A century ago the United Kingdom’s parliamentary elections would garner the same international interest as the US presidential ballot. One of the reasons this is no longer the case is that the UK is part of the European Union, but a perpetually isolated and miserable part, meaning that the politics of France and Germany, the countries at the heart of the EU, have become comparatively more important.
The elections held on May 7th 2015 were not expected to be very significant. With the UK run by an unpopular Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition, and the Labour opposition being directionless and tepid, the result all the polls predicted was another “hung parliament”, in which no party had a majority and everything would depend on who the smaller parties did a deal with after the election. Consequently the campaign itself aroused little interest, as those post-election negotiations were expected to be where things were really decided.
The big unknown of the election would be the performance of UKIP, or UK Independence Party, the British equivalent of anti-establishment, anti-EU movements such as Syriza in Greece and Podesmos in Spain. This had experienced a big surge in popularity since the previous parliamentary election in 2010. It was unlikely to win more than two or three seats due to the first-past-the-post voting system, but was expected to take a lot of votes from the established parties. Who it took the votes from, and where, might be crucial for the overall outcome and thus the future negotiations.
UKIP did indeed have a big impact on the election. When everyone gets over the result, this impact will have the whole of Europe crying with laughter. The party which wants to pull Britain out of the EU gained the third highest number of votes, although only one seat. But the effect of these votes will be to change the very distinct British political system into something closer to European models than ever before.
Just as the EU is overextended and collapsing from within, here comes its biggest critic to pull the most Eurosceptic country in the union into the fold. Now the UK will have the same political problems other European countries have, and have to find similar ways to deal with them. If it does that successfully, UKIP will be one of the main beneficiaries. It will then have little choice but to moderate its position, and maintain the very system it wants to get out of. The EU will hold all the cards again, and its biggest enemy will have put them there.
Only Europe saw it coming
The British people will be in a state of shock for quite a while after this. All the opinion polls conducted during the campaign said that the Conservatives and Labour were neck and neck but both well short of a majority. In fact the Conservatives have won a small but workable majority, the one outcome no one predicted given the hostility aroused by the coalition’s austerity programme. Labour were almost 100 seats, and two million votes, behind them, their worst result for 30 years. Labour leader Ed Miliband resigned just after midday on May 8th.
It was assumed that the Liberal Democrats would lose seats, as they have done ever since they went into coalition with the Conservatives. This move alienated their more Labour-inclined supporters and the party’s old core support, the protest vote, and they had famously failed to keep some of their 2010 manifesto pledges, being the junior partner in the coalition. The day before the election the average of all opinion polls predicted they would fall from 57 seats to 31. In fact they were practically wiped out, retaining only 8 seats and gaining under 5% of the vote in 335 of the seats it stood in, a new record. Their leader Nick Clegg also resigned, a few minutes before Miliband, though he narrowly retained his own seat.
It was assumed that the Scottish National Party (SNP) would win a large number of seats in Scotland, as it had attracted 100,000 new members since it lost the referendum on Scottish independence last year. With Scotland deciding to remain in the UK, just, Scots had deserted the traditional parties to give themselves the strongest voice within it.
The polls did suggest that the SNP might take every single seat in Scotland, but as they only had 6 to start with, and have never had more than 11, this was something you had to see to believe. In fact they won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats, often with spectacular vote swings of around 35%, never before seen at general elections. Labour was left with a single seat in Scotland, which it had dominated for the previous 50 years.
What was UKIP’s role in this? In seat after seat it either took second place or dramatically increased its vote. Most of this support came from the Liberal Democrats, signifying that UKIP is now the party of protest. Consequently that support did not go to Labour and gave the Conservatives plenty of seats by default. It also knocked the Liberal Democrats down to the same negligible seat level as the various Northern Ireland parties, the Welsh nationalists and the Greens.
This UKIP surge only won it one seat but created a parliamentary map much more similar to a European than a British one. There is still the traditional pattern of two big parties, one medium sized one and a smattering of small ones. But the medium sized one is now the SNP, which doesn’t want Scotland to be part of the UK to begin with. The Lib Dems are now part of a heterogenous lump of rainbow-coloured factions which can only have influence by forming shifting alliances with the larger parties. They’re used to that in mainland Europe, but not the UK.
Officially the Conservatives have a majority of 12, though in practice it is a little more. Sooner or later they will face rebellions from their own backbenchers, with whom Prime Minister Cameron has often had a fractious relationship. Therefore it will have to stitch together deals with parts of this lump on an issue-by-issue basis. Cameron may have promised an in/out referendum on UK membership of the EU, but he will have to think more like a European leader with each passing day.
