One way to interpret the UK General Election of May 2015 is that some kind of status quo has been restored. The coalition of 2010 to 2015, between the Conservatives (Tories) and the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems) was the first such in British history. Throughout the twentieth century, it had seemed the natural order that power had passed from the Tories to Labour and back. At different times, each of the two had comfortably considered themselves ‘the natural party of government’, only to be jolted by the electorate’s longing for a change.
Even the interruption that was the 2010-15 coalition was merely a marriage of convenience between parties whose ideologies diverged sharply. It could never endure.
A week before the Election, a competent and experienced political commentator, Julia Langdon, forecast as follows: ‘In 2010, and probably to be repeated on Thursday, the proportion will give about 66 per cent to the Conservatives and Labour, divided roughly equally, and the remaining third to the minority parties’. Like almost every other pundit, Langdon was both right and wrong.
She was right because she was speaking about votes cast. The UK General Election uses a ‘first-past-the post’, rather than a proportional system. Smaller parties often succeed in coming second in a constituency (often by means of ‘protest vote’), but they tend not to win. Statistically this system heavily favours the ‘big two’. In 2015, the Conservative and Labour vote together amounted to 67% of the total votes cast, but to 86% of the seats won.
Langdon also rightly observed that earlier assumptions of a Labour victory, because of the relative unpopularity of the Government, had been shaken by the rapid rise of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) which was expected drastically to sweep the board in Scotland: since Conservative support had long since disappeared there, this triumph would now be overwhelmingly at the expense of Labour. On the other hand, the Tories also feared their vote could be split by the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP).
The commentators’ basic question was which of the Tories and Labour would gain a narrow victory: secondly, whether a third party (probably the SNP rather than the Lib Dems as before) might hold the balance of power.
As expected, he Lib Dems were penalised for their part in an unpopular coalition, From 57 seats (of 650) they now hold just 8. Conversely the SNP went from holding 6 seats in 2010 to 56 in 2015: 56 out of the 59 Scottish constituencies, so that the three traditional ‘main parties’ were left with just one seat each in Scotland. UKIP ‘succeeded’ in moving from 0 seats in 2010 to . . 1!
Contrary to forecasts, then, Mr Cameron enjoys a secure majority, whilst the leaderships of Labour, the Lib Dems and even UKIP all resigned. (Nigel Farage of UKIP was later recalled as leader from a brief retirement.) Mr Cameron’s victory speech struck a note of modest triumph (with the obligatory veiled insult of the unemployed), as if less complicated times lay ahead:
‘I truly believe we’re on the brink of something special in our country; we can make Britain a place where a good life is in reach for everyone who is willing to work and do the right thing. Our manifesto is a manifesto for working people, and as a majority government we will be able to deliver all of it.’
Had normality been restored? The UK still seems a two-party state. The Conservative gained 331 seats, Labour 232 and the new ‘third force’, the SNP, 56. Yet the new situation of UK politics is for from stable or ‘normal’. Every party, including the Conservative, faces stark challenges. For example:
Labour faces a kind of US-style primary in which it must elect its leader. It also faces an awkward but fundamental choice of future direction. Regretting Ed Miliband’s ‘move to the Left’, Tony Blair had already warned in 2014 of the danger of alienating business, and entering an election ‘in which a traditional left-wing party competes with a traditional right-wing party’ – with the traditional result! Does Labour now accept the Blair diagnosis and strive to be ‘friendly to business’ (risking the loss of its animating spirit, and the loyalty of its core supporters)? Or does it adopt a role of principled opposition whilst being reconciled in the medium term to opposition?
The Lib Dems must build from scratch after the election rout and the resignation of its two most prominent figures.
UKIP — which proclaims the legitimate authority of the British Parliament alone — is almost unrepresented there, whilst having 24 Members of the European Parliament it professes to despise.
The SNP, an explicitly nationalist party, has dramatically succeeded turned Scotland into a virtual one-party country. But where does it goes from here? It can hardly grow further, and must deliver results quickly or disillusion its supporters.
Finally, consider the strange plight of the Conservatives. They were driven further to the right by its fear of UKIP. The party is now ‘quasi- nationalist’ (the UK is a state not a nation). It is characterised by hostility to refugees and to migrants: that includes EU migrants, who ought in the Prime Minister’s view to be denied social benefits for four years after arrival in the UK. Mr Cameron has embarked on an inevitably futile campaign to restructure the European Union in the UK’s own image: futile because other EU states, such as Poland, have warned that the UK can expect a few symbolic concessions. But no substantial changes of the kind that would require treaty change, and would be vetoed by one of the several member states which have little interest in accommodating British demands.
Its comfortable Tory majority means only that Mr Cameron’s real enemies are those of his own household. Take only one question, that of the UK’s EU membership. The promised EU referendum is scheduled for 2017, and the official question has been announced: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?’. But the Government faces a range of unpleasant dilemma.
- If the UK leaves the EU Scotland is even more likely to quit the UK at the first chance;
- If Labour is indeed unelectable without sufficient support from the business world, Mr Cameron in turn risks that support, by defying the interests of business (and above all of the City of London) by presiding over the UK’s exit from the EU.
- Mr Cameron’s stated position is to campaign for Britain’s continued membership of a radically ‘reformed’ EU: that is an EU that is little more than a giant ‘common market’ once having shed those aspirations to closer integration and solidarity that have driven its entire development.; Many of his ministers have already opposed him, wanting no part of the EU in any form. As the referendum draws closer this Tory caucus could threaten to tear the Government apart. Not quite the status quo.
Frank Turner, SJ