This is the first of what I plan to be a series of posts about the UK general election in the run up to polling day on May 7th. I realise that this may seem rather parochial and as such may be of limited interest to readers of the blog from outside the UK. But I am not so sure that is so. Much of what is happening here has counterparts in many other countries. For example, there is a breakdown in trust in the political process and the emergence of new parties which are to some extent extremist (though perhaps less so than in other countries), and one consequence of this is that the result is far less predictable than at any other recent election. Moreover, much of the context of this is the unfolding of the consequences of globalization and of the financial crisis. The other thing to be said at the outset is that this focus on politics may seem at odds with the focus of the book and this blog of the book, which is on organizations. But here I would just re-state one of the basic arguments of the book, which is the inseparability of politics and organizations.
In this first post, I’ll just make some orientating comments. The period since the early 1990s saw a remarkable convergence between the two main parties, Conservative and Labour, with both being committed to the neo-liberal order, even though one was notionally a party of the Right and the other of the Left. That is to say, both converged on globalization, deregulation and privatization or marketization of public services. The assumption of that convergence was that Britain would continue to be a two-party system as it has been for many decades, with the Conservatives holding on to all the voters whose views were further to the Right than its policies and Labour holding on to all those to its Left. That assumption didn’t quite hold, even at the last election in 2010, principally because the ‘third party’, the Liberal Democrats, garnered quite a bit of support, especially from the Left, not because they diverged from the economic consensus of the other two parties but mainly because they alone had opposed the Iraq War. The consequence of this was a hung parliament and a Conservative-LibDem government that enacted a programme of fiscal austerity.
Although that austerity programme is a defining feature of the current election campaign, it is in a way a sideshow. The proposition is that Labour wrecked the economy with ‘left-wing’ policies, and it was rescued by right-wing policies. But of course the economic wreck of the financial crisis was a wreck of neo-liberalism, which happened to occur when the notionally left-wing party was in power but would have happened in exactly the same way even if they had not been (as in the United States). Moreover, had Labour happened to have won the last election they too would have implemented a similar fiscal austerity programme. In effect, Conservative and Labour parties have become two rival management teams, not differing very much in ideology or policy. And at this election, too, for all that Labour have perhaps very slightly shifted leftwards under Miliband (though to nothing like the extent that the media portrayals of him as ‘Red Ed’ suggests), the alternatives are really only between the extent of continued austerity and a few percentage points either way on the size of the state and the speed of deficit reduction.
Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that the two main parties are only narrowly separated in the opinion polls. For what has happened now is that the assumption that voters had nowhere else to go but to that of the main parties to which they least objected has broken down. In Scotland, a social democratic Scottish National Party (SNP) has, as an unintended consequence of their failure to win the independence referendum, grabbed a massive chunk of the hitherto automatic Labour vote. In England, the anti-EU, anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has grabbed a chunk of the Conservative vote, and a part of the traditional Labour vote. Meanwhile, the Green Party has bitten off pieces of the Labour and LibDem votes. All three of these parties, different as they are, are very clearly alternatives to the neo-liberal consensus of the last 20 years. Each has fractured what were in effect the coalitions of the Conservative and Labour parties. UKIP fractures the nationalist/traditionalist and globalist coalition that Thatcherism created. The SNP and Greens fracture the social democratic and free market coalition that New Labour created. Yet the differences between UKIP/Green/SNP (and some potentially kindred voters in other parties) mean that there is no possibility at all of them forming a unified movement. Not the least of these differences are wildly incompatible notions within and between each of them as to the meaning of local/national and global/international. To put it crudely, UKIP are nationalist (on the EU, immigration and aid) and globalist (on defence and trade); SNP are nationalist (on Scottish independence and defence) and globalist (on the EU and immigration); the Greens are localist (on trade and defence) and internationalist (on aid and immigration). These differences become particularly acute in relation to the European Union (see my post here) and also relate to the tension between cosmopolitans and locals (see my post here).
In 1957 the American political scientist Anthony Downs published An Economic Theory of Democracy. It got taken up as an endorsement of a two party system such that each party would go to the centre ground and then take all the votes to its left or right. In fact, it only predicted that if certain assumptions about ideological consensus and the distribution of ideological views held good. In Britain, they have held until very recently. For example, in the two British elections (1955 and 1959) either side of Downs’ book Conservative and Labour parties between them secured about 99% of the vote on a turnout of about 78%. Even in 2010 they got 87% of the vote up to 96% with LibDems included, albeit on a 65% turnout. But for the forthcoming elections the current national opinion poll average is: Conservative 33%, Labour 34%, LibDems 8%, UKIP 14% and Greens 5%. And in Scotland the SNP is polling in the high 40% and Labour in the high 20% areas, pretty much an exact reversal of the 2010 election.
Outcomes are difficult to predict, but a Conservative or Labour majority government are the least likely possibilities. More likely are either a Conservative government pulled to the Right by reliance on UKIP or a Labour government pulled to the Left by the SNP. Either result would mark a significant moment in British politics and could have important ramifications for the wider world.