The Britain that goes to the polls on Thursday looks awfully familiar to anyone from New Zealand. In Britain too, a smooth but vacuous technocrat (David Cameron) leads a government whose prime policy allegiance seems to be to its financial services and banking elites. In Britain as here, the PM and his party minions preach the discredited gospel of fiscal austerity and a balanced budget, while touting the brilliance of an economic recovery all but invisible to 90 % of UK households. Oh, and the UK health system has been ravaged by privatisation, and likewise…. the UK education system has been riven by (a) an obsessive focus on national standards in education and (b) a failing, ideologically-driven experiment with charter schools.
The parallels go further. As here, the two major parties are beset by the populist appeal of an anti–immigrant nationalistic party (UKIP) that’s making deep inroads in provincial cities and the rural heartlands. On the centre-left, the Labour Party is lead by a lacklustre figure ( Ed Miliband) whose bid for the centre ground has seen Labour embrace the neo-liberal rhetoric of austerity and budget-balancing – even as it bemoans the social consequences of those policies. As a result, Labour has been bleeding support to the Greens and (north of the border) to a rampant Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP.)
So what’s going to happen on Thursday? To date, much of the coverage has consisted of horse race journalism ( ie, a photo finish, too close to call etc etc) based on the nationwide opinion polls, spiced up with (a) sidebars about UKIP’s role as a spoiler and (b) the rise of the SNP at the expense of a Labour Party that the SNP is offering to prop up in a minority government, if Miliband will give it half a chance. As for the Liberal-Democrats…. it is generally agreed they will lose seats, and influence.
There are 650 constituency races. Britain is still saddled with a First Past The Post voting system. FPTP’s litany of faults include a lack of proportionality (duh), much gerrymandering of constituency boundaries and – in particular – a high level of tactical voting in constituencies. The heavy reliance on tactical voting commonly results in artificially-created two party contests. These do not always boil down to Labour vs Conservative fights. In northern England and Scotland for instance, the Conservatives barely figure as a presence on the political landscape. Similarly, in the rural areas and small towns of southern England, Labour barely figures in what are basically Conservative versus Lib-Dem ( or vs UKIP) contests.
Thanks to the rotten FPTP system, voting doesn’t Britons any direct payoff in proportionality. Many, many people do not ever get to vote for what they want, but only for the party they despise the least. Tactical voting has therefore always been a feature of British elections, but as US pollster Nate Silver says, it is likely to reach unprecedented levels in this 2015 contest. This resort to tactical voting may just be enough – for instance – to save the bacon of the discredited Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg in his endangered Sheffield-Hallam seat,judging by this poll from late last week :
Labour has managed to cling onto a slender lead over the Lib Dems by 1% on 37% against 36%. However, the opinion polls do show a trend where tactical voters are favouring the Lib Dem leader on a 2 to 1 margin i.e. for every 1% Labour tends to add to its percentage share of the vote the Lib Dems adds 2%. Which is not so surprising given that out of the remaining 27% of ‘other party’ voters, 23% are right of centre whilst only 4% are left of centre which leaves a huge pool for the Lib Dems to capitalise upon on election day when the choice facing Conservatives and UKIP voters will be whether to lend their vote to Nick Clegg or see the Sheffield Hallam seat fall to Labour…..
Similarly, to the south east of London in the South Thanet constituency where UKIP leader Nigel Farage is running, the Greens have been urging their supporters to vote for Labour. As Nate Silver commented a couple of months ago :
The two most important tactics that could affect votes in May would be Labour voters turning Conservative to keep UKIP out in their districts and Liberal Democrat voters turning to Labour to stop the Conservative party from gaining a seat.
For all the emphasis on the presidential styles of the party leaders, the secondary messaging involved with the tactical voting plays out differently around the country. To remain in the fray in the north – where the immediate foe is Labour and to a lesser extent, UKIP – the Lib-Dems have to send out quite different messages than in the south and south east, where the Tories are the realistic rivals. This is supposedly an advantage of FPTP, in that it fosters regional and local issues at constituency level. Ultimately though, such issues are over-ridden and skewed by the high incidence of tactical voting….. and by the unforeseen consequences of Tony Blair’s capitulation to Third Way economics. As Paul Mason argued a month or so ago :
the legacy of Blairism has seen three basic tribal divisions emerge in modern Britain that transcend local concerns. Namely, Britain has seen the emergence of (a) ‘Scandi-Scotland’ in the north (b) ‘post-industrial’ Britain in many parts of the country and (c) a socially, economically and politically isolated asset-rich region in London, and the south east. Here’s what Mason has to say about this region and its friends in Westminster :
People in south-east England understand, implicitly, that they are riding the success of Britain as a financialised economy. They understand that, when this great financial machine is functioning, even as it boosts inequality, the only logical thing to do is find your place in it – whether as a currency trader or taxi driver, lap dancer or legal secretary. [What great options for women ! ] Blairism’s insight was to understand this change was underway, and to adapt Labour’s politics to capturing parts of south-east England. The party’s mistake was to believe the change was universal, and that Scotland, Wales and northern England would stay loyal as it made the adaptation.
