This magazine published an article, almost three years now, by the same author on the rise of extremist parties in Europe and their destabilizing effects. That article argued that the main danger posed to the political system in Europe by such extremist formations was not so much their ability to reap votes – which although limited, is threatening – but rather their ability to prevent the major parties from reaping votes, condemning Europe to political fragmentation. That article was written before the emergence of the Bolivarian-supported Spanish ‘Podemos’, UKIP’s and Le Pen’s astonishing victories in the last European elections, the first turmoil caused by the anti-Islamic German platform ‘Pegida’ or Syriza’s victory in Greece. Now, with one day to go before the British general election of May 7th, it seems more obvious than ever before that Britain’s classic two-party system has broken down. The effects are not dramatic, especially since the way the British electoral system is devised favours the big guys – there is a reason why the two-party system is Britain’s system -, but they are alarming enough taking into account that this is one of the most equal elections of British history, in which no major party has a clear lead. In this context, and as the possibility of a hung parliament becomes more of a reality, more and more analysts and newspapers start accepting the word ‘coalition’ and ‘pacts’. However, after the traumatic experience of a Lib-Dem and Tory coalition that has hurt both parties provoking a leak of votes from the centre-left Liberals and a split in the Conservative camp, the precedents look gloomy enough as the cost of governing through alliances has become clear. An analysis of the broader picture is in order here.
If something marks the 2015 British general elections as special is not only the fact that the two-party system has broken down, but also the SNP’s astounding progress in Scotland scarcely less than half a year after their defeat in the Scottish referendum, and the irruption of UKIP in the Southeast. Labour’s debacle in Scotland is a serious threat to the party. If Labour could retain those 38 seats that it is giving away to the SNP, along with the 50 seats that it might win from both Lib-Dems and Conservatives, the party could easily achieve a majority. However, Nicola Sturgeon’s sweeping campaign has turned all the odds against Labour, that will not be able to compensate for such a disaster in the North. There obviously exists the possibility of a greater anti-Tory coalition between Labour, the SNP, and the Lib-Dems, which would render a government of 351 seats – the threshold for a majority is set at 326 seats. On the other hand, UKIP is playing its role in the Conservative decline. Despite the fact that not even Nigel Farage’s victory in Thanet can be taken for granted yet, and that UKIP gains might not amount to more than simply scrapping a few seats out of Tory hands, the emergence of UKIP has a contending party can affect the Tories’ hopes for reelection in a more indirect way: while the leftist vote has always been fragmented between the centrist option of the Lib-Dems and the Scottish option of the SNP, the Conservative Party has always been the only safe option for those that disagree with the left. Now, UKIP will fragment the Conservative vote in some constituencies, making it lose seats to Labour that otherwise they could have hold even if it was with a tiny percentage, or on the other hand, preventing it from winning other seats. Although UKIP’s projection is limited and still far from ‘national’, they contest the heartland of the Conservative party, making some seats that were otherwise safe look more perilous.
In the other end of the spectrum, the Greens do not seem like they will be able to protagonise a major breakthrough, even though opinion polls very early on the campaign predicted that they could become an annoyance for Labour. But if the Greens did ever, realistically, hold that chance, Natalie Bennett’s amateurish moves have sunk the party back into its Brighton seat. The Green’s leader staged some of the most ridiculous moments of the campaign, not being able to answer questions on radio and alleging having a bad cough the moment she was asked about where the money to finance her social housing projects would come from. She also provoked the media’s wrath by summoning all major journals to the publication of the Green’s manifesto for the 2015 election in a coffee shop, an event that lasted around 15 minutes and where the Greens gave no chance for questions. Now, even though their appeal among the youth and the student body might be more widespread than it was before, they will struggle to obtain a victory in their own stronghold.
The fragmentation might not seem as scary or dramatic as the opinion polls suggest due to the workings of the British electoral law. However, in an election marked by the tight position of both main parties, the result could be decided literally over a few constituencies, and the amount that the Greens, UKIP, and SNP might take away from the bigger parties is enough to justify an scenario in which political coalitions and pacts become a “must”. Already, ex-premier John Major and some members of the Conservative Party have been waving the option of a Labour-SNP coalition to woo away English Labour voters that might feel uncomfortable about a government’s red lines being dictated from Scotland, a claim that Ed Miliband was quick to deny as it was simoultaneously embraced by other members of his party.
But “coalition” is not a nice word in Britain. Not after the drain of votes that has affected both the Lib-Dems and the Conservatives during their stay in power. In fact, there are not many associates for such a project in either end of the spectrum. A coalition between the Conservatives and UKIP seems impossible: both parties are fighting for the same electorate, and have based their discourse on simply not being the other. Additionally, Nigel Farage understands the limitations of his own party, and that he will have much more to gain aiming for a radical opposition than suffering the centralizing effects that would follow his entrance in government. Besides, the most obvious, UKIP and Conservatives could not obtain a majority together. There are talks about the creation of a macro anti-Tory coalition on the other end between Labour, the SNP, and the Lib-Dems. This is highly unlikely equally, since the Lib-Dems base all their party strength on providing a leftist alternative other than Labour, more focused on students and the middle class. Besides, changing jackets after just being in a Conservative government for five years might not exactly be what their voters would expect.
There seems to be more of an understanding between the Scottish Nationalist Party and Labour, despite Miliband’s reiterated claims that there is no romance to be accountable for. Both parties share pretty straightforward leftist claims, as Miliband has made it clear that he has no desire to return to Blair’s New Labour. However, the publication of a pre-election arrangement between the SNP and Labour – or even of a tacit understanding – would imperil Labour’s progress in London: after all, Nicola Sturgeon’s party has made incredible inroads into Labour territory by brandishing itself as the working-class lash that will punish the cheeky and spendthrift financers of the south. London, despite being a Labour city, still cherishes its financial vocation, and a hypothetic understanding between Miliband and London’s worst enemy would play in the hand of their enemies. However, it all comes down to who will end up first in the race, since there is a third element that plays a role in each British election after the polling and the negotiating.