The older EU countries are much better at doing things the European way than the UK is. After all, it comes naturally to them. The more the British have to adopt European ways the more advantage Europe regains over the country and its sceptics. What the unpopular EU itself has failed to achieve, the anti-EU party has thrown into its lap.
Blind leading the blind
The SNP hasn’t just risen because Labour neglect has led people to redefine themselves as Scots rather than workers. It has achieved its astonishing result because UKIP has been doing very well in England since it made a breakthrough at the last but one European Parliament elections. The SNP has been a serious force in Scotland for a lot longer than UKIP has existed, having been part of a four-cornered contest there since it won the 1967 Hamilton by-election. But its support has fluctuated, and it has been riven by deep ideological splits between the hard right and left, as it is both a right and left wing force at the same time with not much in between.
It was UKIP’s ongoing success in England, though not replicated in Scotland, which demonstrated to Scots that voting for the much better established SNP was not simply a protest and could help voters achieve their ends. For example, most of those ends involved punishing the Conservatives for implementing policies which seemed designed to harm Scotland’s communities and industries, and had been imposed by London.
UKIP was similarly founded as a protest against the Conservative Party’s half-hearted attempts to distance the UK from Europe, a cause which also finds much favour amongst many Labour supporters, whose party had been Eurosceptic while the Conservatives were great supporters of the EU. Success at exploiting these trends has enabled it to become the party of protest. This, and the Lib Dems joining the government, has now given the SNP a blueprint for achieving the same. Its policies are very different from UKIPs, but it appeals to the same demographic for the same reasons regardless.
Many EU countries have political parties based around a particular ethnic group, having indigenous ethno-linguistic minorities who generally feel disadvantaged. These parties usually participate in the political system alongside the others but their interests are based around independence or autonomy. It is such issues which led to Belgium’s three traditional parties splitting into separate Fleming and Walloon groups in the 1960s and Bulgaria’s Movement for Rights and Freedoms, a Turkish party, joining its governments for a high price.
Consequently the British are now going to get a taste of another common European problem. If the Conservatives make a comprehensive deal with the SNP which satisfies nationalist demands for far greater self-government, and the money to make it work, they may neutralise this new opposition force. It will have to try and neutralise the SNP because it is all the more powerful for not having any formal levers of power, as it can now claim that a whole country is being marginalised as it represents nearly all that country’s constituencies.
If the new UK government cannot do such a deal it will have to create two oppositions: the wounded Labour Party on all other issues, and an SNP determined to make Scottish questions the primary subjects of debate. It will not be able to dismiss the concerns of this minor party as not worthy of attention when it represents a whole nation.
Labour wasn’t able to stop the SNP on May 7th and if it wants to do so in future it will have to listen to its former supporters who are now in that party. So the SNP could well prove itself a more effective opposition than Labour, with considerable consequences for the rest of the UK, whose concerns will be pushed further down the food chain when the UK government cannot be seen to be giving in to separatist parties. This will inevitably provoke the Middle Englanders on Conservative benches to try and gain the same attention, at the risk of destroying their own party, as they did between 1992 and 1997 in another small-majority Conservative administration.
Once again, a British government will have to learn how to act more like a European one to survive. Once again, it will have been the actions of the anti-EU party which have succeeded where all the EU’s own attempts at such “harmonisation” of culture – a common theme of all EU legislation and practice – have failed.
Trojan horse there to be ridden
It remains to be seen whether UKIP will still be relevant when the next UK parliamentary election comes round in 2020. There are many more elections before then of course, but for different levels of government, at different stages of a parliament on different issues. What works one year maybe be meaningless in another.
The one seat UKIP won was that of Douglas Carswell, who had defected to UKIP having been elected in 2010 as a Conservative. Party leader Nigel Farage failed in his own bid to win a seat. Consequently he stepped down, like Miliband and Clegg, as he had promised he would if this happened. But he left the door open to standing at the election which will be held to replace him, as many feel the party would lose much of its appeal without this larger than life figure at the helm, and this is a tacit admission that the rest of the members don’t mean much to the electorate.
Other anti-EU parties are forcing the EU to reassess its methods. Syriza has successfully exploited Europe’s inability to answer the question of, if Greece goes bankrupt, what then? Podesmos highlighted Spanish government corruption before taking on EU corruption, and as such has cleverly forced the EU to try and distinguish its actions from the Spanish variety, and be seen doing so.
All this is valuable. But UKIP has done the opposite by forcing the UK to embrace the very EU it wants to leave if it wants to resolve its own looming problems. Maybe this is a typical British compromise. But Brussels is sure to conclude that if such stupidity occurs in one country it can be made to happen in the rest, and the European project will become more central to all its members’ destinies than ever before.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.