Not Over Yet: The British General Election of 2015

by David Edgar*


Ending with Thursday’s vote, the British general election campaign has been exceptional in many ways. Its result will almost certainly be indecisive and it’s possible that the shape of the new government will remain unknown for days or even weeks. But underneath the battle between two middle-aged white males for the office of prime minister, new forces are engaged. The most emblematic visual moment of the campaign was a group hug by three women party leaders after a television debate. But the outcome will be decided by two groups of angry, white, poor men.

The roots of this exceptional election lie in the last one. After 13 years in power, with an unpopular leader (Gordon Brown) and having been through the financial crisis of 2008, the Labour Party expected to lose the 2010 election. In Britain, the party that gains an overall majority in the House of Commons forms a government, with the majority party leader as prime minister and the cabinet drawn from that party’s members of parliament (and a few from the House of Lords).

Two strong parties in a winner-takes-all electoral system meant that one party or the other was able to govern alone for almost all the postwar years. However, the proportion of seats won by other parties had been gradually increasing since the 1980s. In the 2010 election David Cameron’s Conservatives won the largest number of seats, but not an absolute majority, so they had to negotiate an agreement with the third party, Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, to govern in coalition. Both parties accused Labour of running up a massive fiscal deficit in its last years in office, and were committed to a policy of fiscal austerity to bring that deficit down. However, under its new leader Ed Miliband, Labour could argue that—like Barack Obama’s—its 2009 and 2010 spending stopped the post-crash recession turning into a slump. Meanwhile, outraged by their usually left-leaning, protest-vote party going into coalition with the Conservatives, around a third of the Liberal Democrats told pollsters that they would vote Labour next time.

Commentators thought that this spelled a return to traditional two-party politics: a right-wing government (albeit formed of two parties) cutting spending and causing unemployment, up against a left-wing opposition calling for greater spending, particularly for the poor.  However, the deep disillusionment with all politicians—the British parliament had been rocked by an expenses scandal in the dying years of the Labour government—merely shifted the protest vote elsewhere. And, as across Europe, that protest vote was concerned not just with economic but also social issues, particularly those of identity.

In 2010 the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a right-wing populist party that argues for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, gained a paltry 3.1% of the votes. However, under its effective leader Nigel Farage, UKIP persuaded right-wing voters that the only way to reduce immigration was to withdraw from the EU, which allows free movement of labour across the continent.

Over the last five years, UKIP has seen its polling increase to well into the 20s, and, in 2014, it won both the local and European elections (on low turn-outs). UKIP was seen as taking votes from the Conservatives, which indeed it did, provoking Cameron’s party to chase it to the right on immigration (slashing benefits to migrants and their families) and Europe (promising a referendum on Britain’s continuing membership). Under the winner-takes-all system, UKIP was unlikely to take a huge number of seats at the general election, but by splitting the right-wing vote it could let Labour win in many marginals. The rise of a successful right-wing populist party was of course alarming to the left, but—secretly—Labour strategists viewed it as an asset.

However, Labour (and almost everyone else) had misunderstood the new force. UKIP was presumed to consist of red-faced military types and stern blue-rinsed matrons. However, research showed that its voters were actually poorer, older, and whiter (and more male) than the general population. Despite leader Nigel Farage’s instinctive right libertarianism, the party shifted to the left on some economic issues (in the manner of the French National Front). Suddenly, they were a threat to Labour as well, and so the party joined the anti-immigration arms-race, ratcheting up its own rhetoric.

Nonetheless, Labour seemed set fair at least to be the largest party at the election. Two years ago, the economy started turning around, with unemployment falling. Still claiming that austerity policies had delayed the recovery, Labour shifted its ground from the recession to the cost of living. It pointed to a drop in living standards—working people are earning on average £1,600 less a year (after inflation), compared with 2010. The jobs that have been created include many that are low-paid, part-time, and on zero-hours contracts. Nearly a million people use voluntary food banks. Echoing Ronald Reagan, Labour was able to ask the electorate if it felt better off than four years ago, and get the same answer. In this, Labour was positing an alternative narrative to the Conservatives’: a narrative in which, for years if not decades, the super-rich had got super-richer, working- and middle-class wages had flatlined, and the people’s aspirations had been met either by tax credits topping up their wages, or by personal debt.

However, with the country still borrowing over £75b a year, Labour didn’t feel that it could offer an end to austerity, only a fairer distribution of pain. With this offer, and with UKIP still likely to bite more substantially into the Conservatives’ vote than theirs, Labour felt confident of winning around 35% of the vote, on the basis of which it could be the largest party, and maybe even win an absolute majority. There was after all nowhere else for its core vote to go.

That all changed in the most unexpected way on September 18 last year. Almost unnoticed, traditionally Labour Scotland had been shifting to the Scottish National Party (SNP), whose main plank is independence, for many years. Following devolution of many powers to a Scottish assembly in 1999, the SNP served two terms as an opposition to a Labour-led government, then as a minority government from 2007, and finally as a majority in 2011. As such, the SNP insisted that a referendum on Scottish independence be held last fall, which ended up with a substantial, but not victorious, vote for the Scots to leave the union (45% to 55%). However, the energy of the Yes to independence campaign led to a massive increase in SNP membership and—now—the serious prospect that the SNP will win all of Scotland’s 59 seats, including the 41 Labour won in 2010. This haemorrhage would and will stop Labour gaining an absolute majority: at the moment, according to the polls, it looks like stopping them being the largest party, and thus having the first chance to form a government.

In the heady afterglow of the referendum campaign, there is another reason for the SNP’s prospective success. After the vote, the SNP’s leader Alex Salmond handed on power to his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, who has shifted the party significantly to the left. Now, in Scotland at least, there is a party vowing to end austerity and to increase public spending. At the end of the second televised debate (boycotted by Prime Minister Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg) Labour’s Ed Miliband looked on as three anti-austerity party leaders—the SNP’s Sturgeon, the Welsh Nationalists’ Leanne Wood and the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett—engaged in a group hug. Suddenly, the politics of gender, national identity, and the environment melded with traditional left politics of public spending and defending the poor.

This kind of rainbow alliance has been posited before. There are proper doubts about how left the SNP has actually been in power in Edinburgh. But this time there are over 60 constituencies likely to vote for a left agenda (on top of many constituencies with Labour MPs who oppose austerity). And, what was the bedrock of support for the Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum? The traditionally Labour-supporting working-class of Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city. In fact, angry, poor, white Scottish men. The only demographic difference with the UKIP vote is that the Glasgow Yes vote was younger.

The lesson of this election may turn out to be that when there is an oppositional, left-wing alternative to the prevailing austerity consensus, then a surprising number of people vote for it. But it’s also true that—in the absence of such a repository—the angry and disconnected can go another way. And the result of Thursday’s vote? It looks like there will be an anti-Conservative majority, but it may well be that the Conservatives win the largest number of seats, and seek to cling on to power. In which case, there may well be another election soon.

* David Edgar is a playwright who has written for Britain’s National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and many other theatres. His RSC adaptation of Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby won major awards in London and New York, and is frequently revived. His two plays about a fictional West Coast gubernatorial election—Continental Divide—were presented by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Berkeley Rep in 2003. He was Professor of Playwriting at the University of Birmingham and is currently Humanitas Visiting Professor of Drama at Oxford. He is a frequent commentator and reviewer for The Guardian and the London Review of Books.

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David Edgar, “Not Over Yet: The British General Election of 2015.” Social Justice blog, 5/5/2015. © Social Justice 2015.

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