speri.comment: the political economy blog

Election 2015: not a good one to win … but too important to lose

In these circumstances there is no good excuse for not voting, and for not voting extremely wisely

Professor Colin Hay, Director of SPERI


Colin HayWinning elections in Britain is becoming ever more of a poison chalice.  It does not take a great deal of hindsight to see that neither 2005 nor 2010 were especially good to win.  As many saw even at the time, 2005 was the beginning of the end for the Anglo-liberal growth model.  The crisis, in other words, was on the horizon and it is never good to be at the helm when the ship goes down.  And 2010 was arguably worse.  What was being contested was the chance to preside over swingeing austerity in the absence of an alternative to the growth model that had precipitated the crisis.

Today it is tempting to suggest that the sequence continues.  For, on the face of it, 2015 does not look like a good election to win either.  Britain’s return to growth is, alas, likely to prove something of a chimera; no party seems to be offering an alternative growth model and the slow death by cuts of the austerity which has haunted the Coalition has largely been postponed – to be resumed under the watchful gaze of the next incumbent of Number 10.  Worst still, the Eurozone (Britain’s principal export market) continues to be mired in a crisis that could still turn nastier with consequences which would prove rapidly contagious to Britain.  Put differently, the most closely and intensely contested election in recent years will be fought over the opportunity to preside over the shrinking of the British state to levels not previously experienced since the 1930s – and in a context of already unprecedented inequality, under the shadow of a deepening Eurozone crisis and with the prospect of mounting environmental degradation.  Put like that, one might understand the temptation to pass.

But we cannot afford the luxury of such an argument.  Indeed, however appealing the logic, the argument was probably wrong in 2005 and 2010 too.  But it is even more wrong today.  2015 is, quite simply, too important an election to lose.  By the end of the parliamentary term that it will define Britain could be out of the EU, precariously positioned in an aspirational Anglosphere largely of its own fanciful imagination and perhaps even well on its way to a fractious disintegration – the nightmare scenario of ‘Br-exit’ and ‘Br-eakup’.  The stakes, then, could scarcely be higher.  Yet there is, of course, a certain irony here.  The stakes should arguably be higher still.  For, despite our precarious economic plight, it seems that all of the principal contenders for office will present to the electorate in May their own variant of plan A – there is no plan B in sight.  And the simple problem is that, without a plan B, it will prove very difficult to deliver the kind of sustained growth necessary to offset the ‘feel bad factor’ of seemingly endless austerity.  In short, the governing competence and political legitimacy of any minority or coalition government is likely to be sorely tried.

This brings us to the second factor that makes this an unprecedented election.  For, two months out, it remains almost certainly the most unpredictable British general election in the post-war period and arguably since the 1832 Reform Act.

What makes it so and what is at stake?  Five brief points might usefully be made (although each of course warrants far more detailed consideration).

