Sunday, May 17, 2015

No, Conservatives, You Did Not Win In The U.K. On May 7

Well, technically, you did.  You shocked everyone in the process in the fact.  You shocked the pollsters, who were all on the same statistical page in predicting that the next British government would be some sort of coalition government, just like the last one.  And, in the process, you shocked people like me, who expected that result based not only on the predictions of pollsters, but also on a sense that voters around the world were getting tired of seeing right-wing politicians following William F. Buckley's advice to stand athwart history and cry "Halt!"

Instead, against the odds and the polls, the next British government will be run by the Tories, with a mathematical majority in Parliament.  Not surprisingly, conservatives on this side of the pond are feeling vindicated.  Some are trumpeting a victory for austerity economics, while others are trumpeting the return of compassionate conservatism, W-style.  So which is it?

Actually, it's none of the above.  The success of the Tories is due in part to one factor related to American politics, and another that has somewhat more to do with European politics.

Let's start with a discussion of the former.  Although the Tories will now enjoy a statistical majority of the seats in the House of Commons, they managed to get there with about a third of the popular vote.  This is because elections for the Commons resembles elections for our House of Representatives in operating under a "first-past-the-post" system.  As a consequence, it is possible for one party to attract a majority or a plurality of votes nationally, but another party's candidates, by coming in second or lower in many individual districts, can still manage to win the majority of seats overall.

This is less likely to happen in a situation where two parties dominate the national political landscape, as was the case in Britain for decades with the Labour and Conservative Parties.  Of course, here in the U.S., we still have two dominant parties, but gerrymandering has so rearranged the voter composition of congressional districts that, in the 2012 election, the Democrats won a majority of the popular vote for House candidates, but lost enough individual races to ensure that Republican control will continue.  And, in 2014, Republicans won 57 percent of House races despite wining only 52 percent of the popular vote overall.

In the case of Britain, something else seems to be at work; namely, the rise of independent parties and the ability of their candidates to eat away a large share of the vote that would have gone to Labour or Conservative candidates in the past.  You can read a detailed analysis here of how the success of these parties played a role in the May 7 outcome.  Could this happen here?  On a presidential level, it already did in 1992 and 1996, thanks to Ross Perot and the Reform Party.  Given the fact that current approval levels of Congress are in single digits, and given the enhanced role of billionaires in our political system post-Citizens United, it can't and should not be ruled out.  Perhaps progressive billionaires should underwrite third-party conservative candidates, with this in mind, for House races in 2016.

Of the third parties involved in the British election, however, two stand out for reasons related to the more European explanation for the outcome, and that is the rise of nationalism among the British electorate--or, perhaps, I should say the English and Scottish electorates.  The rise of the anti-immigrant UKIP Party, and the near-domination by the Scottish National Party of the outcomes in Scotland's parliamentary districts, mirrors the ethnic breakdowns afflicting politics on the Continent in the post-Cold War Era.  In campaigning for his party, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron was well aware of this, and played to it very strongly.  In the end, he and his party prevailed not because the British people as a whole liked his economic or foreign policy, but because English voters saw him as the one most likely to protect their interests.

The result?  Cameron is now the head of a parliamentary majority of a badly divided country.  His pledge to hold the U.K. together is at odds with his antagonism toward Scottish voters.  His plan to hold a national referendum on E.U. membership is likely to divide the country even further.  And, as a consequence, you can expect to see articles like this one even more frequently.

And, sadly, they may be forecasting the long-term future of the U.K.  Britannia once ruled the waves.  Now it seems incapable of ruling itself.  That, put briefly, is the "victory" that Conservatives won on May 7.  They are not likely to be happy about it for very long.

No comments: