For the past 100 years, Britain has been ruled for most decades under the Conservative party. The Tories can be thus considered the «establishment party» of British politics. This dominance is not simply a reflection of democratic choice by the British electorate. It is rather because Britain’s system of parliamentary democracy is one of the most regressive and anti-democratic among modern nation states. In many ways, Britain’s ruling establishment has prevailed again and again – in spite of democratic choice.
The structural bias of the British system always works to favour the ruling party, while challengers to power are grossly disadvantaged. Some commentators refer to Britain as a «parliamentary dictatorship». This has to do with Britain’s «first past the post» criterion for winner-takes-all prize. With a 66 per cent voter turn-out in the recent British election, the Conservatives actually only garnered 24 per cent of the total eligible vote. That is hardly a convincing mandate. But under the arcane British electoral conditions, for the next five years Britain will be ruled under one party; based on the criterion that it was the first to tally the highest vote to secure a parliamentary majority. That means all other parties are sidelined as irrelevant even though they managed to secure substantial electoral support. As David Edwards of media watch group, Media Lens, notes: «Such is the undemocratic nature of the electoral system in the United Kingdom. The establishment wins every time».
Most other European countries use a proportional representation electoral system, which gives an equal value to all votes and ensures an appreciable voice for smaller parties.
The backward nature of Britain’s winner-takes-all politics gives a new meaning to the ruling Conservative party, which was re-elected earlier this month with David Cameron as prime minister. The party is well named because its role is to conserve a deeply conservative electoral system in favour of the establishment that represents the traditional seat of power: the wealthy, corporate and financial elite, the high-end propertied class, the aristocracy and landed gentry, and the traditional institutions of society, including the powerful news media owned by a coterie of corporations.
Even Cameron – an Etonian, Oxbridge «old boy» who is a personal millionaire and a quintessential establishment figure and therefore should know only too well how the warped system operates – nevertheless expressed his «surprise» at his party’s election victory. The Conservatives won 331 seats and a 12-seat majority. They can now form a single-party government and dispense with the need for a coalition partner, as in the previous government when they were joined by the Liberal Democrats between 2010-2015. On paper it sounds like an impressive win.
Why was Cameron surprised? Because pre-election polls were showing a close race between the Tories and the main rival party, Labour. Also, because the Conservatives had overseen a ruthless austerity policy for the past five years, which has driven up poverty and social hardship to record levels across Britain. Whatever economic successes were being claimed by the Tories, Cameron knew that the price was deep resentment among large swathes of the population.
Many observers had therefore expected the incumbent government to be severely punished by the voters. In the end, only the minor Liberal Democrat coalition partner appeared in the line of fire for voter ire. Its election performance was disastrous, losing 49 seats, reduced to just eight. Party leader Nick Clegg promptly resigned over the sweeping public backlash.
Cameron’s Conservatives actually won 26 more seats compared with the last election in 2010, and over a hundred more than Labour’s tally. The share of the votes cast was 37 per cent for the Conservatives and 31 per cent for Labour. Labour leader Ed Miliband subsequently stepped down over his disappointing bid to overturn the Tories.
Britain’s electoral system tends to make voting for alternative parties futile because if the alternative candidates don’t overturn the traditional majority for the incumbent then all the votes given to the challenger count for nothing.
For example, the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party led by Nigel Farage won over 12 per cent of the votes cast across Britain – about one-third of the Tory tally. Under a proportional representation system, the UKIP might have stood to win 100 parliamentary seats. However, as it turns out under the British system, UKIP only gained one MP.
Last year, successful by-elections and polls were showing that Farage’s party was threatening to steal a large portion of the Tory vote. Cameron’s party then played on fears that a vote for UKIP might result in a Labour government being elected by default, by vitiating the Tory vote. This fear-mongering, amplified by the mostly rightwing British media, had the effect of dissuading would-be UKIP voters, who understood that the electoral system was weighted against them. They returned to their habitual Tory choice knowing that a new option was futile.
Another party entitled to feel hard-done-by are the Greens, who also managed to get only one MP elected even though the party won nearly four per cent of the total votes. Under a fairer electoral system, the Green vote could have produced over 20 parliamentary seats.
Labour’s potential total vote was crucially damaged at the expense of huge gains made by the Scottish National Party (SNP). The SNP took 50 new seats and now represents 95 per cent of the semi-autonomous Scottish parliament. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon – who took over from Alex Salmond – is warning that a second referendum on Scotland’s independence from Britain is now on the cards following the setback in last year’s defeat on secession, when, as in the general election this month, opponents of the establishment were viciously smeared in the media.
