Thursday election in Great Britain will be a fascinating case study on multiple levels.
Can an incumbent party survive a record of austerity?
How can a party recover from past failures on the economy?
Can the left side of the ideological spectrum come to agreement on how to best spark change?
How can a party contain anti-immigrant backlash?
Is a centrist party needed to hold a polarized country together?
And is a multiparty system better for democracy than a two-party system?
This is another way of saying: if you’re not following the British elections, you should. So if you’re tuning in late, let’s get caught up.
The short story is: the ruling Conservatives are in a dead heat with the Labour Party. Neither is expected to win an outright majority of parliamentary seats, requiring some sort of agreement with smaller parties in order to rule.
The Conservatives currently govern in an ideologically awkward coalition with its junior partner, the Liberal Democrats, and could do so again. But the Conservative vote is being held down by the anti-immigrant, anti-European Union right-wing UK Independence Party. UKIP is not expected to win many seats, but even in its best-case scenario the Conservatives will need every possible seat in order to govern. The pro-EU Lib Dems would work with the Conservatives again, but probably not if UKIP was around.
For Labour to govern, it could try lure the Lib Dems away from the Conservatives. But the Lib Dems are sure to lose their third-place status to the rising Scottish National Party, which is fervently left-wing but, more controversially, pro-Scottish independence. Labour has ruled out a formal partnership with the SNP, but likely would need their votes in some fashion to take charge.
How did Great Britain find itself in this multiparty mess?
First, some background. Let’s rewind to the last two elections.
How Labour Turned Rightward, And Collapsed
In America, the ruling Republican Party collapsed in the 2006 midterm and 2008 general elections, as voters punished it for the Iraq War debacle and the global financial market crash.
In Great Britain, these disasters happened on the left-of-center Labour Party’s watch. Labour backed the war and Labour deregulated the banks.
In its 2005 election, Iraq was going badly enough to depress Labour’s vote share. But it primarily lost votes to the smaller Liberal Democrats, which had opposed the war, and not to the Conservatives.
All politics is local in the UK. Voters only cast ballot for their local representatives in Parliament; there’s no national vote for prime minister. And like most federal American elections, British candidates don’t need a majority to win; a plurality is enough. So in 2005, the Liberal Democrats cut into Labour enough to help Conservatives win more seats. But Labour still won a majority of seats with only 35 percent of the vote.
But by 2010, the market crash tanked the economy and deficits exploded. Labour engaged in some Keynesian stimulus at first, but towards the end of its final term, set in place an austerity plan, including spending cuts and a tax hike on the wealthy.
The economy had not recovered by Election Day, and Labour paid dearly. Their vote share dropped to 29 percent, with Conservatives picking up most of the lost vote and winning the most seats. (The Liberal Democrats also grabbed some of Labour’s vote, yet lost a few seats.)
However, the Conservatives still only won 36 percent of the vote, which did not translate into a majority of parliamentary seats. The party with the third-most seats, the Liberal Democrats – then seen as to the left of Labour – could have blocked Conservative leader David Cameron from claiming the Prime Minister post. They could have helped Labour cobble together a majority coalition with other smaller leftist parties.
Instead, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg made a fateful decision, trying to put a shiv into Labour and forging an ideological-hybrid government with the Conservatives.
While that move roiled the Lib Dem rank-and-file, Labour made its own fateful decision soon after the 2010 defeat, electing Ed Miliband to be its next leader in a nail-biter over his own brother David.
David Miliband was associated with former Prime Minister Tony Blair and the right-leaning “New Labour” camp. Ed argued Labour needed to win over Liberal Democrat voters unhappy with Clegg’s decision to partner with Cameron, and make a break from the failures of New Labour. Ed won the day.
But Cameron still had five years to prove himself.
How The Conservatives Are Selling Austerity
As any faithful reader of Paul Krugman knows, the Conservatives ignored the lessons of Keynes and immediately embarked on an austerity program, deeper than the outgoing Labour government’s plan, ostensibly to combat the recession.
