Friday, May 8, 2015

Fear and Loathing Update: It Worked!

The failure of the polling before yesterday's election has left many commentators with egg on their faces, and what I wrote the other day looks totally wide of the mark. But here's what I make of the results, benefiting from the fact that we now know what they are.

Scotland, as expected, has kicked Labour out and the Scottish Nationalists have swept the board, failing to take only three of 59 seats. This is a pretty clear mandate for further devolution, and potentially even another independence referendum, in Scotland. As it turned out, the supposed legitimacy of an SNP-backed government in Westminster will not be tested, for now at least. But unless something changes dramatically the UK political system now contains two territories - Northern Ireland being the other - where the main governing parties are to all intents and purposes not represented. The legitimacy question will, obviously enough, not be raised by the London-based media, but it is worth pointing out that the new government's 331-seat majority consists of 319 English seats, 11 in Wales and just one in Scotland. Labour's Scottish meltdown means there is no longer a party with significant representation throughout Great Britain. Scotland's days in the Union look numbered unless some significant constitutional change happens.

Whether or not Scotland can remain inside depends on the degree to which the Conservatives prioritise preserving the Union over short-term political gains, and the way in which Scotland's place in the UK interacts with our difficult relationship with the European Union. The temptation must be for the Conservatives to allow Scotland's relationship with England to break down, hastening independence, because this would consolidate the dominance of England, and of its most successful party, over the government of the UK. Certainly, Labour's losses in Scotland mitigate this a little, suggesting the Tories can continue winning even though they have few Scottish votes. But Scotland's predictable hostility to the idea of leaving the EU changes the calculations somewhat. Hardline Euroskeptic backbenchers could see the loss of Scotland as a price worth paying to achieve their main goal of Brexit. Cameron's aim would appear to be to keep the Union and remain inside the EU, but it is not clear whether he has the authority in his party, with its slim majority, to hold off the Euroskeptic challenge.

Although we have returned, just, to the customary single-party majority, British politics is still a long way from the two-party alternation that characterised it for so long. The Greens and UKIP between them took over five million votes, close to a sixth of the total vote, confirming, in case there were any doubt, that Britain no longer has a two-party system. Yet these five million votes produced just two parliamentary seats. Electoral reform would appear irresistible given such gross disproportionality, yet the British electorate, even those who supported the under-represented parties, show little enthusiasm for reform. Indeed, the referendum on adopting the Alternative Vote for Westminster elections, held in 2011 as part of the coalition agreement between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, delivered an unambiguous rejection of change. But there is little doubt that voter fragmentation makes the UK's traditional First-Past-the Post arrangement dysfunctional, as the election of a government on not much that more than a third of the vote demonstrates.

Finally, the election has huge implications for the British political economy. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition chose to adopt a strict and demanding timetable for deficit reduction, with major cuts in important areas of the welfare state in a bid to bring the UK's public debt under control as quickly as possible. In fact, as many predicted, this effort failed, with the deficit remaining stubbornly high even though the economy began to grow again by the second half of the parliament. Yet despite this failure and the total lack of productivity growth over the past five years, the Conservatives campaigned, and won, on a message of economic competence. Labour, in contrast, with its clear albeit timid critique of austerity and rising poverty, suffered a major defeat, gaining little compared with its historically weak performance of 2010. This suggests that austerity, for all its obvious limitations as an economic strategy, is not necessarily an impediment to ruling parties retaining power. However the growth in the vote for parties which in one way or another set themselves up as alternatives to mainstream parties - the Greens, UKIP and the SNP most notably - enjoyed major success. So we can conclude that austerity may be more sustainable politically than suspected, but it does not comes without costs in political stability. The effects of the financial crisis of the late 2000s continue to be felt, and politics seems to have entered a new and quite different era.