Friday, 8 May 2015

British election result: Decisively indecisive

So the British election is over, and it has turned out to be rather different to what the polls predicted, with a majority Conservative government having been elected. At first sight, it’s a return to business as usual – one of the two main parties forms the government. At second sight, things look much more complex and unstable.

For one thing, this will be a UK government which is really only supported in England. In particular, the fact that the SNP won almost all of the Scottish seats has radically changed the political landscape, and can only make it more likely that there will be pressure for second referendum on Scottish independence. But Wales and Northern Ireland, too, have not supported the Conservatives in number, yet will have a Conservative government. That may well place limits on what is seen to be legitimate.

On the other hand, the fate of the predominantly English UK Independence Party (UKIP) was notable. Despite being given unprecedented media coverage after the broadcasting regulator declared that they were to be treated as a major party, their claims to be a People’s Army on the move have been eviscerated. They got 13% of the vote and just one MP. Sure, this reflects the unfair nature of the First Past the Post voting system in the UK but they knew about that all along, and still made grandiose predictions. This looks, for the time being anyway, to be the end of the UKIP surge.

The failure of the Labour Party is truly historic, mainly because they have lost their traditional Scottish heartland to the SNP, whilst also losing out in England. The Scottish situation is really the final consequence of the New Labour project, which presumed that it could move the party to the right in order to garner English marginal votes and automatically hang on to its core vote. This election finally saw that idea fall apart. Labour had actually moved a tiny way to the Left but still lost Scotland, and additionally alienated the old Labour North and the floating south of England. They just about held on in Wales. It’s very hard to see where Labour go now. Returning to a New Labour approach certainly won’t bring Scotland back to them. Going further to the Left won’t give them gains in the south of England.

Yet it could be argued that this was a good election for Labour to lose: had they, as the polls up to the election suggested, formed a minority government with SNP support then it would have been a torrid experience, beset by accusations of illegitimacy. Equally, Conservative joy may dissipate when the problems of managing a small majority with a large number of MPs hostile to their leader and willing to vote against their party become clear.

But by far the biggest consequence of this election result – and it matters quite as much for Europe and beyond as for Britain – is that it is certain that there will be a referendum on EU membership. That will split the Tory party and possibly rejuvenate the Labour Party (it’s notable that they are strongest in cosmopolitan London where UKIP are weakest) as a pro-EU party. It will exacerbate the division between England and Scotland. It’s not impossible to imagine a complete re-alignment of British politics via the EU Referendum, rather as has happened in Scotland in the wake of the independence referendum. At the very least, it will make for some new alliances: the City and big business and Labour and the SNP and centrist Tories versus UKIP, Tory Eurosceptics, Irish Unionists and the far Left. We are in for interesting and unpredictable times.

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