In this brave new world, politics are so quantified and overanalyzed that presidential elections often seem to be over before they begin. Perhaps in the United States they actually are. But the Conservatives won an absolute majority in the UK election less than two weeks ago, and if the reactions of the locals are to be believed, we are now officially through the looking glass.
What just happened in the UK? Nobody thought that the Conservative Party would win the election. Every major polling site thought coalition negotiations would begin the day after the results came out. In fact, the opposition Labour Party was supposed to be in position to form a progressive coalition. Now Prime Minister David Cameron is set for another five years in power and his two most famous rivals have resigned. Labour is in disarray and the Liberal Democrats — the UK’s traditional third party — lost nearly 90 percent of their Members of Parliament. Meanwhile, an increasingly fragmented electorate is turning British politics on its head, and the biggest questions facing today’s United Kingdom — Scotland’s place in the UK, the UK’s place in the European Union and the future of the British party system — have yet to be resolved. Scotland barely stayed in the UK during the 2014 independence referendum, while the Conservatives have promised an in-out referendum on the EU by 2017. Coming from the fifth largest economy in the world, that sort of fundamental uncertainty is unsettling.
Yet the polls have closed and the voters have delivered their verdict. Where does the United Kingdom go from here? It looks like the shock has mostly worn off, and now that the dust has cleared, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on the impossible.
1. The polls: No, really, what just happened?
The story of the election so far has been the polls. Yes, pollsters messed up. They underestimated the Conservatives by six percentage points. But polls don’t vote, so although all we’re talking about is the election, are they really that important? Their failure is interesting only insofar as it exemplifies their historical tendency to continually underestimate the Conservative Party. Why? If there was an easy answer we would have figured it out a decade ago. It’s a historical trend. People need to start getting used to it.
Nevertheless, it’s fascinating that an incumbent party actually gained seats. That almost never happens. The standard American explanation is, of course, that “it’s the economy, stupid.” In the wake of the Great Recession, a lot of people might still be hurting as a result of the fiscal austerity that the Conservatives spearheaded, but you can’t really argue with the fact that today, the unemployment rate in the UK is half that of the euro area. The UK led all of Western Europe in GDP growth last year. The once-soaring national debt hasn’t been eliminated, but it’s currently under control. So, for that matter, is household debt: the UK is one of the few developed economies where the average family is in a better financial position than it was in 2007.
The UK’s strong economic performance is a very real success for the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition — perhaps its greatest achievement. Critics of the Coalition’s economic policies, such as Paul Krugman, have been left with the unconvincing theory that the Coalition relaxed austerity just in time for the election — even though the Coalition had actually been cutting the budget deficit. (A list of Krugman’s failed predictions of economic disaster under the Cameron government makes for an entertaining read). And as for the election, the Conservatives got the credit for the successes and the Lib Dems got the blame for everything else. The Conservatives swallowed up so many Lib Dem seats this year that they don’t need the Lib Dems to control Parliament anymore. With their Parliamentary delegation torn to shreds, the Lib Dems wouldn’t be very useful even if that weren’t the case.
But the archetypal “American” answer doesn’t explain everything. It doesn’t even explain everything in the United States. If elections were just about the economy, there would be no point in voting at all.
Ideology played a role in the election — especially now that many different political parties are jockeying for votes. Just five years ago, control of the British government was contested by just three parties. (Northern Ireland has its own electoral system, primarily divided on unionist/Irish republican lines). While the same three parties still roam the political landscape, three ascendant regional parties — the Scottish Nationalists (SNP), Plaid Cymru in Wales, and the UK Independence Party (UKIP; it has national ambitions but its support is mostly concentrated in England) — are squeezing the three big parties on all fronts. Plaid has been around for a while, but in the last five years the SNP and UKIP have changed the face of British politics.
Faced with bitter competition, the ideological battles within the three great parties are critical. We will discuss divisions within the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in following sections. But the Labour Party’s future, while reasonably assured, is nevertheless critical to consider. Caught between progressives in Scotland and centrists in England, Labour is preparing for its biggest civil war since the 1980s.
2. The return of New Labour?
The result of the coming Labour leadership contest will set the tone for progressive politics in the UK for the next five years. With that in mind, the only certainty is that whoever succeeds Ed Miliband will have a tough road ahead.