The Queen will have the duty to task the leader of the most voted party to form a government. Even though it might sound as not a crucial element in a democratic procedure, the implications of this tradition are substantial: if Labour gets a last-minute lead, the political context might allow for a tacit understanding with the SNP on social legislation that could help undo the Tories’ legacy without making Ed Miliband’s party go through the political embarrassment of formalizing a pact with the party that less than a year ago tried to break up the union. On the other hand, the Conservatives could attempt to form a minority government on the premise that the most crucial reforms were passed during the last five years, and accepting that time is on their side: as the economy recovers, their standing should rise along with the numbers. A minority Conservative government would have the legitimacy of being appointed according to all legal traditions, and would have the advantage of being more protected against a left-wing coalition, since the only way it could be debunked would be through a public Labour-SNP coalition, a move that might endanger Labour’s stance in London for the next decade while offering little chances of regaining its standing in London.
Finally, shy vote will play a volatile and crucial role in the election, as there is a reported 30% of Britons that are not exactly sure yet on who to vote. While shy vote has traditionally benefitted the Tories, as it did in John Major’s astounding victory against all odds in 1992, this time there might even be the possibility that shy vote out-Tories the Tories and provokes and unexpected improvement of UKIP’s fortunes.
The race is on its tightest just one day before the general elections, and whoever gains the lead will not be able to govern on its own. Coalitions and pacts are dirty words in a country where electors do take the pain to make their parties stick to their promises, and it has been costly for both Lib-Dems and Tories, while Labour might find a pact with the SNP a very uneasy device that would imperil its standing in London, a city that is still governed by a Conservative major. In the light of these circumstances, the most likely outcome would be a short Conservative victory that would be just enough to guarantee them a legal lead, on the expectation that both the Lib-Dems would not dare to pact with Labour, and that Labour would not risk its improved position by negotiating a humiliating pact with the SNP. That would give the Conservatives what they want most: Time.
Time is a precious resource in politics. The Conservatives have the privilege of having passed their key reforms in their previous legislature, and the current economic awakening of the United Kingdom might help improve their standing. But most importantly, it might bring the chance of a brighter not-so-far-away future: party politics are always important, and in all honesty, Cameron is not the charismatic leader that he promised three times to be. Whether he obtains the lead tomorrow or not, he has not really won either this election or the previous one: he simply has not lost.
The Conservative party has got plenty of talented politicians that could perfectly stand a chance against Ed Miliband or Labour in general: Boris Johnson, for example, managed to kidnap the world’s most buoyant city from Ken Russell, and ruled it for two consecutive terms. George Osborne, although widely hated among the Labour supporters, still projects an image of a capable economic reformer and a good speaker among many voters. And the Conservatives run for this election just after a term in government during which the party has been exposed to drain and exhaustion after heavy cuts were to be adopted. The party would not risk such precious assets on such a close fight. With Cameron on a close lead, the Tories can have the privilege of attempting a minority government even though consciously knowing that no major legislation would be passed during that term. Still, it would be enough to force Labour into an uncomfortable position: after not wining the golden chance, Ed Miliband – or hypothetical successor – cannot simply sit down blocking each piece of legislation or pacting with the SNP while the Tories claim to be saving the country from both economic ruin and disintegration.
In fact, the possibility of breaking up the government and the hung parliament at a right moment might seem attractive to the Conservatives provided that they get a lead tomorrow and that they are able to stand on their own with a minority government for long enough. If such scenario takes place, the Tories can simply wait until their fortunes improve, and then force a new election in which Cameron might have to step down as leader and give way to a more charismatic successor – after all, he simply has not won the elections -, a hypothetical successor that would both be able to leave behind the shadow of the crisis and the cuts by getting rid of Cameron, and the shadow of the Tories’ inability to obtain a majority by getting rid of Labour in a more favourable situation.
Back in 2012, there were symptoms that alternative – or even extremist – political options were ready to emerge and play a role across Europe. In fact, three years from the publication of the article The Strange Death of Liberal Europe, it is impossible not to realize to what extent the political panorama has changed. Even at the time, a victory of the UKIP or Front National in the European elections would have been astonishing, not to mention Syriza’s rise to power. Extremist options are not necessarily a danger in themselves, however: it is the weakening of the greater parties that imperils stability. Coalitions burn out the main parties and feed resentment. The public has never taken it very well that their representatives may go out of their way to please someone that they did not vote for. But the extremists are not the ones willing to pact. Minority governments across Europe are becoming a reality. It will be in Spain, where the centre-right Partido Popular will lose its majority, and it will happen in the United Kingdom. But the mere fact that this scenario will become a reality in the home of the two-party system speaks a lot about the destabilizing effects of this angry, unconventional vote.
In broader terms, minority governments might threaten economic recovery in the short run. As governments find themselves constrained in their capacity to react to changing situations – and there will still be a lot of volatility not only in the markets, but in the world – and pass legislation, Europe might become less of a daring and bold player in the international scene. With a minority government, any kind of small crisis increases the chance of a government falling. The reformist project that has ruled the European outlook since the start of the crisis in being highly contested and fought against. The disappearance of strong governments in the UK and Spain this year might be just enough to tilt the balance and argue for less strict vigilance measures in the budget of the countries. Even though there is no realistic chance of the UK leaving the European Union, claims will be made to revise the current policy. Weakened governments mean governments more sensitive to any unrest or scandal. It means a more vulnerable Europe and a threatened recovery.
Juan José Rivas