Frank Stilwell on the The UK Election
THE UK ELECTION: reflections on a tarnished Tory Triumph
Frank Stilwell reports from the UK on the General Election on 8th May that, surprising most pundits and deeply disappointing Labour supporters, gave renewed momentum to the Conservative party.
It was interesting to be in the UK for the general election during May of this year. British governments get a 5-year term, so whoever wins stays in office for a substantially longer period than in Australia. In this most recent election a high proportion of swinging British voters evidently remained undecided until polling day. They may have made last-minute choices, but the electoral outcome has very long-lasting consequences.
As it turned out, the Conservative Party strolled through to a clear victory, enabling its leader David Cameron to shrug off the Liberal Democrats with whom the Tories had been in coalition for the last 5 years. They now govern alone, with much greater freedom to pursue their ambitions for Britain's future.
The pollsters got it badly wrong in the lead up to the election, predicting a hung parliament that would have led to a protracted period of negotiations between the major and minor parties, possibly resulting in the Labour Party governing in coalition with the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP). But the Tory campaign, orchestrated by Lynton Crosby (the Australian who previously did the same for the Abbott-led Liberals down under), produced a surprisingly strong Tory outcome.
The newspapers had been overwhelmingly pro-Tory, recurrently warning the people of the damage that a Labour-SNP governing coalition would do to Britain. Predictably, business interests also backed the scare campaign. Indeed, the strong support in Scotland for the SNP was a double-whammy for Labour. The prospect of the SNP wielding disproportionate influence over Labour if the two parties were able to form a majority coalition government fuelled much apprehension among English voters. More directly, the SNP's ascendency took away almost all of Labour's previous seats in Scotland. So Labour lost out both north and south of the border. Memories of Labour's previous term in office, under Gordon Brown’s leadership, didn't help either, especially because the mainstream media almost invariably depicted it as having been inept at economic management.
The Labour Party fared particularly poorly throughout central and southern England. London was an important exception, however, with Labour support remaining strong in most of the capital’s electorates. The centrist Liberal-Democrats did badly everywhere, evidently copping the electorate's rancour for being the junior partner in the coalition with Cameron's Conservatives. It seems that many of the previous Lib-Dem supporters preferred to have the real Conservatives, rather than waste a vote on a party that had been been tarnished by its previous dance with the devil.
These factors help to explain why the Conservative Party emerged as the clear overall winner, notwithstanding some strong currents of opposition to its politics of austerity. It only got 37 percent of the total votes cast by the electorate but it now has a clear parliamentary majority. The Lib-Dems had their number of seats slashed from 57 to 8. The Labour Party, with just over 30 percent of the total votes cast, gained 22 seats but lost 48. The outstanding success was the SNP which garnered just over 50 percent of the votes in Scotland and now holds 56 of the 59 seats north of the border.
The British electoral system has a lot to answer for, as these figures indicate. It is a 'first past the post' system, so whichever candidate gets the most primary votes in each electorate wins. The preferential voting system that applies in Australia is not used: indeed, it was explicitly rejected by the British electorate in a referendum held in 2011. It probably wouldn't have made much difference to the outcome anyway. Only a more comprehensive proportional representation system would have done that, but it was never a possibility after the Lib-Dems had stupidly agreed that the 2011 referendum should consider only a more minor change to the voting system. The current system continues to strongly disadvantage the Greens, who recorded their highest-ever UK vote, and UKIP, the anti-immigration and anti-European Union party. These two ‘small’ parties have little in common in their policies, of course, but they face a very similar electoral bias. Together they received over 16 percent of the total votes but only got 2 seats. By contrast, the SNP with under 5 percent of the total votes got 56 seats.
These systemic biases have been widely discussed in the UK media since the election. Pragmatically, there is no clear benefit for the Left in advocating change. Certainly, the Greens would do better under proportional representation, as they would in Australia. But the right-wing nationalist UKIP would do very much better. Indeed, a fully proportional voting system would probably have led to a Conservative-UKIP coalition becoming the UK government this year, with some not-very-pretty consequences. Understandably, many people on the political Left currently prefer to celebrate the phenomenal success of the SNP, with its strongly anti-austerity policy emphasis, under the current electoral system. Neither the Tories nor Labour show any inclination for electoral reform, of course, because it suits them to support the status quo. The Tories are the only ones who could drive change in the next 5 years anyway and why should they? They will sit pat because they are sitting pretty.