At stake is the political legacy of ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair pioneered the centrist, pro-business “New Labour” of the 1990s and 2000s — even convincing the arch-conservative Rupert Murdoch to endorse him — and won three straight elections. Yet the party turned against New Labour in 2010 when they elected Ed Miliband as party leader instead of his more business-friendly brother, David. Ed Miliband was not exactly one of the tub-thumping leftists of old — though elected because of trade union support, he nevertheless supported fiscal austerity and attempted to revive the old Conservative rhetoric of “one-nation politics.” Nevertheless, his election was widely seen as a turning point for the Labour Party. Even Blair admitted as much, calling it a veiled “rebuke.”
With the party leadership still up for grabs, the polite thing to say is that both New Labour and Old Labour are worth fighting for. The two frontrunners for the leadership — Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper — have both been caught in this crossfire. Burnham, the union favorite, nevertheless tried to reach out to the pro-business wing, while Cooper flips between calling Blair outdated and savaging the Labour left. That’s a problem Labour’s members are going to have to deal with — and soon.
They’re facing increased pressure from New Labour, which desperately wants its party back. Almost immediately after Labour’s crushing defeat, Blair wrote that Labour didn’t do enough to champion “ambition and aspiration,” while éminence grise and strategist extraordinaire Peter Mandelson — still smarting from how Labour “ripped the stripes off [my]shoulders” — declared Labour’s leftward lurch a “terrible mistake.” Mandelson was even more incendiary in his recent New York Times op-ed, writing that “the British, on the whole, do not like income disparities being turned into class war.” Looking at the results, they’ve got a point.
In the run-up to the election, Labour allowed the right-wing newspapers to label ex-leader Ed Miliband “Red Ed.” Regardless of whether or not Miliband was actually ‘red,’ the fact remains that he didn’t seem to try very hard to erase that impression. And in 2015, Labour’s vote share only increased by 1.4 percent, showing that it failed to collect the marginal seats at the political center. As Labour centrist Chuka Umunna pointed out, Labour targeted 80 Conservative-held constituencies in England and came out with a net gain of four. That’s not supposed to happen when you’re facing an incumbent party in the UK, let alone a coalition. Umunna — a rising star in the Labour ranks — surprisingly pulled out of the party leadership race, but there are other centrists interested in bringing New Labour back. And perhaps it will return.
Meanwhile, Labour’s left flank has three major responses to their debacle. The first is to simply dismiss Miliband as uncharismatic. The second is to argue that Labour simply botched the campaign: Labour’s central organization was so disconnected from its leader that when Miliband unveiled his infamous manifesto stone (almost immediately dubbed the “heaviest suicide note in history,” a reference to Labour’s infamously left-wing 1983 platform), a press officer started screaming and had a breakdown, according to The Spectator.
The third and most important complaint is that Labour wasn’t progressive enough — after all, they were wiped out in traditionally left-wing Scotland. The powerful Unite union recently threatened to pull its funding pipeline if Labour elects a centrist candidate, and it’s easy enough to understand where Unite is coming from. White-collar to the core, Ed Miliband was not exactly organized labor’s dream candidate to begin with. In particular, he wasn’t tough enough on immigration for the unions, and the anti-immigration (and, contrary to popular belief, highly working-class) UKIP made major inroads against Labour in its northern working-class strongholds. Moreover, if New Labour returns, the first thing on their to-do list will be to break the unions’ privileged position in the Labour ranks.
But as far as ideology goes, New Labour has the upper hand here. There aren’t very many credible alternatives for the unionist left-wing voter, so in the long run, Labour will be free to fight for the center. The Green Party preaches progressivism, but a third of their voters this year were disaffected Liberal Democrat protest voters, and protest votes aren’t permanent. The head of the Unite union briefly proposed creating a new party, but it’s not easy to duplicate the kind of political organization that Labour took a century to develop. Labour might elect a more left-wing leader this year, but the fundamentals of the electorate still point to the center.
3. Scotland: will the unionists unite?
The unionist parties, especially Labour, were humiliated in Scotland. After growing to expect virtual hegemony in the north, Labour now finds itself holding as many Scottish seats in Westminster as the Conservatives do: one.
In a sense, Scotland is the entire Labour story in 2015. If the independence referendum hadn’t catapulted the SNP to national prominence, Labour would likely have about 40 extra seats from Scotland. While the SNP has staked a claim to the progressive left, attacking austerity and emphasizing solidarity with the Greens, it’s still first and foremost a nationalist party. In fact, energized by the SNP’s near-sweep of Scotland, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon just threatened another independence referendum. But if nationalism had not been a key issue and Labour had kept the 40 Scottish seats it lost in 2015, Scotland still wouldn’t have been enough to give Labour a majority, but the party would be sitting at a respectable 272 MPs.
