June 2010

The Nation Reviewed

UK elections

By John Keane
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Last month’s hung parliament in the British election confirms a basic rule of modern politics: whenever markets fail, representative democracy falters. Not just in the UK, but throughout the European Union, the near collapse of the credit and banking system is fuelling deep public disaffection with parties, politicians and parliaments. In Iceland, a whole government was sacked by angry voters. Trust in government and business among Irish citizens has dipped to an all-time low. A sharp swing to the right in bankrupt Hungary has fuelled the growth of a sizeable neo-fascist party. Meanwhile, rioting and petrol bombs have rocked the streets of Greece. Even heartland member states such as France and Germany are feeling the pinch.

The drama at Westminster mirrors the trend. It is the third hung parliament delivered by an election since the advent of the universal franchise in 1928; each of these was triggered by market failure. The present political crisis – for that’s what it is – is unique, partly because of the discrediting of ‘Third Way’ social democracy as a viable political alternative to free-market capitalism in strong state form. Riding high on a bubbling economy, three New Labour governments held office for 13 years. Much of historic importance was achieved during this time, including a separate parliament for Scotland and mayoral elections in London. Yet, aside from showcase support for the National Health Service, these governments generally neglected the ‘social’ in social democracy. By default, and sometimes by design, they fed the greed of the rich, presided over a sharp jump in chronic poverty and triggered middle-class anxieties about the future. They helped turn the UK into an hourglass-shaped society.

Public faith in New Labour was sapped by an unelected prime minister whose media performances often resembled a cow on ice, and by the still-smiling “Tony B Liar”, who had dragged the country to war in Iraq under false pretences. New Labour’s love of political triangulation, the tactic of shifting policy to the centre and best symbolised by the Brown government’s reduction of capital gains tax to 10%, won it few friends. Then came the great market failure: the nervous breakdown of the self-regulated financial system in the autumn of 2008 was followed – the timing was not accidental – by a big squeeze on the whole political class. Its reputation was dirtied by a string of very petty, very British parliamentary expenses scandals centred on ‘flipping’ (submitting invoices for bogus second houses and flats)and MPs’ claims for such items as fox-proof floating duck islands, cake tins, tree trimming and shopping bags costing 25 pence.

The malarky ensured that the act of calling a general election in a polity without fixed-term parliaments was risky, not just for the incumbent government of Gordon Brown, but for all parties. Remember the rule: Failing markets destabilise democracy. So it happened that on 6 May 2010 the normal pattern – sequenced thumping victories for figures such as Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher – was decisively rejected by voters. Bridling their enthusiasm, they held their noses. In an eerie expression of collective wisdom, pencil in hand, standing alone in classrooms, churches and community centres, many millions of individual citizens cleverly voted against the whole political establishment.

It was as if they had decided to say bugger to Buggins. More than a few deliberately set out to hang parliament and in this short-term aim they succeeded magnificently. Two-thirds of them voted (up marginally from 2005 but way down from the 84% who voted in the 1950 general election). Very few spoiled their ballots or voted for the Monster Raving Loony Party. Many complained loudly of “disenfranchisement” and some staged sit-ins when dozens of badly run polling stations locked their doors at 10 pm, leaving voters stranded in the streets, unable to vote. In the wee hours of the overnight count, Labour’s Ed Miliband complained that “the people have spoken and we don’t quite know what they have said.” Next morning the journalist Simon Jenkins pronounced that the “British electorate has spoken but has choked on its words”. They were both misjudgements, for the clear collective intention was to put all politicians on trial – to Europeanise the UK by forcing political leaders of different persuasions to talk to each other in fresh ways about how to govern the country amidst the worst market failure for nearly a century.

