Lessons from the UK election
It is a measure of the political volatility in Britain that a viable minority government would have counted as a triumph. To win a majority in his own right, as David Cameron has done, might be regarded as the modern equivalent of a landslide.
David Cameron’s Conservatives finished election night in a stronger position than the polls had predicted but he will begin his second term as Prime Minister of a nation deeply divided on cultural and nationalist lines. Both major parties have struggled to bridge the crevasse between the metropolitan elite and the socially conservative voters of provincial Britain but it was resurgent nationalism in Scotland that sealed Labour’s fate.
The Labour Party’s predicament is serious on both sides of the border. The working-class seat of Hartlepool, for example, was won in 1997 by Tony Blair’s close ally Peter Mandelson with more than 60 per cent of the vote. On Thursday, Labour’s share was reduced to 35 per cent as UKIP came within 3000 votes of taking the seat. Labour, like its counterpart in Australia, has become the party of the educated middle class. Its working-class identity is a fading historical legacy.
UKIP, now the third largest party in Britain, with around 3.5 million votes, made its largest gains in Labour seats. Beer-drinking Nigel Farage was more acceptable to many Labour voters than their quasi-intellectual leader. Ed Miliband lost ground in London and the southeast, where his class-warrior promise to impose a so-called mansion tax went down badly. Housing prices in the capital are such that a modest two-bedroomed terrace in a less-fashionable suburb could easily have become caught in the net.
Labour’s greatest tactical error was to present itself as a party of the progressive Left. It conspicuously abandoned the economic rationalism of Blair’s New Labour, positioning itself as anti-austerity and adopting old-fashioned socialist policies such as rent control. A party that has made much in the past of its multicultural, inclusive policies found it hard to adapt to the sharp change of mood in Britain, where the perception of porous borders, the rise of home-grown Islamism and an influx of workers from eastern Europe has led to the widespread view that enough is enough.
The haemorrhaging of Liberal Democrat votes mostly favoured their coalition partners, giving the Conservatives strong results across western and central England. In Cornwall and Devon, once their heartland, the Liberal Democrats now have no seats. Pragmatic participation in the business of government is a perilous path for minor parties like the Liberal Democrats, as the Australian Democrats learned to their cost. Ideological purity, a luxury enjoyed by parties that never have to soil their hands with practical politics, is a precious commodity for “none of the above” parties. Once lost, it is virtually impossible to recover.
Thanks largely to the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives performed better in socially conservative middle England than many had expected. Polling showed that Conservative defectors who had been flirting with UKIP were spooked by the threat of a Labour-Scottish National Party government. While many appear to have returned to the fold, the Conservatives cannot take their votes for granted.
Cameron must work hard to soften his party’s image as the plaything of floppy-haired Etonians and regain the confidence of Conservative-leaning voters in provincial Britain who were more comfortable with Thatcherism. The likely narrow majority will strengthen the hand of Conservative backbenchers, whose influence is likely to steer the Conservatives back towards their historical position on the Centre-Right.
For the Conservatives, the portentous result in Scotland will be troublesome; for Labour it is a disaster. The party suffered swings against it of around 25 per cent and has shrunk to the status of boutique party in territory it once owned. In Glasgow northeast, a largely working-class area, the swing against Labour was 39 per cent. Rebuilding will be a major task unless the SNP implodes, which on current trends looks unlikely. The prospect of a second referendum is less likely than many commentators imagine, but the pressure for further devolution will be intense.
Amid the multi-polar shambles of modern British politics, the successes of the Cameron government have largely gone unnoticed. Growth in Britain has been much stronger than expected, and the country is recovering faster from the global financial crisis than most of Europe. Two million jobs have been created under the Conservatives, 550,000 in the past year alone.
Cameron’s greatest success has been in welfare reform, where farsighted policies are beginning to show results. The ranks of the long-term unemployed have fallen by more than 180,000 in the last year. In his victory speech last night, Cameron made it clear that his enthusiasm for getting welfare recipients back to work is undiminished. “Those who can, should,” he said. “Those who can’t, we help.”