So now Cameron's new government can pursue pretty much whatever policy agenda it likes. Business and City of London financial interests will be predictably influential. And, unlike Australia, there is no likelihood of the governement’s right-wing agenda being stymied by opposition in a parliamentary upper house. Members of Britain's House of Lords are appointed, not elected (putting Paul Keating's renowned denunciation of the Australian Senate as 'unrepresentative swill' in perspective). Undoubtedly, there will be more cuts to welfare and tougher policies towards trade unions. Further privatizations too, although there is not much left in Britain to privatise, if the stressed but cherished National Health Service is set aside as just about everyone seems to think it should be. The continuing commitment for pushing privatization is evident in the newly-elected government's decision to fast-track the early disposal of the UK government's stakes in the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Bank.
Yet the Tories face predictable problems, even turmoil, over some big policy issues, notwithstanding their remarkable electoral success this year. Three deeply problematic issues - relating to the British economy, to Europe and to Scotland - are already evident.
First, how are the Tories to honour their electoral commitment to get the government budget back into surplus? The UK economy is showing signs of slowdown and interest rates are already so low that they cannot go lower. The budget deficit is 5 percent of GDP. The Tories talk of promoting 'wealth creation' and the need for tax cuts, but the harsh reality will almost certainly be more of 'the politics of austerity' targeted at those least able to cope. That will further widen inequalities but probably create more shaky macroeconomic conditions. So the outcome will be both a more unfair society and a continuing structural budget deficit - a situation that surely sounds all-too-familiar to us Australians.
Second, whether to stay within the European Union? This is a long-standing conundrum within the ranks of the Conservative Party, and the 'Eurosceptics' will be strengthened by this year's electoral outcome. A nationwide referendum on EU membership by 2017 had been promised by Cameron during the previous term of government. Now there is talk of it being brought forward to 2016. However, the referendum could well produce an outcome that the Tory party's leaders don't relish. It suits Cameron and the party's leadership to stay in the EU, while trying to negotiate concessions that appear to have an 'anti-Brussels' character, but many backbenchers and the party's rank-and-file just want out.
The 'Europe' question needs to be put in perspective though. Britain never joined the Eurozone and its banks' holding of Greek government debt are relatively small, so recent concerns about the future of the Euro resonate less strongly in UK than elsewhere in continental Europe. Anti-European and anti-immigrant sentiments are a big factor in public opinion, however, and can be expected to loom large in the run-up to the referendum. Notwithstanding its lack of parliamentary seats, UKIP will be a strong influence for Cameron and the other Tory leaders to contend with. So will widespread disquiet within Tory ranks. Some jockeying over the referendum's wording can be anticipated. More, generally, we may expect to see the Conservatives continue to be internally divided over the big issues of national sovereignty and the nation’s relationship with the rest of Europe. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose...
Third, what to do about those pesky Scots? A majority of them voted last year against independence from England, but now the SNP has swept the board by winning all but three of the seats north of the border. This looks like having two bob each way. But can the policies and aspirations of such a strongly supported party/movement be rebuffed by the new Tory government, even though it clearly has the numbers in parliament to do so? The SNP is not just an advocate of the devolution of powers; it is also a vehicle for the advocacy of socialist-oriented policies that seldom get such strong expression south of the border.
These are all grounds for anticipating deep divisions and ongoing tensions in UK politics over the next few years, despite the clear electoral victory the Tories achieved in May.
Concurrently, the Labour Party faces its own challenges as it seeks to regroup and reposition itself under new leadership. The contenders that first threw their hats into the ring after Ed Miliband announced his resignation almost all asserted the need for the party to reposition itself to appeal to the political 'middle' ground within the electorate. Miliband's mild emphasis on reducing economic inequalities looks a likely casualty of any such repositioning, although this should not entail turning a blind eye to the concentration of wealth among the top 10% of households - or, even more dramatically, among the wealthiest 1%. A stronger emphasis on 'responsible economic management' becomes a predictable priority, however. The surprising last-minute leadership nomination of Jeremy Corbyn, a left-winger from an older generation within the party, at least ensures that there is a choice of policy positions, not just personalities and promises.
Labour's fundamental challenge is to be a credible party of progressive and practical reforms. There will a protracted period of soul-searching as the party wrestles with how, and whether, it can succeed in this ambition. This will surely continue beyond the leadership contest. It will take place under the depressing shadow of knowing that the British people will otherwise continue voting conservatively. Indeed, the current British political situation provides an awesome warning of what could happen here in Australia unless the ALP offers the people a clear, credible and progressive alternative to the incumbent right-wing government.
Ed Miliband's dad, the renowned Marxist economist Ralph Miliband, wrote a book in 1973 called 'The State in Capitalist Society', which analysed reasons for recurrent disappointment and disillusionment with Labour. One cannot help wondering what he would make of the political situation and prospects now...
Frank Stilwell is Professor Emeritus at the Department of Political Economy, University of Sydney and a member of the Australian Options Editorial Committee.