After the Tory victory in Britain

May 13, 2010

James Illingworth analyzes the outcome of Britain's election--and what comes next.

AFTER FIVE days of frantic negotiations following the May 6 general election, Britain has its first coalition government since the Second World War.

The resignation of Labour Party Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Wednesday cleared the way for a parliamentary alliance between the Conservatives, or Tories, and Liberal Democrats to take power. David Cameron, leader of the Tories, will be the new prime minister.

In the election, the Conservative Party won 306 members of parliament (MPs) to Labour's 258 and just 57 for the Liberal Democrats. But a majority in the House of Commons is 325, so the Tories were forced to seek a partner for a coalition government.

The Conservatives routed New Labour across England, getting 36 percent of the vote and winning 97 new MPs. Labour suffered a meltdown--its share of the vote fell to just 29 percent, and the party lost 91 seats in parliament.

This is a huge swing to the Tories. But it says more about the failures of New Labour than it does about any general political shift to the right in Britain.

Britain's new Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg outside 10 Downing Street
Britain's new Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg outside 10 Downing Street

As the governing party during a severe recession, Labour was always going to struggle in this election. But frustration and anger with Labour, especially among its natural base in the union movement and the working class generally, has been building for years. One of the main policies that people associate with New Labour's Tony Blair and Gordon Brown is whole-hearted participation in the U.S. war on Iraq. Labour also stepped in to bail out the banks and financial firms as enthusiastically as George Bush and Barack Obama.

For many devoted Labour voters, however, the final straw was the recent MP expenses scandal. Many Labour politicians were caught using taxpayers' money to fund home improvement projects and other luxuries, leading to further and overwhelming disillusionment with the government.

Even so, the Tories failed to capitalize fully on the unpopularity of New Labour and did not win enough MPs to form a government on their own. Cameron was forced to seek a coalition partner in the Liberal Democrats--and thus, despite a surprisingly poor showing in the election, the long-time third mainstream party in British politics was thrust into the role of kingmakers.

The Liberal Democrats had been expected to do well--in particular, the media fawned over party leader Nick Clegg for his performance in televised debates. But in the actual vote, while the Liberal Democrats' overall share increased slightly, the party actually lost seats in parliament.

Nevertheless, Clegg will be deputy prime minister to Cameron, and his party will lay claim to a handful of other posts in the Tory-led Cabinet.

Now, the Labour Party will be the opposition after 13 years in power. When Gordon Brown resigned as prime minister, he also gave up his role as leader of the Labour Party, triggering a battle to replace him.

The frontrunners to succeed Brown seem to be former Foreign Secretary David Miliband, his brother Ed Miliband, and former Education Secretary Ed Balls.

Although the Miliband brothers are sons of famous Marxist theorist Ralph Miliband, they don't represent a return to the radical roots of the Labour Party. David, for example, was a confidante of Tony Blair and major architect of "New Labour" while still in his 20s. He remains associated with the pro-business right wing of the party.

David Miliband is the firm favorite to take over from Brown, signaling that Labour is likely to remain on the same course that so thoroughly alienated the party from its working-class base.

Results for the left outside the Labour Party were poor. Caroline Lucas, leader of the Greens, won a seat to become her party's first member of parliament. But the three candidates from the left-wing Respect coalition that were given a chance at winning were all defeated, including the party's previous MP, George Galloway. Overall, the left's share of the vote contracted sharply as voters focused on the race between Labour and the Tories.

Thankfully, election night also went badly for the far right. British National Party (BNP) leader Nick Griffin failed to beat Labour in the East London constituency of Barking, where the Nazis made a big push--the BNP actually won a smaller share of the vote there than in 2005. The fascists also lost all nine of their local councilors in Barking.

Nationally, the BNP increased its support by a couple of percentage points, but the Nazis clearly didn't make the breakthrough they were hoping for. Nevertheless, with the economic crisis dragging on for the majority of people in Britain, the BNP's politics of scapegoating remains a real threat that will have to be challenged.

ALTHOUGH THE election was clearly a victory for the right-wing party of mainstream British politics, the new coalition government faces a challenging and contradictory political and economic climate.

For one thing, the Tory-Liberal Democrat alliance will be inherently fragile. The Conservatives oppose thoroughgoing electoral reform and are hostile to European integration--two centerpieces of the Liberal Democrats' program. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, campaigned against the Tories' plans for immediate cuts in public spending.

It remains to be seen how the two parties will reconcile these differences. Many left-leaning Liberal Democrat voters will be very unhappy with the coalition, and unlikely to accept any compromise that fails to implement a system of proportional representation in parliament.

Even more important, the election took place in the shadow of the financial crisis in Greece, with the country's debt troubles and massive working class resistance causing turmoil on global financial markets. After Greece, Britain has the second-largest budget deficit in Europe proportionate to population, and all the major parties remain committed to deep cuts in public spending.

British business interests seem divided over how to proceed. Some sectors clearly favor an immediate and all-out assault on the working class, reflected in the relatively strong showing by the Conservatives. But other sections are concerned that too hasty and drastic an attack on public spending could drive Britain into a double-dip recession.

A coalition government will struggle to implement any coherent economic program--and might well stir the same kind of reaction in global financial markets that Greece's government did in facing its debt crisis.

British workers will have to look outside of parliament for leadership in the struggle against austerity measures. The inspiring resistance of the Greek workers and youth, whose strikes and demonstrations have sent shock waves around the world, shows where the fightback needs to start--at the grassroots.

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