In Scotland, the issue is not progressivism versus centrism so much as it is nationalism versus unionism — and the unionists are fragmented between the three national parties. The SNP has done a fine job of conflating the two debates, arguing that true progressivism can only be achieved with nationalism — that Scotland is so different politically from the rest of the United Kingdom that independence is the only way to achieve Scotland’s political goals.
But to gauge the true extent of the SNP’s effectiveness, we need to answer two questions. First, can Scotland pursue a meaningfully different set of policies within the framework of the United Kingdom? And second, are more and more Scots actually turning toward nationalism?
The first is a tough question to answer. Sturgeon is banging the drum of full fiscal independence, but realistically that is impossible. First, Scotland doesn’t actually control its own monetary policy and print its own money (the Bank of England does that), so in practice it can’t pay its debts by running the presses. Second, Scotland is functionally limited in how much it can spend because it can only issue very limited amounts of debt, and at higher interest rates to boot. Even if Scotland were granted control of its own budget, Westminster would never allow Scotland to end austerity by borrowing money on its own when in practice the entire United Kingdom would be on the hook for Scotland’s debts. Scotland is no Greece, but all European leaders are wary of creating another Greek-style crisis these days. The most Scotland can realistically hope for is some leeway on taxes.
The Scotland-Westminster relationship is already precarious. Scotland actually gets subsidies from England under the Barnett formula, where Scots are entitled to 19% more government spending per person than the English. That’s not necessarily outrageous; in the United States, for example, the federal government typically transfers vast amounts of money from wealthy states to less wealthy ones. But the Barnett formula remains a source of tension.
It’s very possible that the English MPs will argue for a repeal or at least a rollback in Barnett if Scotland is granted more autonomy, in which case a fiscally independent Scotland would immediately be stuck in a major budget deficit. Without the ability to print money or issue enough debt to finance deficits in the first place, any SNP-run Scottish Parliament would be forced to cut back on spending, breaking its own anti-austerity commitments. The fact of the matter is that as long as English taxpayers help subsidize the Scottish standard of living, England will have the right to demand concessions.
Let’s move on to the second point. Are more Scots turning towards independence? The SNP’s membership is increasing, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate greater support for the SNP; it could just be that the nationalists have decided to chip in money for the cause. The brutal 2014 independence referendum campaign recorded a massive turnout, and we can be reasonably satisfied that any Scot remotely interested in politics has been educated on the independence issue. Intuitively, voter preferences shouldn’t have changed very much less than a year after the referendum.
The data seem to bear this out. The SNP’s work was done before the referendum, not after it. Nationalists polled 45 percent in the 2014 independence referendum, and once you control for turnout, they polled about the same on May 7, 2015. There were 1.4 million SNP voters out of about 2.9 million in 2015 and 1.6 million independence voters out of 3.6 million in 2014. That’s hardly a sea change in Scottish voter preferences. That just means that the SNP’s voters are a lot more energized than the unionists. The nationalists actually get out and vote.
This year’s elections in Scotland came down to the fact that unionists split their votes among a whole host of different parties, allowing the SNP to sweep to victory in district after district. The SNP doesn’t have a mandate for independence and change so much as it has an organized and energized party. Yet the result cannot be ignored. Unionists could theoretically stave off SNP dominance in Westminster if they put aside their differences and campaigned on a common party list, as the unionists largely do in Northern Ireland. But, party rivalries run deep, and whether or not the unionists will be able to do this remains an open question.
4. The collapse of the Lib Dems: Is coalition government a good idea?
The Liberal Democrats paid a steep price for going into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. In 2010, they attracted 23 percent of the vote and won 57 seats in Parliament. In 2015, they got 7.8 percent of the vote and struggled to get 8 seats. Moreover, if you look at the electoral map, the Conservatives actually cannibalized the Liberal Democrats in many regions, particularly in southern England and London. A staggering number of party figures were wiped out, and charismatic party leader Nick Clegg was forced to resign.
To paraphrase Liberal Democrat commentator Alex Wilcock: in 2010 the Liberal Democrats were not running to be a bit Tory or a bit Labour but to form the coalition that would be the most Lib Dem. Yet in 2015 the Liberal Democrats were forced to actually answer questions about what they had done in government, which in turn forced another, more fundamental question…what exactly is “Lib Dem” anyway?
For the most part, the Lib Dems ignored the issue entirely. Almost everything we heard from the Lib Dems in the run-up to the election was, “The Lib Dems stopped the Tories from doing this; the Lib Dems stopped the Tories from doing that.” To be clear, they did: David Cameron agreed that the Lib Dems had, in fact, been holding him back from some key Conservative priorities. But that’s not really a compelling reason to vote Lib Dem when you could just vote Conservative or Labour instead. 2015 UKIP attracted many 2010 Conservatives and Labourites, but both main parties actually increased their share of the popular vote because Lib Dems flooded to them in droves.
