A United Kingdom?

The British General Election of 2015

The British general election of 2015 will be the seedbed of many future doctorates and research projects. Why were the polls so misleading? Why did they wrongly show, up to the very last day before the election, that the two main parties, the Conservatives and Labour, were neck and neck at 35 percent each? Why did the new parties that had emerged to challenge the long-lasting two-party system end up with only one or two seats in Parliament, and why were the Liberal Democrats, with fifty-six members of Parliament in 2010, reduced to a rump of only eight? Why was Labour, the dominant party in Scotland for many decades, annihilated there, leaving just one solitary Scottish Labour MP still in his seat?

Emerging from the perfect storm of this general election, few experts felt able to offer a convincing analysis. But let me propose some possible explanations.

We need to start by going back two decades. In 1992, John Major, a quiet and dogged prime minister, so uncharismatic that he was regularly caricatured in cartoons wearing his underpants over his shirt, won an amazing victory. He garnered more votes than the Tories had ever won before, defeating Labour’s glamorous and eloquent Neil Kinnock. In the later stages of the campaign, Major had renounced glitzy appearances and parades. Instead he gave speeches while standing on a symbolic orange box, meeting the voters on sidewalks and market squares, talking to them often without any television cameras present. They loved him for that—for being the ordinary citizen’s ordinary prime minister.

In the two decades since, politics in Britain has become more professional and more remote from the electorate. Leading politicians surround themselves with advisers and speechwriters. These professionals are often very bright, but have little experience of the world outside politics, and they are consequently alienated from the public at large. The Westminster bubble is rather like the Washington bubble—a self-absorbed complex world obsessed with political infighting. Most people, even the two-thirds who bother to vote, spend little time exploring the minutiae of politics. They have more pressing concerns.

The British “establishment” has also changed, and is less respected than it once was. In the United Kingdom this reflects broader changes in society—the growth of the middle class and the decline of organized labor because of deindustrialization, much of it dating back to the Thatcher ’80s. As for respect, a scandal in the 1990s involving some MPs who were spending public funds for private purposes hugely damaged perceptions of Parliament; the banking collapse of 2007–8 undermined trust in bankers and financial advisers; and, more recently, police investigations of pedophile rings in high places have increased public suspicion of government. The demand for transparency has great attractions in a democracy, but the price is skepticism about even plausible claims of ignorance or innocence by those holding positions of power and responsibility. The coalition government formed by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in 2010 deepened that skepticism early in its governing years by relentlessly attacking former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown for his alleged mismanagement of the economy. He was unfairly held responsible for the collapse of the banks.

Among many citizens there is in consequence an anti-establishment attitude, notably in Scotland. Some of this animus is directed against the historic Conservative establishment, some against the City of London, seat of the financial establishment, some against leaders in local government, some against the big trade unions. The attitude helps explain the inroads made by UKIP, the English nationalist party, on Labour constituencies in the north of England as well as Conservative and Liberal Democrat constituencies in the south and southwest.

For the Liberal Democrats, who have been a party of protest from their founding, and who have criticized the establishment both of the right (big business) and left (the trades unions), joining a coalition with the Conservatives confused their image and was widely seen among left-of-center voters as a betrayal. Many declared they would never vote LibDem again.

The United Kingdom no doubt benefited from constructing, soon after the financial crisis, a solid and stable coalition government, one that lasted, despite media skepticism, the whole of the fixed five-year parliamentary term. But the price of that stability was loyalty of the LibDems to the Conservatives, which seriously damaged LibDem credibility. Surprisingly little news of splits and battles between the coalition partners actually got out, and when it did, a few weeks before the election campaign began, it sounded like Punch and Judy politics, often disliked by voters. The Liberal Democrats had indeed fought to raise tax thresholds (the income level at which people become liable for taxes) rather than reduce tax rates. They proposed greater subsidies for disadvantaged children and free meals for children in nursery and elementary school.

