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Je suis dégoûté. Really disappointed, mainly as the outcome wasn’t expected. After the US midterms, the Israeli vote, and now this one, I don’t think I can take any more such unanticipated election results. What next? An AKP landslide in Turkey on June 7th, giving the president-sultan there his super-majority to rewrite the constitution as he sees fit? What an unpleasant thought. On the misfiring of the UK pre-election polls, Nate Silver, in his live blogging last night, opined (at 9:54 PM) that “the world may have a polling problem,” with accurate polling posing increasing challenges.
Also having a problem—and a big one—is the Labour party and, more generally, center-left/social democratic parties of government that have moved to the center over the past two decades. As political scientists Johannes Karreth and Jonathan Polk argued on WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog two days ago—and with data to back it up—”Moving to the center can be costly for left-wing parties.” The era when embracing neoliberalism looked to be the right electoral strategy is now past.
On Labour’s debacle, journalist John Lanchester, in a post today on the LRB blog—in which he confesses that he did not see the result coming—writes
First-past-the-post is not especially fair, but it is supposed to deliver clear outcomes. In 2010, it didn’t. This time, against all expectations, it did. Lots more detail will come in over the next weeks as the data are analysed and the political scientists do their thing, but for me, a couple of things really stand out. If Labour had retained all of their 41 Scottish seats, the Tories would still be the majority government. So that must mean Labour got creamed in England, yes? Actually, no. Labour’s share of the vote in England went up by 3.6 per cent. That’s more than the Tories: their share of the English vote only went up by 1.4 per cent. Labour could even claim that they won the English campaign, in the same sense that the British army could claim it won the Charge of the Light Brigade.
So what did happen in England? The Tories smashed it in the marginals. In the battleground constituencies Labour were down on their 2010 performance by 0.7 per cent. Labour’s overall improvement in England was driven by success on their own turf: 3.5 per cent increase in the North East, 6 per cent in the North West. Where there was a genuine contest with the Tories, the Tories did better. People sometimes say that election campaigns don’t matter, but that is manifestly not the case this time. The Tories out-campaigned Labour in the places where they needed to.
Writing in The Telegraph, blogger Tim Stanley, who was apparently a Labour person in the recent past, says “No tears for Ed Miliband, please. He was the reason Labour lost.”
On first-past-the-post vs. proportional representation, LSE political scientists Jack Blumenau and Simon Hix had a pre-election post in Monkey Cage asking “What would Britain look like under Proportional Representation?”
That question today is neither here nor there but it nonetheless merits mention that, under straight PR—and with voters voting the way they did—the LD yesterday would have netted 50 seats (instead of 8), SNP 30 seats (and not 56), and UKIP a full 82 (as opposed to its measly one). The likely coalition outcome: the Tories with UKIP and the (very right-wing) Ulster Protestant DUP. Anyone still for PR?…
On the (trashy) British media coverage of the election campaign, which was flagrantly biased in favor of the Tories and against Labour, see journalist Peter Jukes’s piece, “The British press has lost it,” which has been the most read article on Politico.eu’s website today. The British press, as I wrote some four years ago, is terrible (and far worse than the American or French).
The main concern for me personally in this election—and the reason why I so wanted the Tories to lose—was David Cameron’s insane promise to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership in the EU, which, if it takes place—and it now will—will likely result in a vote for Brexit, the consequences of which will be calamitous for Europe—and for the UK as well, as a pro-EU Scotland will demand—and necessarily be granted—another referendum on independence, and which, this time, will succeed.
My idée reçue on this, however, may not be warranted. As Politico.eu’s Tunku Varadarajan argues, the decisive Tory victory now means that “Britain’s membership [in] the EU is safe”
The Tories have seen off the UKIP threat in the short-to-medium term. Their backers in the City of London and in industry would rather die than endure the calamity of ‘Brexit,’ and Cameron knows this. Cameron’s silence on the subject of the EU during the election campaign made it plain that his promise of a referendum was tactical. A referendum there will be, of course, but it will be one in which only UKIP campaigns for an abrogation of EU membership. Cameron’s pro-EU price in Brussels will be a promise by the European Council to renegotiate some treaty terms. It is unlikely that Brussels will refuse. If the prospect of Brexit is unbearable in the City of London, it is equally unbearable in Brussels.
On Cameron’s demand to renegotiate EU treaty terms, I’ve been assuming that such will be met by the European Council with a fin de non recevoir, but again, maybe I’m mistaken. Bernard Guetta, in a commentary on France Inter this morning, thinks it likely that Brussels will end up making the necessary concessions to keep the UK in the EU (and which will thereby allow for the formal creation of a two-speed Europe, as dreamed for by France; listen here).
As for Scotland, numerous journalists and pundits are certain that independence—a hypothesis I am totally hostile to, as I explained here last September—is only a matter of time, e.g. Ben Judah’s Politico.eu report last weekend from the campaign trail, datelined Edinburgh, in which he asserted “Make no mistake: It’s ‘bye-bye Britain.’” With yesterday’s SNP sweep, the sentiment that Scotland will quit the UK has only been reinforced. I’m not convinced. The SNP may have won a big victory but the impressive 30 point increase in its popular vote score, to 50% north of the border, merely aligns it, more or less, with its score in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections—and its result in last September’s referendum. And while every last voter who favors Scottish independence voted SNP yesterday, a small number of the latter’s voters no doubt remain unionists at heart. So pro-independence sentiment is not (yet) in the majority.
