The ‘sweetest victory’ of the Conservatives, as David Cameron put it on May 8th, and the sweeping landslide victory of the SNP, winning all but three of the Scottish seats, were indeed shocking wake-up calls for all those concerned about British politics. Labour’s unexpectedly disastrous loss of 26 seats led Ed Miliband to announce his immediate resignation as Labour leader. The Lib-Dems were wiped away, going from 57 to just eight seats, causing the resignation of Nick Clegg as party leader. The party was severely punished by voters who blamed it for betraying everything it had stood for in seeking power. Looking at these results, one could argue that the British voters decided at the very last moment to prevent the formation of another coalition government, assumingly returning to their traditional attitude of regarding coalitions as an exception.
For the polling companies too, the election results proved a nightmare. In order to recover their privileged capacity to influence the media, voters, and parties, they are in the course of reexamining why their pre-election forecasts appeared to be inaccurate.
Meanwhile, one shall have a thorough look at how many votes the grassroots parties such as the SNP, UKIP, and the Greens, gained in this election. Even though their positions in the political spectrum span from the left to the extreme right, the total number of votes won by these three parties amounted to nearly 6.5 million, against the Conservatives’ 11.3 million. Amongst them, UKIP failed to get more than one seat and is now in the midst of an internal turmoil. Despite that, Nigel Farage is generally praised for contributing to the party’s net gain from 9.6 to 12.6 per cent of the vote. In particular, UKIP has remained popular among those who are disillusioned with the aloofness of the political elite.
As Vernon Bogdanor, Professor of Government at King’s College, London, remarked immediately after the election on the pages of The Financial Times, UKIP and the SNP ‘seek to replace the politics of ideology with the politics of identity’. If this is the case, it is essential to understand who is actually putting identity before ideology. Political analysts have repeatedly pointed out that ‘other’ parties mostly appeal to those who feel insecure and ‘left-behind’ by the current structure of the economy, which tends to generate low-wage jobs but constantly requires up-to-date marketable skills. The point is that those who feel insecure and forgotten are not a minority. Last year, the think-tank Policy Network revealed that modern British society is a ‘5-75-20 society’ where only the 5% constitutes the comfortable and wealthy elite, the 20% is rather poor and often socially excluded, and the 75% majority can be labelled as ‘the new insecure’ ones. This new insecure social group face stagnation or loss of income, a decline in its standard of living, and anxiety over employment. In addition, even within the 75% majority, there are significant divisions along regional, educational backgrounds’, and/or occupational lines. If social segmentation continues to grow, the popularity of the parties challenging the traditional incumbents will certainly prove something more than a passing political trend.
Symbolically, since the very first day of the new government, Cameron has eloquently and repeatedly put forward the term ‘one nation’. History tells us that when a political leader has to mention this particular term, the society is already divided to a significant degree. Cameron would soon realise that there are varieties of ‘one nation’ that people wish to see. For instance, some voters seek the ‘oneness’ that bridges the gap between the privileged and the ordinary people. Others refer to the ‘one’ British nation that includes Scotland, possibly outside the EU and without immigrants. Thirdly, there are those who think the ‘oneness’ of the nation should consist of four nations including Scotland, sticking to the EU but getting rid of the welfare dependents. And, last but not least, to the supporters of Scottish independence, ‘one nation’ means, in principle, a Scottish autonomous nation, within the EU but implementing anti-austerity policies.
Given that a relatively homogeneous society is one of the conditions for the maintenance of a two-party system, it is fair to say that the system’s foundations have already been eroded. Under such critical circumstances, examining the state of the two major parties is essential to discuss the future political scenarios.
While the Conservatives managed to win a majority of 331 seats for the first time since 1992, they are still far from being the general electorate’s preferred option. According to a comment posted on the Financial Times on May 13th, on polling day, the party was supported by only 24.4 per cent of the total population eligible to vote. Despite the fact that, for an incumbent government, the increase of 0.8 points in the vote share is already a remarkable result, the total share of 36.9 per cent is the lowest that has ever led to form a single-party government in Great Britain.
