Yesterday, I gave a talk in Stockholm, where I am currently, at least until this evening, on the future of British politics. It was put on by the Ohlin Institute, for whom I offer thanks for inviting me to speak on the subject. I’ve put it out on the site to see what others, particularly a British audience, thinks of what I had to say to a room full of intellectual Swedes about the political future of our great nation. Here it is, in full:
On Friday, May 8th, 2015, Britain awoke to a Tory majority government. It was not what anyone, members and apparatchiks of the Conservative Party included, thought would happen. The polls all told us all going in that it was neck and neck between the Tories and Labour, with a hung parliament a near certainty. Constituency polling seemed to tell us that Labour would lose many seats in Scotland to the Scottish National Party but at the same time gain many more off the Conservatives in England. The result of this would be one in which either Labour or the Conservatives knew could end up as the largest party. Common Westminster wisdom said that the Liberal Democrats would have enough going for them with an incumbency factor in seats already held; the experts on such things expected half of those seats won at the 2010 general election to be retained by the party, leaving the Lib Dems with an MP count in the late-twenties. This would possibly put the party into the role of kingmaker once again.
Instead, the Lib Dems lost 48 seats, to be reduced to a mere 8 MPs. The Scottish National Party almost completely wiped out Labour in their Scottish heartland, reducing them from 41 MPs to a single seat. Ed Balls, the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer lost his own seat in what became one of Labour’s worst general election defeats in their entire history. We are left with an England with a large Conservative majority, while Scotland has 95% of its seats taken up by nationalists. The Union, which has lasted over 300 years, has never looked so imperilled.
So what is the way ahead for both British politics and British political parties after this election result, the likes of which no one predicted? Both are obviously intertwined, so I’ll begin with what the political parties should – and more pertinently – will do, at least in my opinion, with the hope that this will shed light on what the next five years might look like for the United Kingdom.
Let us start with the vanquished. Labour suffered their worst electoral performance in a general election since 1987, and in many ways ’87 was much better for them as at least they went into that election with no real expectations of winning against Thatcher and at the very, very least managed to build on the previous election result given 1983 was in fact, the worst Labour defeat in their party’s history. In 2015, right up until polling day itself, Labour thought they at least had the real possibility of being in power, even if through a minority or coalition arrangement. To have lost all of Scotland, a traditional heartland; for Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary and the aforementioned Ed Balls to lose their seats; for the Tories to have got a majority against all predictions, puts Labour in a position of existential crisis.
How Labour responds to this defeat will tell you a lot about the direction of the entire country, at least politically, over the next decade. There is a battle on at present for the soul of their party. It has shaped up already as a straight fight between the trade unions and the Blairite centrists (although they probably wouldn’t self-apply the term “Blairite”). They either head further to the left, embracing a very protectionist economic direction as well as a very possibly socially conservative one in order to try and win back UKIP and formerly core voters. This position is represented by co-front runner for the leadership, Andy Burnham. Or they head to the middle where the more centrist vote will be represented by Liz Kendall, pretty much solely, who only only became an MP in 2010 and was shadow minister for care and older people in the last parliament. There was a more prominent centrist candidate in Chuka Ummuna, who sadly decided to drop out of the leadership race early on. In my opinion, the centrist route is the only one that Labour can go down and have any chance of winning the next general election. Even then it will be tough, but I fear an even worse defeat for Labour should they choose to go further to the left during this term.
And early signs from within the Labour Party on this front are not good. Given most of the Labour membership are well to the left of even most Labour voters, I expect the Labour Party to head even more to the left than they did under Ed Miliband during the previous five years. As I said, this could spell even worse catastrophe both for the them, the left of centre in Britain and indeed everyone who would count themselves as non-Conservatives within the country.
As for the Liberal Democrats, rebuilding from such a low base under a First Past the Post voting system presents enormous challenges. Like what Labour is facing, the Lib Dems too will face an internal battle about the direction of the party from here. Some will want the party to remain centrist and focus on those things that most differentiate the party from the Conservatives: liberal in the social sphere, championing civil liberties which are likely to come under attack during the parliament ahead, being a loud pro-European voice. Others would like the party to be a far left party, essentially the Greens with slightly more parliamentary representation. I think the former will win out, and with it at least a chance for the Lib Dems to regain some of the seats lost at the 2015 general election. But all victories will be extremely difficult.
A quick word about UKIP, while I’m covering the defeated: one of the few silver linings for liberals on a depressing May 7th was the failure of UKIP to meaningfully breakthrough. They ended up with one seat, which is one fewer than they went into the election holding. However, on the flip side, almost 4 million people voted for them and if they don’t fall apart over the next couple of years, they could use their 120 odd second place finishes, particularly in northern English seats, to transform themselves into a political force, capable of winning other than at the European Parliament polls, which Britons tend to use as a protest vote. A warning however to the United Kingdom Independence Party and to Nigel Farage in particular: far right parties in Britain tend to have relatively short life spans. The British National Party got 564 thousand votes at the 2010 general election. In 2015? 1,667.
