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Britain's election highlights the instability of its political system

- May 9, 2015

British Labor Party leader Ed Miliband holds up his hands as he delivers his resignation at a news conference in Westminster, London, on Friday. (Tim Ireland/AP)
The BBC’s Nick Robinson described the outcome of the British elections by saying Conservative leader David Cameron  “defied all those – including at times himself – who doubted that he could ever increase his party’s support.” This is in part journalistic hyperbole. The extraordinary boost in popular mandate has been just 1.5 percent of the popular vote. A gain of this size, achieved largely by eviscerating the support of your coalition government partners, reflects political skill, and is unexpected given the previous run of polls, but it is not in any way historic. The Conservatives averaged 44 percent of the vote in all British elections in the 20th century, and under Cameron they are nowhere near that still.
Cameron will return to the prime minister’s residence for a maximum stay of three years. If he sticks to his promise not to contest the 2020 election as Tory leader, he must step down by mid 2018 at the latest to allow his successor the opportunity to establish himself before the next election. In the interim, the government will have to face some tough challenges with a newly fragile majority. The constitutional turbulence that perhaps induced 2 percent of English voters to switch, at the last minute, to a ‘safety first’ vote for Cameron, shows no signs of going away.
The so-called Brexit (or ‘British exit’) referendum on whether Britain should stay in the European Union or leave now looms for summer 2016. The previous idea — to delay the referendum until 2017, to give Cameron time to get some concessions from other E.U. countries that would help get a yes vote — threatened to create uncertainty that would damage the British economy and inward investment for too long a period to be practical. So it will happen in 2016, even though in May that year there will also be a potentially epoch-making Scottish Parliament election.
The real history-makers of the 2015 general election are the SNP (Scottish National Party) leadership of Alex Salmond (until last year) and Nicola Sturgeon, since. They have made an astonishing achievement in jumping to over half of all Scottish votes, and from 6 Westminster MPs to 56. We can expect that in May 2016 there is a very fair chance indeed that a majority of voters for the Scottish Parliament will still back the SNP, so that even under Scotland’s proportional representation elections, the SNP will govern Scotland until 2020 with a large majority. In this context, any vote for a British exit from the E.U. is likely to trigger another secession referendum in Scotland as early as 2017.
Perhaps Cameron will manage these huge threats by successfully persuading English voters once again to take the “safety first” option of staying in the E.U. He would then have set himself up to retire as savior of Britain’s link to Europe, and perhaps even of the United Kingdom’s union, too. Even previously skeptical Tories can be heard muttering that a proper constitutional settlement that would bring Britain closer to a federal system could be achieved. Such a settlement would incorporate an EVEL (English votes for English laws) solution that would devolve some powers to England, alongside some hardwired protections for Scotland. But given the Conservative’s historic resistance to constitutional change the odds instead favor them trying to muddle through.
Turning to the other English parties, the Liberal Democrat’s thin, sketchy and whiney manifesto – full of complaints that the big boys ruined their plans for constitutional reform – might well qualify as the shortest suicide note in history. Liberal leader Nick Clegg kept promising in the closing days of the campaign that the Liberal Democrats’ performance would be “the real surprise” of the campaign – and so indeed it it turned out to be. The party’s support slumped from nearly 1 voter in 4 in 2010 to just 1 in 12, and in more than 60 English seats the Greens beat them into fourth place. Clegg kept his seat, but has been forced to resign as party leader.
As the 2011 referendum campaign on voting reform showed, and the history of the Liberal party proved in the 1918-39 period, you can only go into coalitions with the Conservatives at the risk of losing your soul. Clegg’s amazing decision to extend the Fixed Term for Parliament to 5 years was the only enduring achievement of his period as Deputy Premier, and a very nice parting gift it is for Cameron and his successor. Clegg has resigned, but the Liberal Democrats now face an existential crisis, from which it is hard to see them recovering any time soon, especially as Green voting begins (slowly) to solidify at local level.
It was said of the late Bourbon dynasty monarchs in France that despite living through the French revolutionary and Bonapartist periods, they had “learnt nothing and forgotten nothing.” This seems an apt characterization for a Labor party leadership that has had more than two decades to face up to the inevitability of constitutional change in Britain, and repeatedly refused to do so (apart from a brief period from 1997 to 1999). Ed Miliband has resigned as leader, but it is not clear that his successor will do any better.