The SNP parliamentary landslide in the British election signals how the overall Westminster result is far from a success for Cameron’s Conservatives. The latter is staunchly pro-Union and against break-up of the UK. The Scottish vote was driven by deep public resentment towards the austerity-Tories. In that way, it can be seen as more reflective of the wider public hostility towards the British establishment. And the Scottish vote augurs a hastened direction towards the dissolution of the UK. In other words, the Conservative «success» is their digging the grave of the Union.
So why didn’t an anti-austerity vote carry across the border into England? How did the Tories manage to pull in 11.3 million votes, ahead of nearest rival Labour with 9.3 million votes?
It’s not that the English don’t understand that the Cameron government has been clobbering them with painful cuts in public services and welfare entitlements. As commentator Andrew Rawnsley wrote in the Guardian newspaper last week: «The swing voter in Nuneaton, Bolton and Southampton nodded along when Mr Miliband complained about the cost of living. And then they voted Tory. Even when they agreed with Labour’s diagnosis of the country’s ills, they didn’t have confidence that its prescriptions were affordable or practical».
Of course, many voters for the Conservatives are «true blue» Tories come what may. But there are also many who voted for the establishment party out of a sense of uncertainty and apprehension about what kind of government Labour would have overseen, and how that might have jeopardised their tenuous economic conditions.
Miliband’s Labour had gone along with much of the Conservative austerity programs, afraid of being pilloried in the largely righting media as «soft on the economy». Labour tended to pitch itself to the electorate as a «Tory Lite» option: a little more caring, but a «safe pair of hands» on the capitalist economy all the same. It may have been wiser for Labour rank-and-file to have launched a full-on, radical anti-austerity campaign and actually to make the case for a socialist alternative, as former London mayor Ken Livingstone has now called for. The SNP success in Scotland derived from it mounting a strident anti-austerity manifesto. The trouble is: Labour is no longer the working-class party it once was. Its leadership has become beholden to focus groups and business sponsors.
In the end, wavering voters – some 20 million at one stage prior to the election on May 7 – decided that it was better to stick with the devil they know rather than experiment with an unconvincing and equivocating Labour option.
The pro-Tory press glowingly talked up Britain’s supposed economic «recovery» under Cameron and his Chancellor to the Treasury, George Osborne. Some two million jobs have allegedly been created under the Tories since 2010 and the financial markets have swooned over the fiscal results from the swingeing public spending cuts. A Tory election slogan was: «Keep our economy strong».
The truth is that most of the jobs created under Cameron’s government are low-paid and insecure, with minimal employment rights – so-called «zero-hour contracts».
A climate of fear over worsening economic and social conditions is rife across Britain. Record numbers of people are claiming food assistance at charity-run food banks and kitchens. Some six million households during the past winter used a «switch off heat to eat» coping strategy in order to make ends meet.
The Tory media, with the titles run by Australian mogul Rupert Murdoch leading the pack, conducted an hysterical fear campaign against Labour and how it would «wreck our hard-won economic success». Not that Labour under Miliband seriously offered a radical socialist alternative to the Conservatives, but the British media relentlessly rubbished his party as «Red Ed and the Loony Left». No doubt many readers were intimidated by the spectre of being thrown into even more economic insecurity and poverty if they dared vote against the Conservatives.
Disturbingly, the returned Conservative axeman-at-the-Treasury, George Osborne, is now claiming to «have a mandate from the British people to get on with the job» of more cuts. A leaked Whitehall paper published by the Guardian before the election reported on Tory plans to slash up to £12 billion ($20 billion) by removing or freezing a broad range of social welfare benefits, including state pensions and sickness and housing allowances.
Britain boasts the highest number of resident billionaires per capita in the world – and quite a few of them being Russian oligarchs. In the past five years, the total wealth of Britain’s top one per cent doubled, while poverty has become rampant. British child mortality is the highest in the whole of Western Europe, which charities attribute to an exploding rich-poor gap.
The re-election of Cameron’s Conservative, pro-rich, pro-business government is a stunning result. It is stunning because it overturns massive and widespread public discontent with his party’s ruthless austerity policies. But there again, the result is not at all surprising considering the profoundly anti-democratic nature of British politics where «the establishment always wins».