Centrists Caution Cameron Against Overreaching

British prime minister David Cameron on the phone in his office at Downing Street, London, England, March 12, 2013
British prime minister David Cameron on the phone in his office at Downing Street, London, England, March 12, 2013 (The Prime Minister’s Office)

As Britain’s David Cameron installed his second cabinet on Monday, he was urged by centrists not to interpret last week’s election victory as a mandate for radical change.

It is the prime minister’s unenviable task to keep his tribe happy but prevent it from behaving like a restorationist sect, writes Matthew d’Ancona in The Guardian newspaper. With only a razor-thin majority in Parliament, Cameron can’t afford to upset his more reactionary backbenchers, nor can he allow his party to lurch to the right or it will alienate voters in the next election.

The issue most likely to stir a rebellion is Europe, as it did for John Mayor, the last Conservative prime minister before Cameron came to power in 2010. He similarly commanded a small majority and party infighting contributed to a devastating defeat in 1997 when the Conservatives lost half their seats.

Cameron has already given Euroskeptics an in-out referendum on Britain’s European Union membership. But d’Ancona warns that the Tory right may not “take yes for an answer.” They could push Cameron to demand unreasonable concessions from other European countries, such as restrictions on the free movement of labor or a deep cut in Britain’s contribution to the union’s budget. If the prime minister gives in to such pressure, he would set himself up for failure in Brussels and raise the chance that British voters decide to opt out altogether.

Conservative Party leaders recognize the danger of overreach, writes the Financial Times‘s Janan Ganesh. “They know well enough that Britain has not become Texas overnight.”

At the same time, voters have given Cameron a mandate to eliminate the deficit by cutting back on state services, including welfare, and thrown the opposition into disarray. Labour will spend the next several months obsessing about its own future; the Liberal Democrats are almost wiped out and the Scottish National Party, now the third largest in the House of Commons, does not represent anti-austerity voters in England and Wales. This all gives the Conservatives leeway to pursue a radical agenda.

The laws on planning and land use can be loosened up, if rural Tories are pacified. Free schools and academies will proliferate. Power will flow to cities — George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer, is a convert to a cause that Greg Clark, the new local government secretary, has proselytized for a decade.

The question is if the public will bear it. Britain is not “asking to be turned upside down by zealots,” according to Ganesh. d’Ancona adds, “The Tories would be quite wrong to interpret the election result as a green light to cut welfare as they please.”

The British deplore benefit fraud but they also deplore the politics of heartlessness in which efficiency trumps decency.

Cameron may agree and want to stay the course. But as d’Ancona points out, he no longer has Liberal Democrat coalition partners for cover. He can no longer claim the Conservatives have no choice but to pursue a centrist agenda. He now needs to convince them that’s the right choice to make.

Some rightwingers are irreconcilable to Cameron’s modernizing project. If they can’t be convinced, perhaps they can be bought off. Without a coalition party, Cameron has more jobs to hand out. The elevation of Thatcherites Sajid Javid and John Whittingdale to the cabinet on Monday and Cameron’s meeting with the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, Graham Brady, suggest the prime minister knows there’s a tricky balancing act ahead.

Why Liberals Should Rejoice in David Cameron’s Reelection

British prime minister David Cameron arrives for a meeting of the European Council in Brussels, December 13, 2012
British prime minister David Cameron arrives for a meeting of the European Council in Brussels, December 13, 2012 (The Council of the European Union)

Liberals who worry that Prime Minister David Cameron’s reelection on Thursday marks the demise of an internationalist Britain in favor of “Little England” fail to appreciate just how much the Conservative Party leader has done for liberalism.

Nick Clegg, Cameron’s former deputy, was understandably bitter when he stepped down as Liberal Democrat leader on Friday. Having lost all but eight seats in Parliament, the traditional third party in British politics was replaced by the Scottish nationalists who won 56 seats.

“Years of remorseless economic and social hardship following the crash in 2008 and the grinding insecurities of globalization have led for people to reach to new certainties,” Clegg said. “The politics of identity, of nationalism, of us versus them is now on the rise.”

He could have said the same about any Western democracy. The conclusion he drew from this, however, was wrong.

Liberalism, here, as well as across Europe, is not faring well against the politics of fear.

His left-leaning brand of liberalism, no. But former Liberal Democrat voters in England didn’t switch to the United Kingdom Independence Party which represents those politics of fear. They voted for Cameron’s Conservatives instead because he advances a type of liberalism that works.

