Centrists Caution Cameron Against Overreaching

British prime minister David Cameron attends a meeting of the European Council in Brussels, March 20, 2014
British prime minister David Cameron attends a meeting of the European Council in Brussels, March 20, 2014 (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. Read more

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 (European Council)

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

British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband in Glasgow, Scotland, August 8, 2014
British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband in Glasgow, Scotland, August 8, 2014 (Stephen Fyfe)

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. Read more

Britain’s Conservatives Beat Expectations to Win Election

The Houses of Parliament in London, England, February 19, 2013
The Houses of Parliament in London, England, February 19, 2013 (Martin Robson)
  • 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. Read more

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.