A whole generation now of political analysts and reformers have pointed out to Labor that the Britain’s current voting system of “first past the post” becomes incredibly unstable when you have multiple parties, and that Labor’s best bet is to change to proportional representation before it gets overtaken. The wipeout of Labor’s Scottish MPs dramatically highlights this point,and it will now be very hard for the party to undo. Scotland was long a ‘dominant party system,’ where Labor reaped outsized rewards, but now looks like it has become one for the SNP.
Similarly I have lost count of the times that Labor leaders have nodded skeptically through the arguments that devolution for Scotland and Wales alone was unstable; that a written constitution is needed to restabilize the UK; that House of Lords reform was a century overdue; that the only way for Labor to win was to have genuinely popular leaders and reasonably distinctive policies; and that the party needed a far healthier relationship with its supporters.
The Labor elites have nodded their heads politely, but gone on to argue that voters care little for such things – it’s the ‘bread and butter’ issues of the economy and the NHS that matter, not political and constitutional reform. Ed Miliband’s whole leadership style was premised on the tactical exploitation of this and that narrow issue, on scraping back to power in a multi-party world without ever trying to resolve the larger issues or achieve genuinely popular policies that might compromise a future Labor government’s grip on the levers of power. Even in the post-referendum dealings with Scotland, Labor’s proposals for devolution of power were always as few and as mean as possible.
And yet what in the end kept Labor’s growth in 2015 votes so dismal, despite Cameron’s economic policies and the erosion of the NHS? Overwhelmingly it was the collapse of the Liberal Democrats to the Tories and to UKIP (foreseeable under the current system of ‘first past the post’ voting), and a late ‘safety first’ reaction against the potential ungovernability that Labor’s cumulative constitutional inaction has now induced. The set of issues that seemed so ‘unimportant on the doorstep’ apparently proved very important indeed for voters in the polling booths. Even though Miliband is gone, it is not yet clear that any potential successor has really escaped the mindset of Labor’s last fifteen years.
Across Europe almost all countries have five or six main parties, and Britain now is no exception. UKIP’s failure to break through in Westminster, and the departure of Nigel Farage as leader, will set the party back a bit, just as some other populists in Europe have also faltered. Nonetheless, the UKIP has made history by boosting their support from 3 to 12 percent nationally. An early Brexit referendum will give them an immediate focus to bounce back – and one that could well boost their party’s organizational potential, as the Scottish referendum campaign so clearly did for the SNP. But now that Farrage has gone, UKIP’s next leadership choice will be crucial.
In the longer term, UKIP’s future partly depends on the choices of other parties. If Cameron buries Brtain’s exit from the E.U. as he hopes to, by allowing a 2016 Brexit vote, the UKIP may not fade away. Its anti-immigration (and anti-foreigner) vein will still work for it, along with a push for social conservatism. Much will also depend on whether the Tories chose Boris Johnson, or Theresa May, or someone else to succeed Cameron by 2018. Only Johnson has any realistic change of winning back the UKIP voters for a once-again hegemonic Conservative party on something like 40 per cent support – a difficult feat indeed after a decade for the Tories in power. Yet Tory members may not want to recognize that and could still misstep, as they have so often since Margaret Thatcher.
Finally, the Greens are still the ‘battlers’ of British politics, with none of the panache yet of some of their European counterparts. However, the party’s roots are growing beneath the topsoil. So if Labor continues to be paralyzed by the political change that has happened, while evading the challenges of properly responding to it, the Greens look certain to grow as a threat on the left. They may also sweep up support from left Liberal Democrats if that party cannot revive.
The combined Conservative plus Labor share of the vote remains stuck at 67 percent, so there is no revival of the two party system in prospect, even in England. Instead an increasingly fragile British state will lumber on with no clear strategy for achieving stabilization, its constitution unwritten, its unity impaired, and its public services in visible decay. Public sector staff now face acutely declining living standards, and the Britain’s tax base is eroding as the two main parties combine to maintain the con that you can have European-standard public services on American-level taxes. Here, too, the 2015 election breaks no trend.
Patrick Dunleavy is a professor of political science and public policy at the London School of Economics