Saturday, May 09, 2015

Austerity, ideology, and the UK elections

By Frank Moraes

It’s hard to get too upset about this last week’s elections in the United Kingdom. The truth is that the UK still has a decent welfare state and the Tories aren’t nearly as crazy as our own Republicans. (There are indications that it is getting worse, though.) But I find the whole thing interesting. It’s especially notable that what happened in the UK is the same thing that happened in Israel: the people have become more polarized. The Conservative Party won the election outright, but not because people stopped being liberal. Its gains came from the destruction of the centrist Liberal Democrats.

It’s actually remarkable. In 2010, the Conservative Party got 306 seats and the Liberal Democrats got 57 seats. So the coalition got 363 seats or 56% (they got 59.4% of the popular vote). This time, the Conservative Party got 330 seats but the Liberal Democrats got only 8 seats. So the coalition got 338 seats or 52% (just 44.8% of the popular vote). So all that really happened was that a large part of the Liberal Democrats moved to the Conservative Party — but over half went somewhere else completely. This does not bode well for the Conservative Party. And again, it is just like what happened to Likud in Israel — it hangs onto power because all the conservative minded people jumped to its defense. But where does that lead? After all, the Conservative Party may have won 51% of the seats, but it only won 37% of the vote.[1]


The Labour Party did worse in terms of seats this time, going from 258 in 2010 to 232 this year. But

they got decidedly more votes: from 29.0% in 2010 to 30.4 now. And they should have done even better. They seem to have seen the opposite of what happened to the Tories: liberal minded voters moved from Labour to smaller parties. The Green Party saw a huge surge in vote totals, from 0.9% to 3.8% — although they still only have one seat. But the biggest news is from the Scottish National Party (SNP). Now part of that is just because of the Scottish independence movement. But as Richard Seymour noted, the party also benefited by not being ideologically squishy, “SNP defended a simple, civilized position: no austerity, stop demonizing people on welfare, and welcome immigrants.”


It is hard to say whether or not Labour lost because — like the Democratic Party here in the US — it doesn’t much stand for anything other than not being quite as bad as the conservatives. The main issue, I think, is just that the economy in the UK has been doing fairly well the last year or two. As Paul Krugman has pointed out, that tends to trump all else. Basically, the Conservative Party got into office, hurt the economy badly with austerity policies, eventually stopped the austerity policies, and when the economy improved, credited the austerity policies for it. We’ve seen this again and again in the US; see, for example, the 2004 presidential election.

But in another post, Krugman pointed out another potential problem, Stop-Go Austerity and Self-Defeating Recoveries. One can look at this election very cynically. The Tories enacted harsh austerity to destroy social programs. Then they stopped it to get re-elected. Now they could enact more austerity for a while, and then again reverse it to get re-elected. But I don’t even think they have to be cynical to do that. I think that the conservatives actually think that austerity is the right thing to do. I suspect that they see the easing up on austerity as being an unfortunate political necessity, but that in the long run, destroying all unions and environmental regulations and welfare is the best for everyone. And by “everyone,” they mean themselves.

We’ll see what the future holds for the United Kingdom. The Tories may be disinclined to do too much damage, because Scotland still poses a problem. It seems to be getting more liberal by the day. So it may be what saves the UK. On the other hand, if Scotland ever does leave the UK, it might bode very poorly for the people of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. If that happens, Labour will really need to step things up. Or just wait until the Tories destroy the country.
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[1] I will admit to being mystified by parliamentary elections. The vile UK Independence Party (UKIP) got 12.6% of the popular vote and yet only one seat out of 650. I guess they have a little support everywhere but a lot of support only one place. But I don’t know.

(Cross-posted at Frankly Curious)

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