Lib Dems, needs to redefine its values to make sure a similar collapse does not befall them in 2020.

This is where the change comes. The three biggest parties (excluding the Conservatives) have a real chance in the next few months to redefine and move away from the way they have operated in recent times.

Those touted for the Labour leadership include Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Chuka Umunna, whilst David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, has been the first one to tentatively dangle his hat over the ring. Jon Trickett, Labour MP for Hemsworth, on Twitter has said that Labour need a ‘clean break’ with some quarters arguing that Miliband’s drive to the left was one reason for his party’s failure. Any new leader that comes in would have the chance to move the party back to the centre ground in British politics, arguably where they were more successful under Tony Blair.

Nick Clegg’s replacement will prove slightly trickier to find, simply because many potential replacements fell victim to an unforgiving electorate. Many within the party will feel they have a huge restructuring job in front of them but it could prove the defeat and Clegg’s resignation gives them the chance to do this without putting their leader in the spotlight. Whilst Norman Lamb and Tim Farron have been tipped as potential replacements, perhaps the Liberal Democrats would be better to follow the model taken by the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party, where the party leader is not an MP at Westminster. This would give the party the chance to rebuild and take a fresh direction entirely, with someone who didn’t traumatically lose their seat.

For UKIP, the reality of a leader not being an MP is more concrete, particularly after the party’s only MP, Douglas Carswell, ruled himself out of the running. The challenge for any replacement to Farage, or Farage himself if he decides to run again, is to turn UKIP into a party which has a more rounded vision for the country, and not one which leaves them open to criticism that their party’s only solution to any problem is to leave the EU. Cambridge's very own UKIP candidate Patrick O'Flynn is one member of the party who may fit the bill.

Whilst these three resignations took place in quick succession, it must be remembered that the Conservative leader and now PM David Cameron resigned before the election even began, albeit with a three year notice period. He said he would not serve a third term as Prime Minister and with the likes of Boris Johnson seemingly lining up for a bid at the top job, the Tories could look different in 2020 too, particularly if they have to compete with the three reformed parties described above.

Whilst the process of rebuilding has not yet begun for the parties, there is one thing we can be sure of- for Labour, the Lib Dems and UKIP something needs to fundamentally change in their party ethos. For the former two this will ensure they become relevant in UK politics once again and for the latter it will help them to remain relevant after their EU tainted vision is wiped away.

When this has happened, and a new leader takes over from the incumbent in Downing Street, British politics will have a vastly different and varied landscape. Thursday night’s result didn’t provide the multi-party politics that everyone expected, but it did send a political earthquake through the foundations of many parties which will give the electorate a plethora of options in five years time.

The new party leaders need to ideologically redefine and structurally rebuild their broken ships. When this has happened, we could be on a road to an election result in 2020 which lives up, this time, to expectations.

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