London: We expected a landmark election but not quite like this. We thought it would signal the end of two-party politics in Britain and herald a new dawn – of continental style coalition politics. Instead, the Conservatives scored a surprising victory, added two dozen seats to their 2010 tally and will now form a majority government. And in the process, they decapitated all their opponents, from Lib Dems to Labour to UKIP – Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage have all resigned and have been replaced by women. Cameron is now truly the last man standing, with just 22% of the electorate voting Conservative (around 36% of those who voted, a slight increase since 2010). The Conservatives frightened Lib Dem and Labour voters with the spectre of a Miliband administration in the pockets of the SNP, and UKIP did the rest, leaving the Conservatives in prime position. They played the ‘fear’ card well.
Does this election teach us anything we didn’t already know? What are its implications for Britain, Europe and the wider world?
A kingdom increasingly divided. The Tory government’s writ hardly runs in Scotland where Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party won an unprecedented 56 of 59 seats, decimating Labour north of the border and ensuring the latter’s defeat. The SNP – running on an anti-austerity, anti-Trident nuclear submarine and anti-war programme – captured a stunning 50 seats more than in 2010. There’s only a single representative of each of the three main parties in Scotland now. The Conservatives and Labour are English parties with a toe-hold in Wales; Westminster no longer rules the hearts or minds of Scotland.
But even more than this, the election shows disillusionment with and distance from the politics of Westminster – a 66% turnout despite an apparently more open field than in any previous election. Votes for the SNP, UKIP and Greens are votes against the political establishment of an increasingly fragmented United Kingdom. The Green Party and UKIP, between them, garnered over 5 million votes but ended up with just 2 seats. Electoral reform is surely back on the agenda both better to reflect popular opinion and restore the credibility and representativeness of Parliament.
Cameron’s second term as premier is going to be tougher than the first. His backbenchers, who rebelled more frequently than at any time since World War II, want to cut the budget deficit while handing out tax cuts. Conservative Eurosceptics, like John Redwood, want a referendum on EU membership as soon as possible, something Cameron promised to hold by the end of 2017. And he has no moderating Lib Dems in a coalition to assist him. Scottish nationalism has been boosted and will likely lead to demands for another referendum on independence unless Cameron quickly delivers ‘Devo [lution] Max [imum]’ – full fiscal autonomy.
War on the poor and vulnerable
Leaked Conservative Party planning documents during the election campaign suggested Tories are planning £12 billion of government spending cuts while promising an additional £8 billion every year for the National Health Service (NHS). Having already imposed savage cuts on welfare and disability benefits since 2010, somewhat tempered by the Lib Dems, the war on the vulnerable in British society may now be waged without restraint. Between 2010-2014, public sector spending cuts led to job losses of around 900,000, mainly in the north of England where the Labour vote is strongest. Across the country, one million people use food banks for basics such as baby food. The social security budget was hit with a cut of up to £25 billion – affecting children, working parents and the disabled. It is unsurprising that shoplifting of food has gone up, according to the police. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, if current government policies persist, the number of children living below the poverty line is due to rise by over a million to 4.7 million by 2020. Already noted by the OECD as one of the most unequal societies in the West, the new Tory government is set to preside over even greater social polarisation.
The pressure on the Cameron government to fight hard to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU opens up the risk of losing its most important trading partner. The rise of anti-EU nationalism across Europe, of which UKIP is symptomatic, threatens the European project. All of the main parties campaigned on the issue of curbing EU immigration. This has sharpened nationalism in the UK too – handing Scotland to the SNP and 13% of all votes cast to UKIP. Ultimately, however, Britain is a core member of the EU and central to the project: it is highly unlikely to withdraw. But the uncertainty and instability caused by such a controversial and emotional issue undermines Britain’s position in Europe and the world and, more significantly, distracts the government from major issues at home, especially the re-building of Britain’s infrastructure and constructing millions of affordable new houses in and around the biggest cities where demand is greatest. This is also central to the growth in productivity that the Conservatives claim is essential to reversing spending cuts by 2018.
Foreign policy does not shift quickly and Britain’s is unlikely to change appreciably, despite claims of the death of the ‘special relationship’ with the United States. Britain, notwithstanding cuts to military spending, remains the US’s most willing partner in military interventions in the Middle East and Africa. Cameron was, with French president Nicolas Sarkozy, the initial and enthusiastic champion of military strikes and regime change, under cover of humanitarian intervention, in Libya, now a failed state, a third of whose population has abandoned the country as ISIS takes root. Britain supports Saudi suppression of Bahraini uprisings against oppression and is now building a naval base there next door to the US 5th fleet. The illegal Saudi bombing of Yemen has been conducted with US and British logistical support. The City of London remains a global financial centre, Britain still has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and is at the heart of an increasingly global NATO. Its imperial mindset, despite decolonisation, has yet to disappear.
Inderjeet Parmar is a professor of political science at City University, London.