There are two notable aspects of the Conservative program.
First, Cameron raised taxes and fees on the middle class along with his cuts to public services and social security benefits. The “value-added tax” on most goods and services went up from 17.5 percent to 20 percent. The near tripling of tuition fees sparked student riots. Welfare recipients were charged if they lived in residences with unoccupied bedrooms, a reform designed to force the poor into smaller homes, but – in a rhetorical move that would make American conservatives envious – skewered by Labour as a “bedroom tax.”
Though Cameron did not target the wealthy with his tax increases. Instead, he rolled back Labour’s top tax rate from 50 percent to 45 percent.
Second, the Conservatives eased up on the austerity after its first two years in office. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies explains, after 2012, “[t]he coalition government decided not to increase the fiscal tightening planned for this parliament but to extend the period of consolidation into the next. Consequently, the coalition government has borrowed more than planned over this parliament.”
With less austerity, economic growth improved. As Krugman recently explained in The Guardian, “A return to growth after austerity has been put on hold is not at all surprising. As I pointed out recently: ‘If this counts as a policy success, why not try repeatedly hitting yourself in the face for a few minutes? After all, it will feel great when you stop.’”
Ignoring Krugman, the Conservatives are running on the slogan, “It’s Working.” That’s the message of their final TV ad.
And they are pledging to amp up the austerity if they win, pushing aside the old justification that the cuts were an emergency anti-recession measure. The Conservatives have proposed cutting spending to levels not seen since the 1930s, eliminating 1 million public sector jobs by 2020.
Complicating the Conservative argument that the cuts deserve the credit for the improved economy, is that growth has tapered off considerably in the last quarter, falling to near 0 percent.
That weak economic performance is holding down not just the Conservatives, but also their “liberal” partners in the governing coalition.
How the Liberal Democrats Turned Rightward, And Collapsed
As noted above, the Conservatives only were able to claim the Prime Minister post in 2010 with the help of the Liberal Democrats. Since then, the Conservative austerity policies have horrified the left, and the Liberal Democrats have hemorrhaged support. In 2010, the Lib Dems won 23 percent of the vote. Now they poll around 10 percent or worse and are projected to lose half of the their seats.
It’s not just that Clegg has been tagged with being Cameron’s wingman. It’s that he has deliberately tried to reposition his party to occupy a mushy middle. Exhibit A is this Lib Dem election ad, depicting a driver who risks getting hit by traffic if she turns left or right.
The car radio announcer says, “You don’t want to hit by Labour debt,” as a car speeds from the left, and “you don’t want to hit by Tory cuts” in health and education, as another comes from the right. “Look left, then right, then cross.”
This message has fallen flat. Clegg has tried to argue that the Lib Dems softened Conservative cuts and helped get the economy moving. But Miliband has hammered Clegg for breaking a promise and agreeing to the higher tuition fees. Clegg has even left the door open for another hike – undermining his credibility as a constructive force from the left.
Clegg won’t just rule out another partnership with the Conservatives. He sometimes sounds more partial to a second Conservative-led coalition, saying “the party that gets the most votes” should be given “the space and the time to try and settle a government.” If the Conservatives win a plurality again, Clegg is signaling he won’t quickly abandon Cameron even if there is a clear majority of parties that oppose Conservative austerity policies.
This two-step, dancing with Conservatives while trying to maintain some distance, has angered Lib Dem voters. During BBC’s “Question Time” televised town hall last week, Clegg was harangued by a Lib Dem voter: “… you could have made a different choice, and that’s why people don’t trust you. People like me that voted for you in that election did not vote Liberal Democrat to put Cameron in Number 10 … Accept responsibility.”
By spurning “New Labour” and wooing Lib Dem voters, Ed Miliband bet correctly. Approximately one-third of the Lib Dem vote as shifted to Labour, a boost that may help Labour swipe more than three-dozen seats from the Conservatives on Thursday.
But is the left unified around Labour to oust the Conservatives? Far from it.
