The Hindu: Britain on a Political Knife-Edge, published 10 Feb 2015
FOR THE HINDU (as submitted)
BRITAIN ON A POLITICAL KNIFE-EDGE =Andrew Whitehead=
There’s a new wind blowing in British politics, and no one is sure where it will lead. In under three months, a general election is likely to confirm the rise of relatively new political forces and see an ebbing of support for the established parties. Pollsters and commentators sense the most interesting election of their lifetime.
In one important aspect, British politics has remained unaltered for almost a century. Labour and Conservative remain the only parties with any prospect of providing a Prime Minister. That won’t change after voting on May 7th. Indeed these two parties are likely to win more than 85% of the seats in the House of Commons, which has broadly the same constituency-based, first-past-the-post electoral system as India.
But take another look, and there has been a fundamental shift in political loyalties. The two main parties will probably gain under two-thirds of the total vote. The third national party, the centre-ground Liberal Democrats – junior partners in David Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition – are in freefall, having traded election pledges for a place in government. They could lose half or more of their MPs.
The gainers will be smaller parties which have never been part of a UK-wide government. Opinion polls suggest that more than a quarter of those voting will support these parties – double the figure in the 2010 election. [Whether this is a permanent shift, a move towards more fluid multi-party politics, is not clear. But this unprecedented fracturing of support makes the election outcome very difficult to predict.]
If there’s one thing the pollsters agree on, it is that once again, the coming election is unlikely to lead to a single party having a Parliamentary majority. The likelihood is that Britain faces further coalition government, or even perhaps a minority government with all the political instability that portends.
Why have political sympathies changed so dramatically? In part it’s the ‘none of the above’ factor – a slump in trust in Westminster politicians and parties. That’s been spurred by a decline in living standards which is only now starting to reverse. If you feel poorer, politicians usually get the blame.
It’s also a legacy of a scandal about MPs’ expenses six years ago. In most cases the amounts of money involved were – in comparison to Indian corruption scandals – distinctly modest. But the perception that politicians were bending the rules to line their own pockets has stuck.
There’s more to it, though. Three political parties which have never been part of a London-based government are making remarkable headway.
The upheaval is greatest in Scotland in the wake of last year’s independence referendum. A Scottish Labour MP told me before the vote that he thought the pro-independence nationalists would lose the referendum but win the wider political contest. That’s just what has happened.
Voters said no to an independent Scotland – though by a narrower margin than expected – but it’s the Scottish National Party (SNP), which controls the devolved Scottish government, that has soared in support ever since. The three main nationwide parties, all opposed to Scotland breaking away, agreed on greater powers for Scotland in a stop-gap attempt to stem support for independence. But the impression that these parties are now manouvering simply for political advantage has spurred on the nationalists.
The SNP could for the first time win most of the Scottish seats in the Commons. That would be a body blow to Labour, which currently has by far the greater number of Scottish MPs. Labour has other problems too – its leader, Ed Miliband, is clever but often comes across as awkward. The public has not warmed to him.
Labour is also losing support on another flank – the environmentalist Green party is harvesting support among the young. The Greens may well emerge from the election with just the solitary MP they currently have – but they will blunt what’s likely to be a modest overall swing from the Conservatives to Labour.
The real joker in the pack is UKIP (the UK Independence Party), a right-wing populist party which recently won its first Parliamentary by-elections and is polling up to, and above, 15%. The party has exploited concern about mass immigration, particularly from eastern Europe, and campaigns for withdrawal from the European Union. Its leader, Nigel Farage, is a cheerful, beer-mug-in-hand, extrovert who has struck a chord with those who feel politically marginalised.
UKIP’s support comes disproportionately from former Conservatives, and so under David Cameron’s leadership, the Conservative party has responded by taking a harder line on immigration and insisting on a renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the European Union to be followed by an ‘in/out’ referendum. Business leaders want Britain to stay in the EU, and that’s probably what most Conservative leaders would like too, but the anti-EU lobby is getting louder.
Of the major party leaders, David Cameron appears the most comfortable in the political limelight – but when all three most prominent Conservatives (the others are finance minister George Osborne and the nakedly ambitious mayor of London, Boris Johnson) attended the same elite school, Eton, it’s not a great statement about social inclusion.
The Conservatives are more trusted by voters on the economy, which is starting to come good after several difficult years. But Labour does best on safeguarding the (largely) free-to-patient National Health Service, the one state-run organisation that is widely respected.
After five years of Conservative-Liberal Democrat government, the first multi-party administration since 1945, Britain has become accustomed, reluctantly, to coalition rule. Even so, there are no pre-poll alliances – every party is fighting its own corner. Labour and the SNP are bitter rivals, but potential coalition allies – the Liberal Democrats might link up with either Labour or the Conservatives, but could also decide to give any formal coalition a miss – UKIP is eating away at Conservative support, but could be willing to team up if that meant an early referendum on EU membership.
Following the last election, it took five days and nights of fevered negotiations before the current coalition took shape. That’s quick by international standards, but an eternity compared to Britain’s normal post-election timetable where a new Prime Minister takes office within hours.
After the coming election, there could well be a much longer period of political horse-trading. Good news for political commentators – not so good for Britain’s governance
[ANDREW WHITEHEAD is a former BBC Delhi correspondent and has also reported for the BBC on British politics.] AW 8/2/15