The Conservatives succeeded tactically and mostly at the expense of their coalition partner, the Lib Dems, by gaining 26 of their seats and 10 of Labour’s, destroying Labour’s ambitions to target 80 Conservative-held seats. At the same time, although Cameron is known for being a pragmatic rather than ideological leader, he is a unionist, a convinced advocate of fiscal conservatism, and a natural supporter of a smaller government. He maintains that his positions are necessary in order for the Conservatives to be a responsible party of government, yet merely pushing ‘TINA’ – there is no alternative – ways of reasoning could further isolate the new administration from the already squeezed and frustrated voters.
With a slim majority of 12 seats, the new Prime Minister’s autonomy will be highly constrained by his party, including assumingly more than a hundred convinced Eurosceptic MPs, and by the statutory Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011. The latter would tie the Prime Minister’s hands if ever he wished to threaten an election through a vote of confidence. As for the former, the regulation of the parliamentary party has been modified under the coalition government and Cameron has faced an unprecedented scale of persistent backbench revolts throughout his first term.
Now that Cameron has become an electoral asset to the party, he is expected to have a stronger voice in government. However, given that the party is divided not only on the EU, but also on such a crucial issue as defense, over which the government was defeated respectively in 2012 and 2013, the way ‘rebel’ Tory MPs will behave remains to be seen. In fact, if Cameron tries to appease those hardline Eurosceptic MPs at the expense of the amicable negotiations with other members of the EU, it is likely that the UK will become a liability and isolated in the EU even before the national referendum.
Finally, Labour has been utterly wiped away by the tide of the SNP in Scotland. In England, although Labour increased seats in the metropolitan areas, it experienced stunning defeats in some of their heartland and in the Midlands, highly damaged by its image of a ‘tax and spending’ party. Significantly, this was the enduring label that Blair’s New Labour had so desperately wished to discard at any price, in order to win the support of the ‘aspirational’ new middle-class and the markets.
As an immediate response to Labour’s losing a considerable number of those middle-class voters, Tony Blair and his close aides, such as Peter Mandelson and David Miliband attacked Ed Miliband for ditching their policy of aspiration. Importantly, when Blair commented the campaign, he was careful enough not to forget to add the terms ‘compassion and care’ after ‘ambition and aspiration’, acknowledging the need to appeal to Labour’s heartland.
Yet, there is an important question that remains unanswered: why did Labour fail? First, it normally takes more than one term for a harshly defeated party to recover the trust of the voters. Second, Ed Miliband’s Labour was highly divided on how to achieve the equilibrium between the two elements in the golden formula of social justice and healthy finances. As for social justice, it supported so-called pre-distribution in place of traditional cash transfers, a clear reversal of traditional distribution policies. It put more emphasis on supply-side intervention in education, training, and childcare. These policies could have appealed to the new insecure majority, but the party critically failed to make its project understood. Thirdly, and vey importantly, when Labour put forward its policy of healthy finance, it was too late to convince the public. And, finally, it is indeed difficult to deny that the ‘Ed problem’ became an obstacle for voters to listen to the Labour voice. At a time of extreme ‘personalisation’ of politics, the personal popularity of a leader is not a sufficient factor to win elections, but it appears to be a necessary one.
It is too early to judge which direction Labour will take, simply because this hugely depends on the capacity and political orientation of the next party leader. The leadership election could be one of the decisive moments for this centre-left party in the upcoming years. Before anything else, perhaps, it is time for the party to seriously evaluate the legacies of the previous Labour governments, but not to repeat the battle for power between Blairites and Brownites.
As discussed above, no party can be optimistic about its journey to the next general election. The increasingly crowded map of the political spectrum reflects how fragmented the British society has become. As Robert Dahl used to argue, the existence of the two-party system requires an unusual combination of circumstances. Even though the first-past-the-post system does not easily generate a multi-party system in Westminster, we cannot dismiss the possible ‘sea change’ in the political landscape of the next few years. What is certain is that it is a testing and tormenting time for British parties to prove themselves to be both responsive to the diversified demands of voters and responsible enough to govern.