The U.K.’s Election Blues
On May 8, I woke up to five-hour-old-news that, for most British people, had already begun to sink in. In a turn of events not seen since the 1980s under another Conservative leader, Margaret Thatcher, the incumbent Tories had increased their share of seats in Parliament. They claimed the smallest of absolute majorities with 51% of the House of Commons.
Like most people, I expected a much closer race resulting in a hung parliament, where no party gains enough seats to carry legislation on their own. In the UK system, like Canada’s, a party with more than half of the seats in parliament can, as long as it maintains the loyalty of its MPs, pass whatever laws it wants with practically no challenge from the other parties. This kind of situation has historically been the norm at Westminster, but it is new to David Cameron, who up until now has been forced into a power sharing agreement with the third (now fourth) largest party, the Liberal Democrats.
Politically speaking, the Lib Dems are the biggest losers. In an electoral system which matches candidates to constituencies, leader Nick Clegg managed to retain his seat, but used his subdued 'victory' speech only to hint at his own resignation, which followed shortly after. His party, tainted in the eyes of its centre-left base by its power sharing agreement with the Tories, lost 48 of their 56 Westminster seats.
The determination of the electorate to punish the Liberal Democrats will come at a huge cost. The Lib Dems have been unpopular with the left, many of whom paint them as dishonest and accuse them of 'jumping into bed' with the Conservatives to gain power. This metaphorical language stems from the idea of a masculine Conservative Party seducing and dominating the passive, female Lib Dems, which was sadly prominent in political discussion throughout campaigning. While the party did betray its commitment to opposing tuition fees, it has done more during its time in government to reign back the worst instincts of the Conservative Party than anything achieved by Ed Miliband's witless and naïve Labour opposition.
With the Lib Dems out, the Tories can now press ahead with a raft of new legislation: harsher austerity, repressive 'anti-terror' laws (in many respects similar to Bill C-51 here in Canada), the repeal of the Human Rights Act (yes, really), and so on. This is all terrible news, as is Cameron's plan to hold a referendum on the UK's continued membership of the EU, a move that many on the continent see as Britain's first step as it sleepwalks out of Europe. Such an exit would be disastrous for Britain, potentially leading to reductions in legal protection for worker and immigrant rights and closing the country off from its immediate neighbours.
This last policy, of course, is a concession to the supporters of the right-wing, anti-Europe, anti-immigrant party UKIP. Despite gaining more than four million votes — which is more than the Scottish National Party, which took third place in the number of seats — Nigel Farage's party gained only one seat at Westminster. Farage himself failed to win in the marginal constituency he contested. For this reason, he resigned his position, but hinted at a return in the next leadership election. He probably will win this contest, having succeeded in moving the national debate rightwards across the board, dragging David Cameron after him. It is a distressing fact that Farage will likely remain, after a brief hiatus, one of the most significant and visible figures in British politics.
One thing that has become apparent because of these results is the incredibly irrational nature of the voting system used by the UK. As parties contest individual seats on a win or lose basis, parties with a large voter base spread evenly across the country need many more supporters than parties like the SNP, which rely on regional support to gain parity in numbers of seats. Smaller parties like the Greens and Lib Dems have opposed this system for a long time, supporting a more proportional alternative. A referendum on such a reform was a central part of the 2010 coalition agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberals, but the proposed change was defeated at the ballot. Had the election taken place under such a proportional system, the Conservatives would not command the majority that they do, though they would remain the largest party.This fact has galvanised supporters of electoral reform, who tend to be left wing.
Unfortunately, the existence of UKIP is a major obstacle for those seeking to give a voice to more progressive elements of British politics in this way. Support for UKIP exists all over England, and to a much lesser degree in Scotland and Wales (Northern Ireland, in this, as everything, is a special case of its own). The attempt to challenge conservative hegemony through electoral reform would end up empowering an even more reactionary right by putting it in a decisive position in Parliament, since the Conservative Party is reliant on its support. A Conservative/UKIP coalition is the worst possible future situation for the UK.
North of the border, in Scotland, the rightward shift in English politics was matched by a shift to the left. The SNP presents itself as the party truest to old Labour values that the official Labour Party abandoned under the neoliberal premiership of Tony Blair. Enthusiasm for this message has carried the SNP to an unprecedented victory despite its defeat in the independence referendum last year. This nationalist surge has all but wiped out Labour in Scotland (as the Conservatives had been similarly expelled from Scottish politics during the Thatcher years). Despite losing his seat, Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy has vowed to remain in his post. He may even manage to do this, largely because there is nobody credible to replace him with.
The leader of the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon, is an impressive politician who could successfully oppose the new Conservative government in Westminster if that was her intention. Instead, she will remain in Scotland as First Minister of the devolved Scottish Parliament, having not contested a seat in the general election. This illustrates the problem with the SNP for the left in Britain as a whole. While the left-wing politics of the party are opposed to the Conservatives, continued Tory success south of the border is a tremendous benefit to the nationalists, strengthening support for their long term goal of independence. With so much of its attention focused on Scotland, it is hard to see the constructive role that the SNP will play in a wider progressive opposition to austerity and xenophobia across the UK.
Overall, the picture which emerges from the 2015 UK general election is one of ascendant Conservative power and a growing right-wing populism barely affected by a slight electoral setback. The left comes out of this election weaker and more divided than it has been for a long time. It is a bleak moment for UK politics and it is hard to see what will come next. In such a situation, it is easy to sympathize with the left radicals who have adopted the futile gesture of protesting the results of the vote in cities across the UK.comments powered by Disqus