The LibDem junior partner in the coalition was assigned the role of stalking-horse for such policies. Those that proved popular were immediately adopted by the Conservatives as their own, while the rest were abandoned. The resulting center-right orientation of the government was fairly popular, particularly once the economic situation began to improve. The coalition government sacrificed wage increases to job creation. In times of austerity, having a job is more important than getting a raise.

The Labour Party, burdened by its record of high public spending during the Brown years, found it hard to convince the electorate of its economic competence. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, was caught between a rock and a hard place. If he admitted the previous Labour government had overspent, he would be disloyal. If he failed to refer to it, he was hiding facts from the public.

He did actually fight a moderate and honest campaign, but his academic approach told against him, and he was caught in the tangled battles between “old Labour”—the class-based party of the past—and the New Labour of Tony Blair, which was business-friendly and hewed to the center. The personal contrast between the pointy-headed Miliband, a man alleged to have stabbed his older brother in the back to win leadership of the Labour Party, and the comfortable, assured David Cameron also produced a large gap in the public assessments of the two men. Whatever they thought of the Conservatives’ austerity policies, voters trusted the Conservative Party’s economic competence far more than they trusted Labour’s.

Another factor in the election, little discussed by the media, was the raising of large sums of money, mainly by the Conservatives, to fund local campaigns in constituencies targeted as winnable, and often held by well-known MPs. It did not matter whether these seats belonged to Labour MPs or to the Conservatives’ coalition partners, the LibDems. The strategy was sophisticated and effective. Voters were classified according to their past voting pattern and their interests. They were then contacted by phone and sent personally addressed letters, some from Number 10 Downing Street. Liberal Democrat MPs who served in the coalition government proved particularly vulnerable: every one of them, apart from the Party’s leader, Nick Clegg, lost  his or her seat. It became known as the decapitation strategy.

 

THEN THERE WAS the question of money. Traditionally, elections were called by prime ministers who lost a vote of confidence in Parliament. That system limited the campaign period to only a few weeks. Few commentators appreciated that the coalition’s decision to insist on a fixed term of five years between elections made it much easier to generate and spend money early. The main limit on election spending in Britain, however, is not regulation but the BBC’s monopoly of election broadcasting. The nation’s public broadcaster is bound by strict rules that require it to grant air time to candidates according to how well their party did at the previous election. The existence this year of seven contending parties made things much more difficult. In the end there was only one national broadcast in which all the party leaders appeared, another for the minor parties, and finally a series of separate short speeches by the leaders of the two coalition parties and by the Labour leader of the official Opposition, followed by questions. Negative television and radio ads, so important in U.S. elections and financed by corporate and private donors, are not allowed in British elections.

UKIP and the Greens, both protest parties attracting unprecedented support at this election, were humiliated by a “first past the post” or winner-take-all voting system that yielded only one seat for each. UKIP, whose nationalist appeal extended across industrial northern constituencies once regarded as safe for Labour, attracted 4 million voters, or one in ten. If the House of Commons had a proportional-representation system, like the one used in many European countries, UKIP would have won more than sixty seats, while the Greens would have won more than twenty. (This is a problem in the United States, too. In the last election, Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives received far more votes overall than did Republicans, but because representatives are elected by geographic districts the GOP emerged with a large majority.) In the United Kingdom the result is that the Conservatives, who received only a little over a third of the national vote, will nevertheless have a Parliamentary majority. It is hard to imagine that such a voting system will survive popular resentment as the new government, with a slim majority of twelve, presses ahead with austerity and huge cuts in public services.