Clegg isn’t alone in underestimating Cameron’s liberalism.

The day after the election, The Independent said Britain had become a “less liberal country,” apparently conflating the term with progressivism.

The Economist earlier warned against Britain emerging “smaller, more inward-looking and with less clout in the world” and regrets what it calls the Conservatives’ Europhobia and Britain’s growing anti-immigrant sentiment. The only reason it nevertheless backed the Conservatives in this election is that the newspaper rightly mistrusted Labour on the economy.

The Washington Post is lamenting as well, writing that the election could “set this island adrift from Europe, divide it in half along ancient lines of national identity and ultimately leave behind a rump state of ever-diminishing value to its American allies.”

These concerns are not without merit. Cameron has promised to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the European Union before calling a referendum that the right wing of his party and fashionable metropolitan opinion in London will fuss about for the next two years, giving the impression that this is a priority for British voters. Hardly. Polls show most Britons — like voters everywhere — care far more about their jobs, health care and schools than they do about Europe. If they must vote on membership, more would decide to stay in the European Union than risk an exit.

There are voters who say they care a great deal about Europe or immigration. But they are really proxies for their immediate economic worries. English industry workers who’ve lost their jobs during the recession are more likely to believe Farage when he blames open borders than are urban professionals whose values are more liberal altogether.

If a majority of Britons were to vote to leave the European Union after all, it would reignite the independence debate in Scotland where support for membership is higher.

Short of that, a new constitutional settlement should suffice to keep the Scottish nationalists at bay for another generation. And such a settlement is long overdue anyway.

The devolution of spending powers to Scotland without giving the region the ability to tax has created a perverse situation. English taxpayers subsidize a Scottish government over which they have no control while the Scots send a sizable delegation to Westminster where they can influence policy across the United Kingdom. This is plainly unfair and tut-tutting English “nationalism” or the Conservatives for promising to rectify the imbalance reveals a disdain for the patience of ordinary English voters who have put up with this for decades.

Some form of federalism should be tied to a decentralization of authority to big cities, like London and Greater Manchester, as well as Wales. Far from “inward-looking” or parochial, the question of how to best distribute political power is highly relevant at a time when state borders are becoming less relevant and cities and regions compete for business, capital and talent from across the world.

As a whole, Britain is competitive. The Economist points out that per person, it attracts nearly twice as much foreign direct investment as the rich-country average. But it forgets to mention that most of this goes to London and it puts too much emphasis on Britain’s “openness to outsiders.” Investment and immigration aren’t the same thing but too much immigration can cause a backlash against everything foreign. There are worrying signs this is happening in the less cosmopolitan parts of England in particular.

What are the Conservatives to do? Inaction will almost certainly see the divide between a Europeanizing, liberal London and the rest of England widen and parties like Farage’s capitalize on an anti-elitism that they associate with the popular opinions of the capital.

The Economist advises a more liberal immigration policy, predicting it would “boost business, help balance the nation’s books and shrink the state.” It probably would. But it would also see more right-wing voters defecting to UKIP and the trade unions pulling the Labour Party in a more protectionist direction.

British liberals should start by recognizing that David Cameron is the most liberal prime minister they are going to get. The Liberal Democrats will never win a national election and the next Labour leader is probably going to be pro-European and more welcoming of immigrants — but also more comfortable with state intervention in the economy and a generous welfare system. That is, after all, what Labour is for.

Cameron must balance his own moderate instincts and his mandate against the reactionaries in his party. The Tories didn’t win this election to pull Britain to the right but that is invariably how some Euroskeptics and social conservatives will see it. Cameron knows that positioning his party in the center of British politics is how it will keep winning elections. And the center is almost by definition a liberal place.

In his first term, Cameron cut public spending and taxes, reduced the deficit by half, saw unemployment fall below the European average, inflation fall to almost zero, households’ disposable income rise to pre-crisis levels; he created more self-governing schools, stopped those on benefits from earning more than those in work and legalized gay marriage.

In his second term, he wants to continue shrinking the state, cut more taxes, produce a budget surplus, increase home ownership, devolve more powers to England’s major cities and Scotland and accomplish reform in Europe so it focuses more on strengthening the single market than it does on growing a bureaucracy in Brussels that is out of touch with voters everywhere.

If, to achieve all these things liberals like, Cameron needs to tighten immigration rules and call a referendum so the Tory right stays quiet, liberals shouldn’t be conjuring images of a xenophobic Britain that is losing its way. Rather they should count their blessings and accept that in a democracy, nobody gets everything they want.