Labour Squeezed On Spending, From Left…
One on hand, Ed Miliband has redefined Labour as firmly on the left. He renounced bank deregulation. He slams Cameron for the “stealth privatisation” of the government-run National Health Service. He assails the “bedroom tax” and promises to install a “mansion tax” – a property tax on homes worth at least £2 million. He has pledged that any coalition government that Labour joins must support abolishing non-domicile or “non-dom” status, a tax loophole that allows wealthy citizens to get a huge tax break by claiming their true home is another country, even if they still reside in the UK.
On the other hand, he still promises to “cut the deficit every year”, saying of his party’s manifesto, “every policy in this manifesto is paid for without a single penny of extra borrowing. The plan we lay before you is no less ambitious because we live in a time of scarcity.”
That message has made him vulnerable on his left flank. One of most viral videos of the election cycle is this wickedly funny “boy band” spoof music video from the Green Party, depicting Miliband as indistinguishable from the other austerity-loving party leaders.
But where Labour has bled left-wing support is in Scotland.
Labour may take nearly 40 Conservative seats, but it may lose all 41 of its Scottish seats to the leftist, pro-independence Scottish National Party.
The SNP currently holds only six of the province’s 59 seats, and suffered a defeat last year when Scots voted against declaring independence in a referendum. But SNP is capitalizing on stronger Scottish support for fiscal autonomy on top of dissatisfaction with Miliband's relative moderateness.
This extremely Scottish SNP ad – “Galluss as hell on occasion. No apologies.” – captures the sentiment: “I remember when Labour used to stand up to the Tories. That's just not happening anymore.”
The SNP may not only wipe out Labour from its long-held Scottish stronghold. It may also take all 11 of the Lib Dem seats too.
That means while the SNP surge makes it impossible for Labour to win an outright majority of seats, it also severely damages the Conservative hope of re-forming its alliance with the Lib Dems.
In other words, the anti-austerity SNP, despite only polling at 3 percent nationally, is the likely kingmaker after Election Day.
And fortunately for Labour, the SNP’s leader, Nicola Sturgeon – not wanting to replicate the Lib Dem experience – has pledged to “never put the Tories into government. Not now. Not ever.”
But there is a downside to the rise of the SNP. The Conservatives are using the prospect of a Labour-SNP alliance to argue that a vote for Labour is a vote to break up the country, and a vote for more taxes, spending and borrowing.
Images of Miliband as the SNP’s puppet are rampant, like in this web video.
To repel the Conservative attack, Miliband has sworn off any formal alliance with the SNP, including any minister posts. (With the SNP’s pledge to never ally with the Conservatives, they lost any leverage to demand posts from Miliband.) But an informal “vote-by-vote” arrangement is still possible.
The SNP is not the only reason why Miliband is squeezed from the right on spending and borrowing. Miliband is constantly on the defensive for the high deficits that Labour left the Conservatives in 2010.
A favorite prop of Cameron’s is a pithy handwritten letter that the outgoing Labour Treasury Secretary left his successor: “I’m afraid there is no money.” He holds it up in the second-half of the Conservative’s final TV ad, seen above. (The letter was an ill-advised joke, as obviously, a deficit doesn’t mean there is literally no money.)
Miliband was booed by the town hall audience in his “Question Time” appearance when he insisted Labour did not overspend in its last government. He gamely made the Keynesian argument that the high deficits were the result of the market crash, and not the other way around, while touting the schools and hospitals that were built by Labour investments. "It's absolutely ludicrous, you're frankly just lying" said one voter in response. The BBC moderator added that the high deficits from the past Labour government were a "millstone around your neck."
Miliband was also harangued by a BBC interviewer for not admitting that the Labour plan would borrow more than the Conservative plan. Miliband parried by saying he didn’t believe the Conservative plan would cut the deficit as advertised, and for good measure, distanced himself from the SNP position opposing all cuts.
So you can see why it’s not so easy for Miliband to embrace a super-charged Keynesian program, despite the disgruntlement with Conservative austerity that put the SNP in the driver’s seat. Much of the public still blames Labour for the economic crisis, and associates high deficits with that crisis.