  1. The first is the rise of a particular kind of oppositional populism – expressed most clearly in the centripetal drift in the polls in the last 18 months to UKIP, the Greens and the SNP. It is, of course, quite likely that the advent of the campaign itself will serve to squeeze both UKIP’s and the Greens’ potential votes-share, save other than in a handful of seats.  But it is no less credible to think that the SNP may in fact be further bolstered by the campaign itself.  For as long as a coalition government looks like the most likely outcome, the SNP vote (and conceivably that of UKIP and the Greens where they credibly contest a seat) is likely to hold up.  For why vote for one’s second choice (Labour or Conservative) when one’s first choice (SNP, UKIP or the Greens) has a credible chance of being in a coalition and might steer it more decisively in line with one’s electoral preferences?
  2. A second issue is the complexity and contingency of coalition formation. It is now extremely likely that we will simply not know the outcome of the 2015 General Election on the morning of 8th May.  And, in any hung parliament we need to remind ourselves, it will be the Tories who will be given the first chance to form an administration.  This makes a minority Tory administration or a minority Tory-led coalition with little mandate and capacity to implement unpopular austerity more likely than the polls themselves would suggest.  Its tenure in office would be likely to be short-lived – and the more precarious its initial position (the further away it is from enjoying a working majority, in other words), the more likely it is that it will do little more in office than prepare for a referendum on EU membership before a second election.
  3. That brings us to the prospect of ‘Brexit’. The depressing reality is that there are increasingly few scenarios for the period after the election that do not end with Brexit – or, at least, a referendum on EU membership which might easily be lost.  Almost any administration led by the Tories after the election (whether a minority government, a two- or multi-party coalition or a majority administration) is likely to lead to a referendum, but so too might a Labour-led or majority Labour administration – if the party deems it expedient to concede to a European referendum during the campaign in order to postpone the issue until after the election.  In a way, the rise of UKIP makes that less likely – since it is more difficult for the Conservatives to politicise the question of a referendum during the campaign for fear of further inviting defections to the Eurosceptic right.  But it is not impossible to imagine a Labour-led administration committed to a referendum.  And Labour is arguably not well placed to campaign successfully in office for a ‘yes’ vote against a more populist ‘no’ campaign led by a combination of UKIP and a Tory party that has recently deposed David Cameron.  A final scenario is that of a (potentially short-lived) minority Labour administration or Labour-led coalition struggling to implement a programme of austerity effectively inherited from the Tories being replaced by a resurgent Eurosceptic Tory party under a new leader.  Brexit would surely follow.
  4. And after Brexit comes Br-eakup … It is impossible to imagine that Scotland, arguably the most pro-European nation in Europe, would not immediately demand a second independence referendum following a British vote to leave the EU.  In a way, the legal precedent for such a referendum has already been set.  Indeed, even in the absence of support from Westminster, an SNP administration would surely hold an independence referendum regardless of its formal legal status (with the very threat of so doing playing a potentially interesting role in the Brexit campaign itself).  Either way, Brexit is surely a fast track to Br-eakup.
  5. Brexit and Br-eakup in the context of persistent austerity would surely pose a further profound challenge to all parts of a newly fragmented Britain – a kind of ‘Brexistential crisis’ as it were. Brexit and Br-eakup would, in effect, cast what remains of Britain adrift in the rough seas of the North Atlantic.  The chances that the flow of the currents would lead it to run aground in the safe haven of a mythical Anglosphere are not great (not least since there would appear to be precious little interest in this in Washington).  Britain in fact relies more and more on the benevolence of its closest trading partners (most of them European) for which it provides, in effect, an off-shore clearing house.  A voluntary severing of those ties in the hope of a warmer trans-Atlantic embrace is surely a recipe for economic disaster.

As this suggests, the 2015 General Election, even though it might not be a good one to win, is simply too important to lose.  By the same token, it is also an election in which it is too important not to vote.  The logic of Russell Brand’s rejection of formal politics is understandable.  But, when one considers what is at stake on May 7th, one can only hope that it is resisted – most of all by the victims of austerity, the poor, the young and the disenfranchised.  They have even more to lose than the rest of us.  In the 2015 British general election there is no good excuse for not voting – and no good excuse for not voting extremely wisely.

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Categories: British growth crisis, Europe and the EU, Politics and policy, SPERI Comment | Tags: , , , , , | 2 comments

Articles and comments posted on this blog reflect the views of the author(s) and not the position of SPERI or the University of Sheffield.

Comments (2)

  1. Are you sure that “Scotland [is] arguably the most pro-European nation in Europe”… Scotland is a little more pro Eu than England, but Bulgaria is much more pro-European than the UK http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/eb/eb77/eb77_anx_en.pdf

  2. “… no good excuse for not voting …” Well, I agree with you that everyone should go to the polls. However, I also advise anyone who does not feel represented by any party listed, to then cast an invalid vote. Unfortunately though, across Europe (I do not know the British situation as such) there is a tendency to not count the invalidated votes anymore. Until the 1980s, by and large, had 50% of voters at the polls cast invalid votes, only 50% of the seats in that particular parliament would have been filled. That would have sent a strong message (had it ever happened) to the established parties or else would have paved the way for a new opposition force to contest these results at the very next election or other opportunity. But “reforms” have now been put into place that simply disregard all invalid votes, so that, in theory, if only three votes were cast, then three parties would still get elected (ok, this oversimplifies the situation, but if, say, 80% of the electorate went voting, then 90% of those voted for NONE of the parties on the “ticket”, then the reaming 10% went one third to three parties, most parliaments would still be a 100% full of candidates, each based on less than three percent of the popular vote! (Maybe not in Britain.)

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