And again, early signs on UKIP do not bode well for them. Nigel Farage promised to step down as leader should he fail to win the seat he was contesting at the general election. He resigned and then un-resigned very shortly afterwards. This will hurt his “man of his word” reputation. Also, clashes have already taken place between Farage and Douglas Carswell, UKIP’s sole member of parliament. Douglas is very much at odds with most of his party’s membership, being a pro-immigration libertarian. They could easily rip themselves to shreds in the coming months.
So now finally, we come onto the winner of the 2015 general election, the Conservative Party. I’ve just been through the immense troubles both Labour, UKIP and the Lib Dems, their main electoral rivals, face in the years ahead. This should, on paper, pave the way for Tory domination of the electoral landscape for the next decade, decade and a half. But the Conservatives face huge problems themselves. With a razor thin majority and the need to call a referendum on the future of Britain’s membership of the European Union, keeping the party together presents a massive challenge to David Cameron. The prime minister has indicated through his past behaviour that he is willing to do almost anything to keep the Conservative Party together – this seemed the motivation for making the EU referendum pledge in the first place. So what does he do when a significant number of his right wing backbenchers want to campaign against him, to campaign against remaining in the EU? Thus far, Cameron has talked a big game about whipping the party to support whatever his post-renegotiation position turns out to be, but it’s hard to see this playing out in reality – the backbenches of the Conservative Party are simply too Eurosceptic. Many of them want out at all costs.
You’ll notice that I have made an assumption here that David Cameron will campaign for Britain to remain in the European Union. This is because I think it would be very difficult for Cameron to back a get out vote in an EU referendum and all the early signs confirm this. The fact that he’s essentially laid out what the “renegotiation” looks like already and that he wants to have the vote sooner rather than later confirms a lot of my suspicions on backing a stay in vote. The renegotiation package will have already been discussed at European Commission level and with other governments, not least of all the German government, and Cameron will have an idea of what is reasonably obtainable. It appears to revolve around five major themes: Britain being able to opt out of the “ever closer union” concept; denial of EU migrants any benefits, including in work ones, until they have lived in the country for a set period of time; giving greater powers to national parliaments to block EU legislation; protecting the city of London from a host of EU financial regulation; and creating safeguards so that Eurozone countries cannot impose changes to the single market on non-Eurozone countries.
When you think about that list again, you’ll note that it is fairly ambitious. And this is what could make Cameron’s dual ambition to hold the referendum sooner rather than later difficult. The prime minister wants to hold it relatively early in the parliament because it would theoretically give stay in the best chance of winning. The thinking behind this is that the Tory government would not have become unduly unpopular yet – again, or so the theory goes. Also, from Cameron’s perspective, if the Conservative Party is going to have an internal fight on the subject of the European Union, he’d rather get that done and out of the way as soon as possible so that any reconciliation within the party that is required can be completed while the parliament has a reasonably long stretch to play out still.
There are two big reasons that I can’t see Cameron ever supporting a get out vote prior to an In/Out EU referendum. One is because if he did so it would be hugely alienating to mass portions of the business community. The Tories can’t ever risk such a relationship, particularly if Labour picks a centrist leader next time around, because the business community not only contains a lot of donors to the Conservative Party, their support, tacit or other wise, is hugely important to the whole Tory brand.
Secondly, Cameron arguing directly for a Brexit would place him on the opposite of the argument to the Americans. The Conservative Party remains very Atlanticist, and the so called “special relationship” is something they take very seriously. The Americans are extremely serious about wanting Britain to remain in the EU, first of all because it is through their relationship with Britain they partly maintain many of their ties to the EU but much more importantly, the Americans think if Britain leaves that weakens and perhaps even possibly threatens the entire European project, the continuation of which is in the American’s long term strategic interests. America would be a bit peeved were Britain to endanger the entire post-second World War European settlement over a fit of pique within the Conservative Party, and rightly so.
I should touch here on where the European debate is in Britain at the moment more generally. The tone of the discussion around the EU in Britain is something that often shocks our continental cousins. Most of it is heavily Eurosceptic and based on either facile concepts such as “the EU costs us money” with no look whatsoever about the benefits Britain derives from being a part of the largest single market in the world, or dwells on embarrassingly moronic “alternatives” such as substituting the Commonwealth for the European Union as a trading bloc. The fact that none of the Commonwealth nations have any interest in such an arrangement, incidentally, has not deterred any admirers from advocating such silliness.
So how exactly will the EU referendum play out then? I’ll start by saying that I think Britain will vote to stay in when the choice is offered to them and work backwards from there. I’ll preface as well by saying that nothing I’m about to say should make pro-European Britons complacent.
One assumes that the Labour Party will campaign to stay in the European Union, but that’s by no means a given. It does depend on who becomes the next leader of the party. There is a strong strain and history of anti-EU feeling on the left of British politics – one only has to recall the last referendum Britain had on Europe, in 1975, when the Labour Party membership wanted withdrawal by a margin of 2:1. However, I still think Labour will campaign to stay in Europe regardless in the end, mostly because to do otherwise would risk another of their heartlands falling, namely London.