Scottish Nationalists Bound to Disappoint Supporters

Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon talks with voters, May 5, 2011
Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon talks with voters, May 5, 2011 (Ewan McIntosh)

Despite winning 56 out of Scotland’s 59 seats in Britain’s general election on Thursday, the Scottish National Party is almost certain to disappoint its supporters.

The nationalists were expecting to play kingmakers in the new Parliament. Polls had shown neither Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives nor the opposition Labour Party winning an outright majority. With the SNP set to take over almost all of Labour’s seats in Scotland, it was projected to be able to give the socialists a majority.

But the Conservatives eked out a majority of their own while Labour did worse than expected. It went down from 257 to 232 seats when 323 are needed for a working majority.

The ruling party promised to devolve more powers to Scotland after it voted against independence in a referendum last year, including control over air passenger duties, housing credits, income taxes and winter fuel payments. The Scottish Parliament should also get additional welfare competencies.

The Conservatives are reluctant to give Scotland even more control over its own affairs for fear of weakening the union. But as far as the SNP is concerned, the current plans don’t go far enough.

For the average SNP voter, the transfer of additional competencies to the regional government matters less than the Conservative victory. Deeply anti-Tory, Scottish nationalists will resent a second term for David Cameron. They are likely to resist him no matter how many concessions he makes.

There is another reason the SNP may be in for a setback. Many of its newly-elected members of Parliament are inexperienced. The most dramatic example is Mhairi Black, a twenty-year-old student who defeated Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander.

The experience of insurgent parties elsewhere in Europe has been that huge upswings in support tend to produce internal instability. Political novices suddenly find themselves with influence or power and under media scrutiny while they are unaccustomed to both. Expect a rocky start for the SNP delegation in Westminster.

Britain’s Cameron Stays in Power, Other Leaders Resign

British prime minister David Cameron delivers a press conference outside his office at 10 Downing Street in London, England, May 23, 2013
British prime minister David Cameron delivers a press conference outside his office at 10 Downing Street in London, England, May 23, 2013 (The Prime Minister’s Office)

British prime minister David Cameron stayed in power on Thursday, promising to government for “one nation” in his second term.

Cameron’s Conservative Party won an overall majority of 331 seats in the House of Commons on Thursday — defying polls that had predicted a hung parliament.

The Liberal Democrats, who governed in coalition with the Conservatives for the last five years, suffered what leader Nick Clegg described on Friday as a “crushing” defeat. The party fell from 56 to eight seats.

Clegg resigned as leader, saying, “It’s simply heartbreaking to see so many friends and colleagues who have served their constituents over so many years abruptly lose their seats because of forces entirely beyond their control.”

Labour’s Ed Miliband resigned as well, saying he was “deeply sorry” for the party’s losses, especially in Scotland where the Scottish National Party took 56 out of 59 seats.

Labour went down from 257 to 232 seats, its worst showing since 1987. The socialist party won only 30 percent of the popular vote against almost 37 percent for the Conservatives.

The United Kingdom Independence Party’s Nigel Farage stepped down as party leader as well after failing to win a seat in the constituency of Thanet South. The Euroskeptic party got 13 percent support nationwide but failed to win more than one seat.

Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system disadvantages small parties like UKIP but benefited the SNP in Scotland where the other parties split the pro-union vote.

The nationalists had hoped for a Labour victory so their support could be crucial to the next government. Cameron’s triumph could see support for independence in Scotland rise where a referendum last year found a 55 percent majority in favor of staying in the United Kingdom.

Cameron promised on Friday to “implement as fast as I can the devolution that all parties agreed for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland” but it’s doubtful the extra powers will be enough for the SNP.

Britain’s Labour Party Has Itself to Blame for Defeat

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband and British deputy prime minister Nick Clegg attend a Remembrance Sunday ceremony in Whitehall, London, November 9, 2014
Labour Party leader Ed Miliband and British deputy prime minister Nick Clegg attend a Remembrance Sunday ceremony in Whitehall, London, November 9, 2014 (Sandra Hall)

With Britain’s Labour Party expected to lose Thursday’s general election, falling from 257 to 232 seats in the BBC’s forecast, The Telegraph‘s Dan Hodges argues that the party has only itself to blame for this defeat.

Hodges, a former Labour Party official, has been highly critical of Ed Miliband’s leadership for years.