What prompted this quiet rebellion? The prevailing mood of suspicion, suffused with sullenness, has much to do with the fact that many citizens, faced with a choice between disaster and the unpalatable, wisely refused to vote for any party promising savage cuts in the state budget, even though the amputations now look inevitable, thanks to a record deficit of 12% of GDP (the worst level in the European Union, half of it caused by bailing out failed banks). Yet the roots of their refusal run deeper. Political party involvement has been plummeting for decades. Current Tory party membership stands at around 300,000, barely an eighth of its peak in Winston Churchill’s day, when over 10% of British citizens belonged to a political party. Today the figure is close to 1% – a key indicator that most Britons regard political parties and politicians with something that stands between suspicion and contempt.

Their misgivings are deepened by the entry of big money into the temple of democratic politics. The Tory party has often resembled a business franchise but a century ago the nascent Labour Party introduced a different, cleaner funding-formula: tiny donations – but lots of them – made through the trade unions, whose political wing was the party. The formula is now virtually dead; resembling a passage from The Pickwick Papers, Labour and Tory party funding has become ingloriously venal. The slow-burn election scandal featuring Lord Michael Ashcroft, the non-domiciled Tory peer who gave a million dollars to secure the election of Michael Howard’s government in 2004, reminded every British voter that politics is now the chum of big money.

This time around, Ashcroft poured unspecified sums into marginal seats that the Tories needed to win. In electoral terms the tactic failed; he ended up being tagged “Lord Cashcroft”. Big money, meanwhile, was pumped like petrol into the commercial media engines. Led by Rupert Murdoch’s Times and the Sun, every national daily newspaper except the Guardian, the Independent and the Daily Mirror championed a Tory majority government. Given the deep public unease about politicians and journalists, it seems that tactic also failed. It is true that at certain moments in the campaign public enthusiasm for normal pendulum-swing politics seemed to revive, as during the American-style leadership debates, the first ever to be held in the UK. The magnetic effect was short-lived, even for the charismatic Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats and now deputy prime minister. Many voters saw right through the “TV celebrity-talent contest” (the frank words of a senior Tory MP), while others had already moved on to blogs and tweets, which for the first time played a serious role in British general elections, especially among young, first-time voters. Unsurprisingly, they voted disproportionately for the Liberal Democrats, driven by the feeling that many institutions of the Westminster system are antiquated, unrepresentative and undemocratic.

They have a point. For if teams of independent election monitors had visited the British Isles during this campaign, they surely would have judged the contest to be free, but unfair. They might have asked: What kind of democracy is this, whose first-past-the-post electoral system handed the Tories 305 seats in the House of Commons (47% of the total) based on the support of just 23% of eligible voters? Why are there still so few women MPs (22%) compared with countries such as India, Sweden and Rwanda? Isn’t an unelected House of Lords stacked with party appointees bad for democracy? And what about the underfunded British Electoral Commission whose chair, Jenny Watson, appeared on television during the middle of the night after polls closed to apologise for outdated “Victorian” procedures that belonged, she confessed, to an age “when only a few people had the vote”.

With a budget-slashing coalition Tory–Liberal Democrat government now a reality, tougher times are coming to the UK. A moment of sympathy should be spared for its good citizens – all those people who won the election but lost the result. More than a few of them sense that material living standards and the quality of public institutions are set to sharply decline. They know that, as the hourglass contours of inequality harden, daily life for several million will grow shabbier and nastier. Razor-sharp media scrutiny is bound to fuel their disaffection with government and party politics. How many of these good citizens will want to emigrate or choose to drown their coming sorrows in Olympic spirit is unclear. Whether they will acquiesce to unpopular government decisions, or instead resist, as has happened in Iceland and Greece, is also unclear. The leaders of the unexpected Con–Dem coalition of opposites are upbeat, of course. They promise a “new politics”, a “stable and durable” government that will stand for “the national interest” and take the country in a “historic new direction”. The real-world odds are strongly against such chalk talk. In the age of free-market failure, the only political certainty in the UK is the coming uncertainty triggered by strange bedfellows and disputed outcomes.

John Keane

John Keane is the co-founder of the Sydney Democracy Network and professor of politics at the University of Sydney and the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin (WZB). His The Life and Death of Democracy is the first full-scale history of democracy for over a century.

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