Cameron will present his renegotiation package, whatever it is in the end, as a huge triumph. Many of his backbenchers, and we’ll see how many, in chorus with UKIP, will declare the whole referendum and the terms it is being fought under a stitch up. Stay in will win after Cameron urges the country to do so. What happens then to the Conservative Party will be interesting. Possibilities range from everyone keeps their discipline and they go on with only a few minor bumps to the party breaks in two. So clearly there is a huge amount at stake for Cameron in all of this. He has made noises already that he intends to whip a collective position on Europe within his party; but I don’t see how this will hold. There are too many Tory MPs for whom getting Britain out of Europe is amongst the most important things in politics. As a result, a possible Tory split is one to watch for in the coming years. How would that fall out exactly? Hard to say given neither the Lib Dems nor UKIP are parliamentary forces to defect to at present.
Putting aside the question of Europe and how that will play out, I will now talk more broadly about the politics of the next five years in Britain. In terms of economic policy, I would expect to see the Conservative government make large scale public sector cuts in the short term. They have pledged to cut the deficit by a large amount, and also to do so without raising taxation. Add to this the fact that a lot of the savings made in the last parliament under the coalition government were efficiency based, so now that those are out of the way, the cuts that will have to be imposed will all be front line ones that will be felt by the public directly. If middle England feels the pinch, the Tories will not have the Lib Dems to hide behind this time; the political pain will be all theirs this round.
The Conservatives also want to put into legislation a great deal of things that the Lib Dems prevented them from doing in the last parliament, such as a greater rollback of civil liberties in the form of the “snoopers charter” and a repeal of the Human Rights Act. However, like on Europe, Cameron can expect to face some battles within his own party on these matters. There is a liberal wing of the Conservative Party that will not take kindly to action that involves what is technically more government intrusion into citizens’ lives. Again, with such a narrow majority, it won’t take many Tory rebels to make such things impossible to get through the House and into statute.
The Conservatives also seem to be looking to settle some old scores. There is talk of punitive action towards the BBC, and already Cameron has specifically identified decriminalising the non-payment of the licence fee, which pretty much amounts to the prime minister inviting the citizens of the country not to pay for public television. There is talk of even breaking the BBC up; again, we’ll wait and see just how far the Tories want to go with this sort of thing in due course. There is a strain of Toryism that is centred on the preservation of beloved institutions; whatever the state of the Labour Party and other foes, one wonders how much tinkering of such things the Conservatives can get away with until the public reacts negatively.
With the Scottish Nationalists holding 56 out Scotland’s 59 total seats, Cameron will meanwhile have the country itself to hold together, quite literally. A game will soon emerge between the Conservatives and the SNP, both of them political opposites on paper and yet both with similar motives which bind them. They both have a common enemy in the Labour Party. The Tories would like to see England get more power to decide laws that affect that nation only, without Scottish or Welsh votes weighing in on the matter, and the SNP would like more devolved to Scotland. The Conservatives could simply call the SNP’s bluff and devolve almost everything to Scotland, including all financial matters. This would make it a lot harder for the SNP, who hold a majority in the devolved Scottish parliament, to play their well worn game of being in power and in opposition at the same time. However, what motivation do the Conservatives have for being retributive towards the SNP? Prior to the 2015 general election, the Conservative Party held one single seat in Scotland. They hold precisely the same amount today. So long as the SNP can hold the lion’s share of seats in Scotland, the chances of Labour being able to get a majority gets notably slimmer. Again, this is to the Tories and the SNP’s mutual advantage.
So in summation: David Cameron has his hands full. A need to keep the country together; to keep it in the EU or at least the single market; the desire to make spending cuts on what would most likely be an unprecedented level – all this with a tiny parliamentary majority of 12 to work with. The Conservative government will face many challenges. But if the Labour Party continues to self-destruct, both the prime minister and his party just may be allowed to get away with it and return to government after the next election – regardless of the failures made during this parliament.
But I’ll close by saying that despite having some very real concerns about the next five years and what sections of the Conservative Party might have up their sleeves, I am a mixture of optimistic and worrisome about what’s going to happen to Britain over the next five years. I think that the rebellions I spoke about earlier within the Tory ranks on issues like human rights and civil liberties will come to pass and make such legislation hard to pass. On the other hand, I think public services could be in bad shape and cuts could affect education, whatever the Tories have said in the past about protecting such an area of expenditure. So there will be pluses and minuses, but I think the economy should be in better shape as well as the country’s financial position over all. We’ll probably need it to be in order to restore public services in some areas after years of the front line cuts that are coming.
One thing we can all hope for as well is that when the next general election comes around, the pollsters will be able to give us some accurate idea of what it will look like and all of us pundits trying to make our predictions the week beforehand won’t end up as a group looking quite so incorrect!