A dreary election in Britain

May 7, 2015

James Illingworth explains the background to the general election in Britain, where all the major parties are unpopular after years of supporting austerity and rising inequality.

BRITISH VOTERS will go to the polls on May 7 in what looks like it will be the closest general election in living memory.

As this article was being written, the governing Conservative Party--or Tories--and the opposition Labour Party were running neck-and-neck in opinion polls, with neither likely to win an outright majority of seats in the House of Commons. With a hung parliament on the cards, therefore, attention will turn to the political horse trading to create a coalition government with enough support in parliament to govern.

For the past five years, Britain has been led by a coalition government made up of the Conservatives and the much smaller Liberal Democrats. Under Tory Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, the government has implemented a harsh program of cuts and privatization, perfectly in line with the global ruling-class agenda of making working people pay for the financial crisis and Great Recession.

Polls show that Cameron's government is deeply unpopular among British voters. But they also reveal that Labour, under the official Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband, has largely failed to capitalize on unhappiness with the coalition's austerity.

Labour Party leader Ed Milliband
Labour Party leader Ed Milliband

As a result, one of the most important dynamics in this election has been the ability of smaller parties--from both the left and the right of the political spectrum--to channel some of the discontent in British society.

The UK Independence Party (UKIP) is polling at well over 10 percent, on the strength of its anti-immigrant, xenophobic message. Both the Tories and Labour have responded to UKIP's rising popularity since making its first significant breakthroughs in 2013 by stepping up their own anti-immigrant scapegoating.

At the same time, the Scottish National Party (SNP) looks likely to win a landslide victory in Scotland, which could continue the momentum of the popular mobilization and radicalization of the almost successful independence referendum last September.

But the fact remains that UKIP is unlikely win many seats in parliament, despite its alarmingly high share of the vote--and the SNP's success, while significant, will be confined to Scotland. So the winner of the election will be one of the two main parties that are both more and more discredited in the eyes of people in Britain.

THE CONSERVATIVE-Liberal Democrat coalition government came to power in 2010, with Britain still mired in recession following the financial crisis of 2008. The outgoing Labour government had already taken responsibility for bailing out the banks at the expense of British taxpayers--which made it deeply unpopular.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats undertook the second part of the ruling-class response to the crisis by beginning a major program of deep cuts in the public sector.

Cameron's government has cut so much, so quickly, that is impossible to provide a full list of the attacks in a short article. Among other measures, the government tripled university tuition fees, opened the door to widespread privatization of the National Health Service (NHS) and introduced a regressive "bedroom tax" on residents of public housing.

In pursuing these attacks, the Tories hope to drive down the living standards of workers in order to make British capitalism more competitive.

As has been the case across much of Europe, the British ruling class has been able to implement these measures without facing a fightback on the scale necessary to roll back the austerity agenda.

There have been examples of mass resistance in the last five years, including the huge student protests of 2010 and rioting in major English cities in 2011. But the scale of organized resistance has not come close to thwarting the coalition government's program.

This doesn't mean that Cameron's government is popular by some "silent majority." The Liberal Democrats in particular have become widely hated for their cowardly role as junior partners in a government that has carried out measures they explicitly campaigned against.

In 2010, many voters turned to the Liberal Democrats as a progressive alternative to both the Conservatives and the increasingly right-wing Labour Party. But once they took office alongside the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats conceded to almost all of the Tories' cuts. They are likely to be punished by voters for their betrayals, with polls giving them less than 10 percent of the vote as the election draws near--placing it below the UKIP.

Under these circumstances, one might expect the Labour Party to benefit from working-class anger against the coalition government. The Labour manifesto for this election does promise an increase in spending on the NHS--funded by a tax on the most opulent homes of the rich--and calls for a raise in the minimum wage.

It also promises to balance the budget, however, which inevitably means continuing some of the worst cuts, and it also makes concessions to the right by supporting immigration controls. Although Labour will almost certainly makes gains from its poor result five years ago, the party certainly hasn't positioned itself as a consistent opponent of austerity.

LABOUR'S WEAKNESS and the collapse of the Liberal Democrats have allowed a number of smaller parties to seize on the pervasive discontent in British society.

On the right, UKIP has made major gains in the last few years. Casting itself as a populist alternative to the Conservatives, UKIP has capitalized on anti-immigrant sentiment and hostility to the European Union (EU) in order to become a major player in British politics.

On the left, the Green Party, which currently has a single member of parliament (MP) from London, is polling at a respectable 5 percent, and is benefiting from some impressive debate performances by party leader Natalie Bennett. Although the Greens are unlikely to increase their number of seats in parliament, they are clearly channeling some of the anger about austerity and climate change.

The political terrain looks much different in Scotland, however. The SNP, which leads the government in Scotland's devolved parliament, has seen an extraordinary surge in support over the last year--largely due to its perceived willingness to hold the line against the Tory cuts imposed in London.

New SNP party leader Nicola Sturgeon has emerged as one of the most dynamic and popular figures in British politics. Despite only standing for election in Scotland, the SNP is on course to win over 50 seats in the new parliament.

The dramatic rise of the SNP has put pressure on Labour to consider the possibility of an anti-Tory coalition that incorporates the nationalists from north of the border. But Ed Miliband and other Labour leaders have repeatedly refused to countenance such an alliance, citing fears that it would strengthen the movement for independence in Scotland.

Instead, the Labour leadership has caved to right-wing scaremongering about the possibility of the SNP in government--it has seemed to campaign more forcefully against Scottish nationalists than it has against the Tories.

The election seems likely to produce a hung parliament, with the Conservatives as the largest party, but lacking the number of MPs necessary to win an absolute majority and therefore form a government. The Tories may well find themselves unable to muster a majority even with the support of smaller right-wing parties like UKIP.

Under those circumstances, it's difficult to predict who might form the government. Labour could probably rely on the votes of Scottish and Welsh nationalists in order to pass parts of its program, including some modest rollbacks of the worst Tory attacks on the public sector. But Miliband has already ruled out forming a permanent governing coalition with the SNP. Without such a coalition, a Labour government would be fragile, to say the least.

The situation in Scotland could be even more interesting. If, as has been predicted, the nationalists win all or almost all of Scotland's seats in parliament, the SNP and its supporters will feel empowered to demand a greater measure of autonomy from London. Should they feel that the British government--particularly if it happens to be a minority Conservative government--is dragging its feet, the independence movement would likely be strengthened.

Scotland therefore represents a partial example of a process that has taken place elsewhere in Europe: The collapse of support for mainstream center-left and center-right parties in the face of mass anti-austerity sentiment, and the emergence of new left-wing political forces to fill the void.

The level of struggle in Scotland has not approached what it is in Greece or Spain, and the SNP is certainly not as radical as either SYRIZA or Podemos. Nevertheless, the collapse of Labour in one of its traditional strongholds represents a political earthquake in Britain, and the reverberations will help to define the coming period.

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