He believes it was a mistake for Labour to refuse to apologize for its mismanagement of the economy when it was last in power until the final days of the campaign. This allowed Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives, who could now win an overall majority, to credibly claim that Labour could not be trusted with command of the world’s fifth largest economy again.

When Cameron first came to power in 2010, the United Kingdom was borrowing £149 billion, equivalent to 11 percent of economic output. Labour had allowed the national debt to rise from around 50 percent to almost 80 percent of gross domestic product.

Miliband anchored his party not in the political center where elections are won. “Instead, he decided to position it where it felt most comfortable,” according to Hodges — “on the left.

Labour criticized almost every austerity measure Cameron’s government enacted and seemed to promise only more of the public spending largesse that made those cuts necessary in the first place.

[Miliband] was told that to win, he would have to reach out beyond his — and his party’s — comfort zone and build a broad political alliance. Instead, he decided he could coast into power with 35 percent of the vote.

With Labour now at 32 percent support — with 542 out of 650 seats declared — that strategy has been proven a mistake. Partially because it failed to take into account the popularity of the Scottish National Party, which has all but wiped out Labour north of the border, but crucially because it didn’t even try to woo moderate English and Welsh voters who gave Labour three victories in a row under Tony Blair.

Britain’s Conservatives Beat Expectations to Win Election

The Houses of Parliament in London, England at dawn, April 14, 2011
The Houses of Parliament in London, England at dawn, April 14, 2011 (Chris Goldberg)
  • Britain’s ruling Conservative Party has won 330 seats in the House of Commons, a gain of 28 and four more than are needed for a majority.
  • David Cameron is due to stay on as prime minister.
  • Labour went down from 256 to 232 seats. The Liberal Democrats, who have ruled in coalition with Cameron since 2010, lost 48 of their 56 seats.
  • The Scottish National Party took 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland.
  • Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party failed to win any seats.

With British Election Days Away, Reason to Question Polls

View of the Houses of Parliament in London, England, December 21, 2011
View of the Houses of Parliament in London, England, December 21, 2011 (Ben Sutherland)

With surveys showing Britain’s Conservative and Labour Parties neck and neck for Thursday’s election, both are hoping to prove the pollsters wrong. There is reason to believe they might.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s party is hoping for a replay of the 1992 election when the polls predicted a narrow win for the opposition Labour Party but John Mayor actually won a comfortable majority in the House of Commons with 42 percent support.

Labour may want to repeat a more recent experience. In 2010, the polls gave it between 24 and 29 percent support, with most predicting 28 percent. In fact, it got 30 percent support although it still lost 91 seats.

May 2015, the New Statesman‘s election website, reports that in all but one of the twenty most recent elections, pollsters overestimated Labour’s support. The exception was 2010 when they overestimated the Liberal Democrats’ popularity instead.

This should be encouraging to the Conservatives who are urging voters to stick with a successful government rather than risk an unstable Labour alliance with the Scottish National Party. But with less than a week to go before the election, they had probably expected to be up by now. The Conservatives have delivered on their key promises to reduce the deficit and revitalize the British economy. Labour, by contrast, has lurched to the left under Ed Miliband’s leadership when voters have traditionally punished the socialist party when it veered too far from the center.

One thing that’s working against the Conservatives is the support for the Euroskeptic United Kingdom Independence Party. Polling at around 14 percent nationwide, Nigel Farage’s party is unlikely to win more than a handful of seats in Westminster. But it could split the right-wing vote in many constituencies, allowing Labour to take seats that would otherwise have gone to the Conservatives.

Under Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system, whichever party wins a plurality of the votes in a given constituency wins.

This also benefits the Scottish National Party. Although less than half of Scottish voters supports the separatists, they could nevertheless win almost all of Scotland’s 59 seats in Parliament.

The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, is expected to benefit from tactical voting. The Guardian reports that half of Conservative voters in his Sheffield Hallam constituency are likely to support him in order to stop Labour taking over his seat.

There is no such polling data available for all of Britain’s 650 constituencies, however, making it difficult to predict the outcome.

May2015 takes into account the dozens of constituency-level polls the Conservative peer Michael Ashcroft has conducted but extrapolates the rest of its predictions from national polls. It gives the Conservatives 273 seats, 34 less than they have now, and Labour 268, up by ten. Other forecasts similarly show the Conservatives ahead but falling short of a majority. But if the actual election result is only a few percentage points different from the polls, that could affect the outcome in dozens of constituencies.