David Coates

The Big Obama Lesson Now Unfolding in London

Map of the UK

Map of the UK

Parties of the Left that choose to govern in the Center invariably pave the way for the return of government by the Right.

There is an understandable fascination this weekend with all things politically British. From the editorial pages of the liberal press to the comedy program of Stephen Colbert, there seems to be a genuine hunger to know: what are the British up to? Why have the British suddenly gone mad?

What they are up to, of course, is not madness.[i] It is political stalemate. The British political class is suddenly having to do what the German, the Belgian, the Italian, even the French, political class do on a regular basis – make deals with each other in return for power. The sort of prolonged coalition-building that is standard practice in democracies whose electoral systems rely on some form of proportional representation is now underway in London – in the one major political system outside the United States which (like the United States) prefers to rely on a ‘first past the post’ way of deciding who has won power in each individual constituency. First-past-the-post electoral systems do not normally create political stalemates, because in those electoral systems, coming second in a constituency is as bad as coming ninth – worse actually, become if you come second you get lots of votes but no seat. Your voter-waste count tends to be exceptionally high.

First-past-the-post electoral systems run the very definite risk, in tightly fought elections, of awarding power to the party with the most seats and denying it to the party with most votes. It famously happened here in the 2000 presidential election (and remember how long we took to sort that out). It has happened in the UK at least twice before: in 1951 (Labour had most votes but the Conservatives most seats) and again in 1974 (with the Conservatives having more votes on that occasion, and Labour most seats). In 1951 the Conservatives had enough seats to govern alone. In 1974 Labour did not, and had to govern with the tacit support of the Liberals. 2010 is likely to see a rerun of 1974, with this one critical caveat: this time it is the Conservatives who have the most seats – and the most votes – just not enough seats to govern alone: The Conservatives have 306 seats in a parliament of 650 members. Do the math. They are 20 seats short of a working majority.

Those 306 seats were won with the votes of 10,706,647 supporters (36.1% of all those who voted). The Labour Party, losing power, still gathered 8,604,358 votes and 258 seats (29% of those voting). It was the Liberal-Democrats who were squeezed again. They attracted an impressive 6,827,938 votes, spread up and down the land in constituencies where they ran second or a strong third, and ended up with just 57 seats: down slightly in the number of seats won from 2005 in spite of an increase in the number and proportion of the votes attracted. Last Thursday, the Liberal-Democrats attracted 23% of the vote but ended up with less than 10% of the seats. And potentially worse still: on May 6th in the UK, 15.4 million people voted for anti-Conservative Parties, but if David Cameron has his way, his 10.7 million votes will give him power, courtesy of tacit Liberal-Democratic support.

So the Liberal-Democrats are in a genuine dilemma: one with potentially huge long-term political consequences both for themselves and for the other two major parties. Do they tacitly/explicitly support the Conservatives with whom they have profound policy differences (and who are reluctant to amend the voting system); or do they make a deal with the discredited Labour Party (who are prepared to change the voting system) and sustain a coalition of all the anti-conservative parties? It is the question of the hour.

Dilemmas of this kind make for great political theatre, and suddenly (and briefly) we are all watching. But as we watch, we must be careful not to miss the wood for the trees. Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats hold the balance of power not because of something magical that they have done. They hold the balance of power because the Labour Party has recently lost much of its support. A progressive third party is currently toying with the idea of forming a coalition with a party of the center-right because New Labour in power has, for now at least, seriously discredited center-left politics. In 1997 New Labour swept to power with a majority of 179, sending the Conservatives to their biggest defeat since 1846! New Labour in 1997 had 44% of the vote. In 2001 New Labour broadly retained both that majority and that proportion of the electorate. But just a brief decade later, the fate of the New Labour Government is now in the hands of its political opponents; and it is so because since 2001 – first in Iraq and then in the wake of the financial meltdown – New Labour’s choice of conservative policies rapidly alienated its own political base.

New Labour blew its chance of staying in power for another full term by taking its electoral base for granted: by preferring instead to govern from the center and to make a Faustian bargain with the banking community in London.[ii] Change London to Wall Street, and then ask yourself: does that remind you of any American politician we know? It surely does remind me. It reminds me that if Barack Obama fails to meet the aspirations of those who elected him in 2008, then they will not re-elect him in 2012 – when a failed liberalism will leave its conservative alternative resurgent and reinvigorated. Gordon Brown is currently learning this profound political truth the hard way – he is learning that the failure of progressives in power necessarily leaves their electorate exposed to the return of a re-energized conservatism. Parties of the Left that choose to govern in the Center invariably pave the way for the return of government by the Right. Such a return will be bad enough in London. It would be disastrous if it were to happen here.

[i] I am grateful to colleagues Peter Siavelis and Allin Cottrell for conversations that triggered the observations recorded here. Responsibility for those observations remains mine alone.

[ii] As I have written elsewhere, “remarkably for a party with a record of commitment to the management of capitalism, New Labour in power continued processes of financial deregulation that Thatcherism began, and passed control of monetary policy over to the Bank of England itself. Under Gordon Brown’s leadership from the Treasury, the Blair governments of New Labour’s first decade retreated from the kind of active industrial policy that Old Labour had championed and that Thatcherism had terminated: in the process denuding themselves of policy instruments – from public ownership to planning agreements – vital to the strategic planning of balanced growth….. In its place, New Labour chose to champion the interests and autonomy of the City of London against any attempt to regulate it from Frankfurt…. Those same New Labour governments also denuded themselves, quite consciously and as a defining dimension of their newness, of any sustained industrial and social support from a strongly embedded trade union and co-operative movement. Gordon Brown is now…making the principles of co-operation the center piece of the Party’s upcoming election manifesto. How regrettable it is for all of us that the leading figures in the current New Labour constellation should be showing signs of coming to their senses only so late in the day. (David Coates, “Responding to the Conservatives”, Renewal, vol. 18 (1/2), 2010, p.116)

David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

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