Throughout the campaign, the constantly asked but never answered question was always: What exactly did the Lib Dems do that the Conservatives wouldn’t have done themselves? We have already pointed out that while it’s hard to dole out credit for the economic recovery, as leaders of the Coalition, the Conservatives got most of it. The Lib Dems extracted a referendum on voting reform that the Conservatives basically disavowed and that had no hope of succeeding. They got the Tories to promise reform of the unelected House of Lords, but the Tory rank and file revolted. Pretty much the only thing the Lib Dems got that the Conservatives weren’t so keen on was gay marriage, and David Cameron already supported that.
But a perceived lack of accomplishments is one thing. The Lib Dems were crushed as soon as they went into coalition. Their vote share in national polls began to tank a month after the 2010 election. The common narrative in the UK is that the Lib Dems were crushed because they let the Conservatives raise college tuition, but student fees were not raised until well after Lib Dem support had collapsed. The Lib Dems weren’t crushed because they caved on free education, but student fees and other lost battles did stop them from coming back. The Coalition’s lasting implication is its reaffirmation of the reality that as long as voters punish politicians for making compromises, coalitions are inherently brutal to smaller parties. As Simon Jenkins astutely wrote in 2010, “The question [facing the Liberal Democrats]was the same as the one that faces a third party in any hung parliament: with whom would they stand the least chance of committing suicide? The Lib Dems chose the Tories.”
To understand why the Lib Dem coalition backfired, we have to go back to the beginning — five years ago, in May 2010. As many left-wing Lib Dem voters would argue, as the kingmaker in a hung parliament, the Lib Dems had a realistic choice between the Conservatives and Labour. A Lib-Lab coalition would have been able to vote down the Conservatives in the Commons, even though the Tories were the largest party. They would have had 315 votes to the Conservatives’ 306. But with a lead that slim, there was no guarantee that a Lib-Lab Coalition would have survived the summer. Labour was the party that introduced paid tuition in the first place, so the Lib Dems would have been accused of betraying their principles no matter which party they chose. And being associated with a fallen government would have hurt the Lib Dems’ standing in the polls.
There were two other options available to the Liberal Democrats in 2010. They could have abstained on every issue. But besides the fact that doing so would have handed the Conservatives a majority without getting anything in return, abstentionism when the Lib Dems had promised actual policies would have been irresponsible; a betrayal of their voters. So, how about a supply and confidence arrangement, where the Liberal Democrats would have kept the Conservatives in power but not been forced to support Conservative legislation? But then they would have been shut out of government. They would not have gotten ministers. They would not have gotten cabinet seats. They would have been voting for the status quo. And the status quo was even riskier than government. In 2010, the Lib Dems had actually lost seats from the last Parliament; they were kingmakers because the other parties balanced by chance for the first election in a century, not because of strength on their own part. For the Lib Dems, 2010 was now-or-never time. They had to prove that Lib Dem government existed and that it worked.
Some might say that the status quo was better than a Conservative takeover. But as parties with historical claims to power, the Conservatives and Labour have the luxury of being able to stall. As a third party, the Lib Dems have to offer much more — a coherent ideology and a legitimate chance of turning that ideology into policy. Otherwise, why should anybody vote for them at all? The SNP has its call for independence. Labour, when it was a third party, offered socialism. Third parties must aim high to justify their own existence. The Liberal Democrats aimed high and failed. We should not write off third parties because of the Lib Dem collapse. If the choices of the public are any indication, the British aren’t going to do that either.
In the end, coalition politics are not the story of the election. The Conservatives might have won the election, and their coalition partners might have been demolished in the process, but the pundits are all focusing on Scotland for good reason. It was a Liberal Democrat stronghold; coalition or not, they weren’t stopping the SNP in 2015. It was Labour’s stronghold too, and Labour was all but wiped out as well. The Conservatives might benefit in the short-term from Scottish chaos, but they certainly don’t want Scotland to leave. Cameron may pull off the impossible in elections, he may dominate British politics for a decade, he may force Labour back to the center, but it is his management of Scotland in the UK that will define his political legacy. Everything else is irrelevant.
A shorter version of this piece appeared in The Stanford Daily.
Winston Shi, a junior studying history, is abroad in Oxford this quarter. He is a columnist and former opinions editor at The Stanford Daily.