Famously, they have not. As the name implies, the aspirations of ‘Scandi-Scotland’ are now more akin to Scandinavia than to the rest of Britain. Scotland has become left wing social democratic, pro-European and increasingly united in its hostility to the policies of the London elites, although – it has to be conceded – the Edinburgh financial sector was partly responsible for whipping up the panic over exiting the pound that did so much to narrowly defeat the independence referendum last September. The third tribal grouping – post industrial Britain – is in many ways the most interesting :
This includes much of northern England, south Wales, many coastal towns and most big cities. Post-industrial does not mean “rust belt”; it means the industries that survive are hi-tech, globally focused and employ a fraction of the staff they used to. But there is a strong self-replicating industrial consciousness; a more hostile attitude to asset wealth; stronger local identities – which become fractious where the labour market is globalised.
Can these three groups exist together in a single political system? During the Scottish referendum, it was clear that many young Scots believed the “aspirational southerner” group in England is more or less permanently aligned with conservatism and liberalism, and can therefore block the left-social democratic government in Westminster that many of them want. They looked at the ethnic tension in northern English towns, the decline of trade unions, the splintering of the Labour vote to UKIP, and concluded that, though the post-industrial group is their natural ally, it can never win a governing majority.
That’s almost the point where we stand today, on the brink of a close election. The impetus for change definitely resides in Scotland, plus in allied elements of the post industrial north, in coastal towns and in the cities outside London. During the election campaign, Labour’s support for neo-liberalism and budget balancing – and along with it, Labour’s apparent rejection of the SNP – have been a product of Miliband’s entirely pragmatic tactical decision not to scare the suburban voters in the regions still in the balance, and thereby drive them towards the Conservatives and Lib-Dems. Unfortunately, by dialling back the potential for a “Red Ed” that might scare the suburban undecided, Labour has left a lot of room for UKIP to mop up the alienated, the disenfranchised, the unemployed and the underemployed in what was once the Labour heartland.
So once again, what will happen on Thursday ? Nate Silver ‘s 538 website has been very careful not to confuse who will win the election with who will then be able to form a government. (Coalition governments now seem to be as chronic a feature of FPTP Britain as they are of MMP New Zealand.) It seems certain the Conservatives will win the most seats – but if you look at these seat (and bloc) numbers on the British counterpart of Nate Silver’s site, it seems very hard to avoid the conclusion ( in a 650 seat Parliament) that Labour is better placed to form a minority government. It is one that would be supported from outside a formal coalition by the SNP – and also by, conceivably, what is left of the Lib-Dems. It will take a few days for it to sink in that the party that wins the most votes – or even the most seats – is not necessarily the party that gets to govern.
Right now, for tactical campaign reasons, Miliband is saying he will not do a deal with the SNP. Cameron will therefore get the first crack at forming a government – and it is hard to see how he can possibly succeed, unless Miliband passively allowed him to do so. The Labour strategy may be to let Cameron try, and fail. It can then allow itself – in a pantomime of reluctance – to be dragged to the Treasury benches with the SNP as its enabler, yet still at arms length. There isn’t any other viable option.
As the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon has been saying all week, would Labour really be willing to hand over Britain to the tender mercies of the Tories for another five years, simply because of Labour spite against the SNP ? Come Friday morning and the votes are in, Miliband will have a lot more room to treat the SNP – if not exactly as a friend – as the enemy of the enemy that they hold in common.
Hi there to Princess Charlotte
Nice to think that the Tories will quite possibly bite the dust in the same week that Britain goes through another spasm of royal-mania. There are quite a few songs about Charlottes and even a band called Good Charlotte, which isn’t. IMO, the best Charlotte song ever would have to be by the Welsh band Los Campesinos ! Here they are doing a live, acoustic version of “Letters From Me To Charlotte” ……which by song’s end is in the same neighbourhood as “Street Hassle.” The sensitive may wish to avert their ears from where Gareth Campesino goes in the second song in this intimate little set.
Gareth C also brought Charlotte into play in the pell mell “We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed”…But for old times sake, here’s the band’s first hit “You ! Me ! Dancing ! “