Against all predictions, conservative Prime Minister David Cameron was able to obtain an absolute majority in the general election held in the UK on 7 May 2015. It was a political earthquake of an election, for many reasons. The populist right-wing movement made clear that it was here to stay, while Scotland confirmed that it was swimming against the tide with even greater fervor than before.
With 331 seats out of 650 and 36.9% of votes cast, against 232 seats and 30.4% of votes for the opposition Labour Party (center left), the Conservative Party (right) won an unexpected absolute majority. The party can now leave its former coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats (center), which fell from 49 to 8 seats and came away with only 7% of the vote (-15.2%). The threat of the UK Independence Party (UKIP, populist right) was more than curbed, since it only won one seat with 12.6% of votes cast. Mr. Cameron should be delighted, given that his three main competitors at the national level have all resigned from the leadership of their respective parties. This is, however, more complex than it seems.
Indeed, the result is largely due to the country’s first-past-the-post electoral system which gives greater weight to the winning party in each constituency at a general election. As such, a slight upturn in popular votes can easily translate into a whirlwind of seats for those who have managed to maintain a good local support base. Thus, the Conservative Party won 24 seats whilst only seeing their vote increase by 0.8% in comparison with its 2010 record; meanwhile, the Labour Party, despite improving its score by 1.5%, lost 26 seats.
What was in fact a modest result for Mr. Cameron’s party (the second worse for a winning conservative majority in a century) falls far short of being a plebiscite for the Conservatives’ program of economic liberalism and austerity. Opinions are strongly divided on the coalition’s record on the economy: economic growth and employment have occurred at the expense of a rise in precarious labor conditions and poverty. Many reforms were enacted despite overwhelming social protest, as seen with the student movement’s resistance to the rise in university tuition fees. It is not surprising to see that the Lib Dems, which was elected five years ago on a center-left program, bore the brunt of their decision to enter into a government coalition that led them to betray many of their initial commitments.
It would thus be more accurate to speak of a Labour failure rather than a Tory success. Labour where unable to offer a credible alternative despite good polls up until the last month before the general election. Its leader, Ed Miliband, faced critics on both sides. On the one hand, the right-wing of the party criticized his willingness to discard the Thatcher legacy of Tony Blair’s New Labour. This political stance provoked the loss of support from media and business, who by-and-large opted to throw their weight behind Cameron. On the other hand, the left-wing of the party railed against his fiscal conservatism.
Despite Nigel Farage’s personal defeat, we do need to take note of UKIP’s exceptional electoral results. For the first time in the country’s history, a right-wing populist party has managed to come in third place at a general election. With the collapse of the centrists and a quasi-status quo for the center-left (which slightly progressed thanks to the Green Party’s 3.8% share of the vote), what we are mainly seeing is a British voter shift to the right, with almost 50% of the electorate voting for either UKIP or the Tories.
Unexpectedly, UKIP, despite pushing an ultraliberal and conservative agenda closely in line with the Tories, seemed to have helped the latter. Constantly playing Europhobic and xenophobic cards allowed Mr. Cameron to win the last minute support of undecided UKIP voters. By contrast, the Labour party, which faced attacks led by the anti-Europe party among its traditional core voters, i.e. the working class, was made politically toothless and lost several districts. We can predict with a great deal of certainty that UKIP will be present throughout the entire British political spectrum for some time to come. Bowing to UKIP pressure, Cameron has committed himself to holding a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.
The most significant political change happened in the north of the country. The Scottish National Party (SNP, center-left independentists) gained the support of half of the voters (increasing their share by 30%). Of all the parties, they took the biggest advantage of the fist-past-the-post system, and won 56 of Scotland’s 59 constituencies. Although this post-industrial region devastated during the Thatcher era used to vote strongly for Labour (at least in general elections), the latter was almost entirely destroyed in the battle north of the River Tweed. It lost 40 seats and only won 24.3% (-17.47%) of the votes.
These electoral results were actually perfectly predictable and in line with the political momentum driven by Scotland’s independence referendum held in September 2014. Scotland never accepted Labour’s shift towards neoliberalism, and the latter seemed to be digging its own grave by leading the unionist camp, which crystalized the hostility towards the Westminster establishment. Despite losing the referendum, independentists such as the SNP took full advantage of the wave of activism sparked by the independence campaign which brought many new party members. This civic will is reflected in the high voter turnout in Scotland (71.1%) which is 5 points higher than the national average.
Their electoral triumph is largely due to a very left-wing campaign, which fearlessly challenged the conservative agenda, proposing a rise in public spending, investment in public services and in employment, tax rises for the wealthiest and cuts in military budget, etc. The nationalist leader Nicola Sturgeon extended her hand to Mr. Miliband many times (without success) with an offer of building a coalition in order to stop austerity. UKIP’s wave of support obviously stopped at Hadrian’s Wall, giving the party marginal electoral results in Scotland.
The opposition between a progressive Scotland and a conservative England is more acute now than ever. The next term will be a restless one, to the delight of Mr. Cameron, who has no interest in stopping the rise of an SNP so effective at curtailing any future Labour majority. A conflict is brewing over the promise of devolution made by the British Prime Minister, whose project is seen by many as a devolution of austerity.
Social issues will also provoke political clashes. Tories plan to cut public spending by €41 billion over the course of two years, three quarters of which will come from welfare allowance. “With the Tories going it alone in government, we know exactly what to expect – more destructive cuts, and more attacks on our communities,” says the anti-austerity People’s Assembly coalition, which is calling for increased social mobilization, in particular for a national demonstration planned on 20th June in front of the Bank of England. Recently, following Cameron’s reelection, hundreds of demonstrators blocked Downing Street for a few hours before being dispersed by police. Very telling indeed …