Political stability, a quaint relic in Britain

Political stability,  a quaint relic in Britain

In a little more than two years, Britain has had two general elections and a nationwide referendum. Each time, the politicians, pollsters, betting markets, political scientists and commentators have got it wrong.

Once considered one of the most politically stable countries in the world, regularly turning out majority governments, Britain is increasingly confusing and unpredictable, both to its allies and itself.
Far from settling the fierce divisions exposed by last year’s referendum on Britain’s exit from the European Union, or Brexit, the election last week only made them worse.

In the early hours of last Friday, flushed with his party’s surprising showing, Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, proclaimed: “Politics has changed! And politics is not going back into the box where it was before.”

But where British politics is going is less clear. Traditional party loyalties have broken down, and the country’s divisions are becoming clearer for all to see — between young and old, urban and rural, south and north, digital and industrial, cosmopolitan and nationalist.

As Britain struggles to find cohesion on how it plans to leave the European Union, its politics is becoming more and more European. But Britain lacks the common European proportional voting system that allows smaller parties to thrive. This can also lead to coalition governments, requiring political compromise. In Britain, hung Parliaments are the new norm.

Prime Minister Theresa May, badly damaged by her gamble on an early election, said Friday, “What the country needs more than ever is certainty,” even as her own Cabinet members began circling, smelling wounded prey. Certainty seems very far away.

A year after the referendum to leave the European Union and a week before the scheduled start of negotiations with Brussels on how to do it, Britain has a weak government, a likely lame-duck prime minister and no negotiating position that could command a parliamentary majority, let alone national consensus.

European negotiators are ready, the clock is ticking, and a first set of meetings can be easily held around Britain’s divorce settlement. But they know, as May must know, that she is unlikely to be the prime minister to see the meetings to fruition, and there is the unsettling prospect of another leadership fight and another British election before March 29, 2019, when Britain is out of the bloc, deal or not.

“Britain doesn’t feel stable anymore,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. “We’re a European country, with voters becoming more volatile over time. People don’t have the same tribal loyalties that they used to. Voters are more consumerist, much more willing to switch depending on the offer.”

Even as traditional party loyalties have fractured, this election showed a surge in support for the two major parties, which increased their share of the vote. The Conservatives, despite losing 13 seats and their majority, won 42.4% of the vote, 5.5% higher than in 2015, when David Cameron won a surprising majority.

Labour won 40% of the vote, having mobilised young people to make a resounding 9.5% improvement over 2015, but still remains 64 seats short of a majority.

Many governments have achieved stable majorities with much smaller voting percentages.  But each of Britain’s 650 voting constituencies has its own, winner-take-all election, so piling up votes in safe seats is comforting but inefficient. The outcome simply displayed the country’s increasing geographic and urban-suburban divisions.

While both parties together received nearly 82% of the votes, they are politically further apart now than almost any time since 1983, when Labour was also more openly socialist. Britain has simply become much more fiercely divided ideologically, with the cross-party consensus of pro-European neo-liberalism in tatters, along with the now derided “third way” of Blair, the last Labour leader to win an election, let alone three in a row.

Corbyn has pulled the party back to the harder left, promising more state ownership and economic intervention. His passionate campaign consolidated his leadership and the dominance of the “Corbynistas,” although many Labour legislators fear that a hard-left party cannot win enough votes across the country to regain power.

But Corbyn’s manifesto was intended to respond to popular dissatisfaction with seven years of Conservative austerity and cuts to social welfare benefits. It made sweeping commitments to more spending on everything from the health service to police, promised young people free tuition, a higher minimum wage and another four holidays, while advocating renationalising the railways and utilities.

It would all be paid for by increased borrowing and sharply higher taxes on corporations and those paid more than $104,000 a year. Taxation would have been the highest ever in peacetime Britain, according to the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Divided over Brexit

With the British economy heading into the doldrums, in part because of looming Brexit costs, low productivity and a national debt approaching 90% of gross domestic product, the Labour platform frightened the middle class and businesspeople and was, to some degree, a fantasy, given that even Labour leaders did not expect to win the election.

Divisions over Brexit — the 2016 referendum vote was 52% to 48% — were only enhanced by this election. The Conservatives, promising a hard Brexit, with Britain out of the European single market and customs union, garnered votes and some seats in areas like the north and West Midlands, that voted heavily to quit the European Union and gave the UK Independence Party large votes in 2015. But that tough stance also put off some who had voted to remain.

Labour, which also committed to Brexit but in a vaguer, softer way that would try to preserve free trade with Europe, did well in big cities and the south, which voted predominantly to remain. And it also kept the votes of some former Labour voters who were more put off by May’s austerity plans and poor campaign than by their cultural and political discomfort with Corbyn.

In the new media culture, said Tony Travers, a professor of government at the London School of Economics, “people are switching loyalties, not tribally, but like consumers.”

“People are not tribal, but switch loyalties depending on which of the two parties most represent what I want to achieve,” he said, whether the goal be a judgment on Brexit, or foreign policy, or tax or tuition. “That makes it very complicated for political parties, for pollsters and for political scientists, let alone Britain’s allies.”

But in the next election — which could, given the current chaos, come within the year — “the voters could churn again, back to another majority party or off to a minor party,” said Philip Cowley, a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. “Traditional politics are disrupted,” Bale said. “Voters are no longer so easy to please. And we shouldn’t see this as an aberration. This is the new normal.”

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