In point of fact, Scotland can only gain independence if the UK prime minister allows the organization of a referendum, and there is no reason for Cameron (or his successor) to do this in the absence of a game changing situation, which can only be a Brexit victory in the UK-wide EU vote. Moreover, if such a referendum for Scotland is eventually held, the rules imposed by London may be different from those last time, e.g. stipulating a super-majority (say, 55%) or allowing all persons born in Scotland, but residing elsewhere in the UK, the right to vote in it. So Scottish independence is not a done deal.
Also, the fact that the SNP will have the third largest group of deputies in the House of Commons also changes the game. The SNP’s participation in Westminster will significantly implicate it in national politics and likely temper its demands for a referendum on independence, particularly if a new federal or confederal arrangement is negotiated with London (if Cameron is going to make demands on Brussels for the UK to stay in the EU, it stands to reason that he will concede to Edinburgh to keep Scotland in the UK). So at the end of the day, the SNP may ultimately transform itself into a regional federalist party, as the PQ has, in effect, become in Quebec and the Lega Nord in Italy.
One good analysis I’ve read today on the election is University of Georgia professor Cas Mudde’s “A disunited kingdom,” in OpenDemocracy. The lede: “While the Conservative victory is remarkable, it is a mere incident in the fundamental transformation of British politics that is being played out in at least four important chapters. British politics is dead.”
The most gratifying result from the election was certainly the defeat of the unspeakable George Galloway, in his Bradford West constituency, and to a Pakistani-origin female Labour candidate. That warms the heart.
UPDATE: Author Richard Seymour—who is solidly on the left—has a good post-election analysis on the Jacobin website, “The end of Labour.” The lede: “Yesterday’s British election was about the collapse of the Labour Party — and where we go from here.”
2nd UPDATE: Cambridge University political theorist David Runciman has some interesting “Notes on the election” on the LRB blog.
3rd UPDATE: David Frum, the well-known conservative Canadian-American pundit—who is presently chairman of the UK think tank Policy Exchange—has a post-election commentary in The Atlantic worth linking to, in which he tells US Republicans “What [they] can learn from British Conservatives.” The lede: “Several of the world’s center-right parties have modernized in ways the GOP hasn’t.”
The conservative leaders Frum mentions are mainly in the Anglosphere: in addition to David Cameron, Canada’s Stephen Harper and Australia’s Tony Abbott. Now these latter two I find particularly unpalatable but Frum’s point—that the GOP could learn from them—is well-taken. E.g.
Center-right parties in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom have all made peace with government guarantees of healthcare for all. These conservatives do not abjectly defend the healthcare status quo; they attempt to open more space for competition and private initiative within the health sector. But they accept that universal health coverage in some form has joined old-age pensions and unemployment insurance in the armature of an advanced modern economy. In this, their American counterparts are the true outliers.
The difference between the American right and the rest may, I think, be summed up in one name: Ayn Rand. If her ideas have ever found a receptive audience elsewhere in the Anglosphere—or anywhere else in the world—I am not aware of it. As for the receptiveness to Ayn Rand in the US, this has ideological roots—e.g. in late 19th century Social Darwinism—but that’s a whole other discussion.
4th UPDATE: Peter Oborne, associate editor of The Spectator, has an opinion piece in Politico.eu on “The ruins of Labour,” in which he says that a return to Blairism is not the answer to Labour’s woes.
5th UPDATE: Peter Hall, the Krupp Foundation Professor of European Studies at Harvard University—who’s very smart; I’ve read and used his academic writings over the decades—has a piece in WaPo’s Monkey Cage on how “English voters were influenced by the politics of fear.”
In this vein, the post-election commentary by The Nation’s London bureau chief D.D. Gutterplan also asserted that “Fear wins big in Britain.”
And also in Monkey Cage is an instructive piece by Kieran Healy, associate professor of sociology at Duke University, on “What the runners-up tell us about Britain’s election.” Reading this, it seems pretty clear that the UK needs electoral reform, to replace FPTP with STV or some variant of PR.
6th UPDATE: John Prescott—former Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, former UK Deputy Prime Minister, and current Sunday Mirror columnist—argues that “Labour lost the election five years ago” and explains why. The reason: Ed Miliband and the Labour leadership failed to defend Labour’s past economic record.
7th UPDATE: Jim Messina, President Obama’s former deputy chief of staff and campaign manager, who was an adviser to the Tories and David Cameron’s campaign, has a piece in Politico Magazine (May 17th) on “Why the GOP can’t get no satisfaction.” The lede: “My British experience—including advice from Mick Jagger—taught me that the Republican Party could end up like Ed Miliband.” N.B. Messina’s piece is about the British election, not the GOP or American politics.
8th UPDATE: Stanley Greenberg, the CEO of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and pollster for the Labour Party (as well as the Zionist Camp in Israel during the last campaign there), explicates, in Politico.eu (May 17th), the reasons for the Tory victory, in which it is asserted that “Right-wing wins come at too high a price.” The lede: “I watched overseas as Britain and Israel’s leaders did long-term harm to their countries.”
9th UPDATE: Simon Wren-Lewis, who teaches economics at Oxford University, has a post on the election reblogged in Social Europe (May 18th), in which he puts Niall Ferguson and his “triumphalist Tory tosh” through the shredder.
10th UPDATE: Ross McKibbin, an emeritus research fellow at St John’s College, Oxford, has a lengthy piece in the June 4th issue of the LRB (posted online on May 21st) on “the Labour Party’s most recent demise.”
11th UPDATE: David Held, who teaches politics at Durham Univesity, has a column (May 22nd) in OpenDemocracy, in which he poses “10 questions for the Labour Party.”