Saturday, May 09, 2015

UK Elections 2015: What the Hell Happened?

Had to admit, I was hoping for a divided result to where another coalition would have been necessary, along the lines of Labour having enough seats to tempt potential allies in the Liberal Dems or the rising Scottish National (SNP) to turn over Tory Prime Minister Cameron's Austerity regime.  Most of the pre-polling pointed to a muddled result.

Instead, the results ended with the Conservatives winning enough seats to secure their own majority under Cameron.  Labour lost seats, the Liberal Dems were near annihilated, and the other third parties barely scratching out single seats making them more than meaningless.  The only other winner on Thursday were the Scottish National Party, which pretty much dominated all of Scotland as a voting bloc: a major paradoxical turn of events regarding Scottish independence movement (which had been shut down not too long ago).

So, what the hell happened?

Simplest explanation is usually the best one.  The simplest explanation is that the United Kingdom's economy is struggling but stable.  In spite of an austerity regime of spending cuts and uneven tax hikes/cuts, the UK's economy was stable compared to the rest of Europe's.  Parties in power tend to stay in power when conditions - economy, wars, social trends, lack of political scandals - are stable and manageable.  If the economy was truly tanking, or there were troops caught in quagmires in overseas occupations, or the Conservatives were caught in massive bribery/sex/bizarre Masonic ritual scandals, we would have seen voter unrest and a desire for change at the top.

Cameron was able to sell economic stability as the Conservatives' platform.

Stability - especially economic stability - is the big reason a lot of parties/elected officials can stay in office even during trying times or questionable leadership.  Here in the U.S., that kind of stability is why Obama won in 2012 despite the Republicans' efforts to claim otherwise, and Bush the Lesser winning in 2004 (as the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan hadn't soured yet and the economy was still - barely - ticking), and Clinton winning in 1996 during the Internet Boom, and Reagan winning in a (misleading) blowout in 1984...

Nearly every electoral turnover here in the U.S. happens because of a major, troubling economic malaise.  At the Presidential level, major recessions (and a Great Depression) ended a lot of one-term guys like Bush the Elder, Carter, and Hoover (going back into the 19th Century we can point to Van Buren).  Obama won in 2008, and the Democrats won Congress in 2006, due to the economic downturns starting to collapse during Bush II's second term as well as growing disillusion over Iraq/Afghanistan.  Republicans took over Congress in 1994 due to a slow recovery as well as the overall ennui of Democratic control for 25-plus years.  Republicans had brief control of the Senate in 1980, but lost that as the 1981-83 recession turned voters against Reagan's tax-cut agenda.

Most other congressional turnovers are tied to economic woes (other times it's shifting demographics affecting gerrymanders, which affected the 1994 and 2010 results).  The only exceptions to this would be honest-to-God scandals like Watergate (which hurt Republicans who had nothing to do with it) or bad wars like Iraq II.  Even major scandals like Iran-Contra and the S&L debacle, or petty ones like the Lewinsky Affair, might not impact results as long as people are content with their lot.

When Clinton campaigned in 1992, the inter-office message "It's The Economy, Stupid" was pretty much the right message.

(To explain the Republicans regaining Congress in 2010 and retaining it in 2014, I'd have to point to the perception of economic disaster painted by the GOP, especially over the "threat" of Obamacare and tax increases.  During periods of lesser voter turnout like the midterms, that perception can be enough)

How this applies to the UK would be the same thing: while unemployment remains an issue, and cuts to social aid are a serious problem, most Britons seem content overall (or at least unburdened) with the direction their kingdom's economy is rolling, and so they're not about to rock the boat.

A more thorough examination into the election would point to what was happening with Scotland.  This gets a little harder to explain.

Even though Scottish voters rejected full independence, those same voters remain upset at how their nation is mired in deeper economic woes than the rest of the UK.  As a result, voters switched from the Labour Party - which used to dominate that region - to the Scottish National as a form of protest.  Even though at the united level, the incoming SNP ministers won't have any real power (they're third behind Labour, which means they're not even the official Opposition party) to make changes.

On the one hand, this cut into Labour's overall strength of numbers as a major party.  On the other hand, this gave Conservatives a means of fear-mongering - this was arguably one of the nastier campaigns in modern history, which is saying something considering how vicious British tabloids get - to their base voters and undecideds: by warning of a threat by the SNP - certain to win enough Scottish seats to be a threat - to divide Great Britain if they were to form a coalition with Labour, the Tories ensured voter turnout to their side.  As another part of the paradox, that fear-mongering worked to SNP's advantage as Scottish voters bought into that and supported the SNP well above the staid Labour.

Another factor was the utter collapse of the Dems (no relation).  What had been a small-yet-thriving third party alternative between Far Right Conservatives and Far Left Labour fell apart in the wake of this election.  The explanation for that goes all the way back to the deal with the devil that party leader Clegg made with Cameron in 2010: rather than team with Labour to form a minority government, Clegg teamed with the Conservatives to form a coalition government.

That deal was supposed to moderate the Tory agenda and preserve key issues for the Lib Dems.  Instead it gave the Conservatives a license to pursue their own policies, forced the Dems to vote on matters they normally wouldn't have, and drove away supporters after failing to prove any influence on government policies at all.

At the time - 2010 - Labour was a weakened party riven by scandal and barely functioning: Blair's scandals (sucking up to Bush/Cheney had to hurt) and Gordon's poor leadership made them a party on the downturn.  Clegg probably viewed them as a sinking ship (literal and metaphor) and likely felt he could get a better deal out of Cameron. He didn't.  He got the worst of both worlds: the coalition neutered the Liberal Democrats on policy matters, and the party got all the blame for Conservative actions that violated the liberal leanings of both the Dems and Labour.

Lib Dems went from 57 seats to just eight.  Voter disillusionment is the only explanation.  How many switched to Conservative and how many went for Labour needs deeper examination (given how Labour lost seats not just in Scotland is a factor here as well).  But if any tangible change went for the Conservatives this election cycle, this was it: the vacuum caused by the Dems' self-implosion was not filled by other third parties, and those votes had to go somewhere...

Past all that, I got nothing else to say about this except "Good luck, Brits.  You get what you pay for."

The UK should now expect increased privatization efforts in education and health care - despite evidence that in both cases nothing good is happening.  More tax cuts to corporations and wealthy are likely, even against evidence that income inequality is a growing problem in the UK (as much as it is here in the US).  And now that one party is in charge, expect the radicalization of that one party to turn into obsessive dogma at the expense of pragmatic reform.

My apostasy against the American Conservative wingnuttery may blind me against the more constrained-seeming British Conservatism, but Right Wing is too far a wing for me no matter the country.

I dread the coming austerity collapse Great Britain is about to get.

1 comment:

dinthebeast said...

Paul Krugman put some of the blame on the UK media, which he contends were treating the economic snake-oil the conservatives were selling as unquestioned fact.

-Doug in Oakland