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The 2015 British election: A few thoughts on the impossible

What just happened in the UK? Nobody thought that the Conservative Party would win a majority. Every major polling site thought coalition negotiations would begin the day after the results came out. In fact, the opposition Labour Party was supposed to be in position to form a progressive coalition. Now Prime Minister David Cameron is set for another five years in power, and the leaders of the other three largest parties have resigned. It looks like the shock has mostly worn off, and now I’d like to offer a few thoughts on the impossible.

No, really, what just happened?

Yes, the polls messed up. They underestimated the Conservatives by six percentage points. But polls don’t vote, so although their inaccuracy has been the big story, are they really that important? Their failure is interesting only insofar as they exemplify their own historical tendency to continually underestimate the Conservative Party. Why? If there was an easy answer we would have figured it out a decade ago.

But it’s actually fascinating how an incumbent party somehow gained seats. That almost never happens. The American explanation is, of course, that “it’s the economy, stupid.” A lot of people might be hurting as a result of fiscal austerity, but you can’t really argue with the fact that the unemployment rate in the UK is half that of the euro area. The UK led all of Western Europe in GDP growth last year. The once-soaring national debt hasn’t been eliminated, but it’s currently under control. These are very real successes for the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition. And as the polls show, the Conservatives got the credit for the successes and the Lib Dems got the blame for everything else.

But the archetypal American answer doesn’t explain everything.

The return of New Labour?

Ideology played a role in the election — especially now that many different parties are fighting for votes. Even within parties, ideological battles are critical. Caught between progressives in Scotland and centrists in England, the Labour Party’s set for its biggest civil war since the 1980s. The result of the coming Labour leadership contest will set the tone for progressive politics in the UK for the next five years.

Labour has to move fast, because by 2020, Labour won’t have won a non-Tony Blair election for over 40 years. Blair pioneered the centrist, pro-business “New Labour” of the 1990s and 2000s – even getting the archconservative Rupert Murdoch to endorse him – and won three straight elections. Yet the party turned against New Labour in 2010. In the wake of Labour’s crashing defeat, Blair wrote that Labour didn’t do enough to champion “ambition and aspiration,” while strategist extraordinare Peter Mandelson – still smarting from how Labour “ripped the stripes off [my] shoulders” – declared Labour’s leftward lurch a “terrible mistake.” Looking at the results, they’ve got a point.

In 2015, Labour’s vote share only increased by 1.4 percent, showing that it failed to collect the marginal seats at the political center. Labour allowed the right-wing newspapers to label ex-leader Ed Miliband “Red Ed,” in sharp contrast to his more centrist brother David. The UK made its decision clear: As rising Labour centrist Chuka Umunna pointed out, Labour targeted 80 Conservative-held constituencies in England and came out with a net gain of four. Mandelson, for his own part, basically anointed Umunna as a potential successor to Blair yesterday. The centrists are rising again.

Meanwhile, Labour’s left flank has two major responses to their debacle. The first is to pay lip service to Ed Miliband while privately dismissing him as uncharismatic. The second is to complain that Labour wasn’t progressive enough – they were badly outflanked on the left and wiped out in Scotland. The problem is that both New Labour and Old Labour are right. That’s the problem Labour’s members are going to have to deal with – and soon.

Scotland

As they say, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. And you can spin the election all you want, but nothing’s going to paper over the fact that the unionist parties were humiliated in Scotland. After growing to expect hegemony in the north, Labour needs to come to terms with the fact that it has as many Scottish seats in Westminster as the Conservatives. That’s not a good thing– one seat each is hardly anything to brag about.

The thing is, the Scottish Nationalists didn’t obtain absolute majorities in most Scottish constituencies. Nationalists polled 45 percent in the 2014 independence referendum, and after you control for turnout, they polled about the same on May 7. There were 1.4 million SNP voters in the 2015 election out of about 2.9 million and 1.6 million independence voters out of 3.6 million in 2014. That’s hardly a sea change in Scottish voter preferences. That just means that the SNP’s voters are a lot more energized than the unionists.

This year’s elections in Scotland came down to the fact that unionists split their votes among a whole host of different parties, allowing the SNP to sweep to victory in district after district. The SNP doesn’t have a mandate for independence and change so much as it does an energized party. Yet the result cannot be ignored.

Scotland is on the precipice of secession, and if the UK wants Scotland to remain in the Union, they must give it more concessions. The leaders of the three major parties have promised Scotland more local powers, and so far Scotland hasn’t gotten them. I understand why that’s happened – the English are calling for a quid pro quo and their demands will take a while to reconcile – but Scotland’s made its demands known, and even leading Conservatives are calling for federalism now. That is the reality that David Cameron cannot escape. The Conservatives might have won the election this week, but the pundits are all focusing on Scotland for good reason. Cameron may pull off the impossible in elections, he may dominate British politics for a decade, he may force Labour back to the center, but it is his management of Scotland in the UK that will define his political legacy. Everything else is irrelevant.

 

Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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