This year’s general election also saw the triumph of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) in Scotland, a development that would have been unimaginable until very recently. Under Tony Blair’s Labour government, Parliament agreed in 1999 to recognize a Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. It was widely accepted that such a Parliament, while containing a few Liberal Democrats and even fewer Conservatives, would be dominated by Scotland’s traditional leading party, Scottish Labour. But Labour became complacent. Some local Labour leaders were corrupt, while others, the most capable, chose to make their careers in Westminster, which offered the prospect of ministerial positions at the national level. Johann Lamont, the leader of Labour’s Scottish party, resigned in October 2014 after the referendum on independence, saying the Scots MPs in London treated their colleagues in Edinburgh like a branch office. Ironically, this was partly because Scots MPs held such influential positions in the United Kingdom—prime minister, chancellor of the exchequer, and many cabinet positions in the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Meanwhile, the SNP, which in 2007 emerged as the largest party in the Scottish Parliament, albeit by only one seat, carefully built up a reputation for governing sensibly, moving to the center with moderate taxes and restrained public expenditure. It built up its reputation with the business community and the substantial Catholic and Asian communities. More significantly, it developed the image of a new Scotland: committed to equality and social justice, proud of its history, dedicated to education, classless and bold. The royalties from North Sea oil in a hungry international market underpinned the SNP’s aspirations, gave Scotland an international presence, and encouraged research in energy, marine technology, and medicine. Scotland was an attractive place in which to invest, and the future looked very promising. In 2011, the SNP won an overall majority in Edinburgh.

The “new” Scotland, which inspired thousands of Scots to get involved, to participate, and to stand tall, was not quite the same as the real Scotland. More was spent on the National Health Service and on higher education in England than in Scotland. The SNP, developing a fiercely proclaimed antipathy to English Conservatives, nevertheless shared many of the Conservatives’ policies on taxation and business. During the election, Nicola Sturgeon, the brilliant, youthful-looking, and eloquent leader of the SNP, presented herself as a politician of the left, a true radical. But the SNP’s record in government is more cautious and also more centralizing than her self-description implies. Sturgeon may have hoped for a weak Labour government in Westminster, perhaps a minority government anxious to keep SNP support in return for concessions the SNP could trumpet to its electorate. The Conservatives succeeded in frightening voters with the prospect of a Miliband government whose strings were pulled by the SNP. By overplaying its own hand, the SNP contributed to the Tory victory.

 

REMARKABLE AS THAT victory was, David Cameron now faces a very difficult period in government. In the past, full fiscal autonomy has been one of the SNP’s most ambitious objectives, but the party will be wary of demanding that change now because the recent fall in oil prices could leave Scotland with an even bigger deficit—and it is already larger than England’s. Instead of outright autonomy, Sturgeon will seek greater authority over somewhat lesser business and indirect taxation while leaving the large contribution the UK Treasury makes to Scotland intact. Some backbench Conservative MPs will clamor that only English MPs should be allowed to vote on laws that would affect only England. But that would be expensive and would almost certainly increase support for an independent Scotland. The SNP has proved brilliant at campaigning and will choose the most advantageous moment for a new referendum on independence.

Cameron will also face pressures from the impassioned Euroskeptic wing of his party to go ahead with his promised “in or out” referendum on the European Union. He is already sounding out other European Union capitals on his ambitious plan to renegotiate the European treaties. While some EU members like Germany and Holland are keen to keep Britain in, they will certainly resist any effort to renegotiate wholesale the web of treaties ratified by the EU’s twenty-eight member states. There may be some willingness to extend the single market, and to seek compromise on issues like restricting access to welfare, housing, or the National Health Service for incoming European citizens, but reform of the basic principles like the free movement within Europe of EU citizens is out of the question. Cameron will have to identify areas where there might be some concessions, and then make the best he can of it. Again the shadow of Scotland looms—the SNP has made it clear Scotland will not leave the European Union, come what may.

So there will be no long honeymoon for David Cameron and his cabinet. It is not surprising that he has already indicated he will not serve a third term. In the election he made several promises—for instance, not to raise income tax or national insurance contributions—that may prove impossible to keep. (There are echoes here of the Tea Party’s record in Congress.) The U.S. government is already making plain its concern that Britain may allow defense expenditure to fall below NATO’s minimum figure of 2 percent of GDP. At a time of irresponsible political promises (on both sides of the Atlantic), British voters and their parliamentary representatives alike may come to see the past five years as a period of relative tranquility.

Published in the July 10, 2015 issue: 

Shirley Williams was a Labour member of Parliament and cabinet minister before helping to found the United Kingdom’s Social Democratic Party in 1981. She subsequently served as a leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords. She is professor emeritus at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

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