Miliband has tried to reckon with Labour’s past failures by disavowing bank deregulation – an act of responsibility that the Republican Party in America has yet to do. But Miliband has still been forced to walk a political tightrope when it comes to spending.
Some evidence that Miliband has successfully navigated the tightrope came from left-wing activist and comedian Russell Brand. He previously had urged his fellow citizens not to vote, and instead agitate for “revolution.” But last week, after interviewing Miliband and discussing how grassroots activism can prod incremental change from within the political system, he reversed himself. He gave implicit support for the SNP in Scotland, and praised the lone Green in Parliament. But otherwise, he pleaded for his fans to back Labour and accept the constraints of political realism:
I know I've been “Mr. Don't Vote” ... [but] you’ve got to vote Labour. You’ve got to get the Conservative Party out of government ... so that we can begin community-led activism, so we can be heard ... there's loads of things I could moan about [but] I think this bloke will listen to us.
Conservatives Squeezed From The Right, Too
Labour isn’t the only party losing support from its ideological base. As mentioned at the top, the Conservatives have suffered erosion from its right flank thanks to the anti-immigrant, anti-EU UKIP. The right-wing party is polling around 15 percent. Like the Greens, and unlike the SNP its support is diffuse around the country, not concentrated where it could win seats. It will probably end up with about two.
But the UKIP is holding down the Conservative vote, contributing to the likely loss of nearly 40 seats to Labour.
Why can’t the Conservatives hold on to the right wing? Because Cameron pledged in 2010 he would cut net immigration to the “tens of thousands,” and instead it shot up last year to nearly 300,000.
The raw immigration politics have tugged on Miliband. He mocks Cameron’s failed quantifiable pledge, and uses it as cause to refuse making his own. But to avoid losing swing seats to the Conservatives, Miliband offers a mixed message. He stresses that he is a “son of two refugees” who “will never do anything to denigrate or demean” immigrants. He proposes a crackdown on exploitation of migrants, along with temporary denial of benefits to immigrants. Labour tea mugs with the slogan “Control Immigration” have upset fellow party members.
Why American Liberals (and Conservatives) Should Pay Attention
For American liberals, the Thursday election may well bring much satisfaction.
Most seat projections indicate that it will be impossible for the Conservatives and its potential allies to win enough seats for Cameron to return as Prime Minister, even though the Conservatives may still be “first past the post” with a plurality of seats. That would likely put Miliband in charge, with the help of the SNP, or if Labour performs much better than expected, maybe just with the Lib Dems. Another possibility is a Miliband-led “unity government” that includes members of all parties including some Conservatives, leading to a constitutional convention and a new election in two years.
Any of those scenarios would be punishment for the Conservatives’ austerity program and, perhaps to a lesser degree, for the Lib Dems attempt at creating an ideologically adrift “centrist” party.
Labour appears to soon be rewarded for returning to its roots, instead of trying to return to power by aping the Conservatives. The British left is still divided like it was five years ago, when it allowed a multi-party system to let the Conservative minority take charge. But this time, similar to how American leftists recoiled from Ralph Nader after 2000, leftists seem more prepared to work with the relatively moderate Labour, whether or not they vote for it.
Stronger convictions from the establishment center-left, along with more realism from the activist left, appears to be a power combination.
But yet, much like their counterparts in America, the left side of Britain remains bedeviled by how to sell more spending. Regulate the banks? Sure. Fairer taxes? Easy. Cut my costs? Absolutely. But spend my money? Hold on a second.
Meanwhile, American conservatives should ponder the mess Cameron put himself in. By forcing a severe austerity program, the Conservatives failed to win new supporters, while putting its more liberal junior partner in an untenable position. And by pandering on immigration in 2010, Cameron set up false expectations that came back to haunt him five years later. A stronger economy, with less austerity, is a better path to tamping down an anti-immigrant fervor.
If conservatives in the UK, and the U.S., scaled back their tiny government dreams and got religion on immigration, they may be a far more formidable force.