By Frank Spring
Recent elections in France and Greece, which punished incumbent, conservative governments, have been interpreted throughout the public prints as a repudiation of the austerity policies that have characterized much of Europe since the beginning of the Great Recession. In the coverage of the run-up to and fallout from those elections—particularly the sundering of the Serkozy-Merkel Axis that has shaped the Eurozone’s response to the financial crisis—it would be easy to miss the fact that anti-austerity sentiment may have very quietly dealt a mortal blow to another incumbent, conservative government: Britain’s.
The United Kingdom held local elections on May 3rd. The broadly accepted measure of success in an election of this kind is the number of local councilors (generally charged with the formation of local governments and the delivery of services) returned for each party nationwide. It was clear from early polling that the Coalition government of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats was going to have a tough night, with a gain of 700 seats for Labor expected. After the results started to come in, Conservative Party politicos, sensing a debacle, re-set expectations for their progressive opponents by pushing them up to an ambitious 800-seats gained. Labor picked up 824.
It was not just the number of seats that Labor gained, it was where they gained them. Labor won councils in the East and South, where they had been virtually annihilated in preceding elections, and mounted a comeback in Scotland—a traditional Labor bastion in which the Scottish National Party had demolished them just last year and the scene of a critical independence referendum two years from now.
The only setback was Labor's failure to win back the London Mayoralty, as Conservative incumbent Boris Johnson fended off Labor candidate Ken Livingstone. Even this, however, had more to do with Livingstone himself—an idiosyncratic political pugilist described by one party grandee as “past his sell-by date”—than with the Labor Party itself. Johnson’s re-election is, at best, a mixed blessing for Prime Minister David Cameron, for whom the wild-haired Mayor of London has been both a colorful distraction and a rival waiting in the wings.
It takes nothing away from an energetic Labor campaign to say that the Coalition largely brought this on itself. The Labor Party has been struggling since the end of the last decade. It was defeated in the General Election of 2010; shocked by its clobbering in Scotland in 2011; blighted by discontent over the performance of its leader, Ed Miliband (who has not polled as well as Cameron and whose office has appeared occasionally rudderless and defensive); and is in a precarious position financially. Labor has been an underdog for years. New leadership in the party has initiated some overdue structural reforms, and Miliband’s office has taken a turn for the better, but Labor is still some distance from regaining the public’s trust—or even permission to be heard—under its own steam.
At the same time that it became apparent that the UK is facing a double-dip recession, the Coalition government’s Chancellor, George Osborne, brought out an austerity budget so swingeing that no amount of spin could take the sting out of it. Coupled with an ongoing series of scandals over the Conservative government’s links to Rupert Murdoch and the News Corp. empire, the most recent budget was a step too far for the British electorate, and they expressed their frustration at the polls by humbling the Coalition government and giving a breath of fresh air to a Labor Party that had been suffocating for lack of positive public attention.
There is no way spin this as anything but a bad result for the Coalition, and the fallout from it may be worse. Backbenchers from the right wing of the Conservative Party are suggesting that the problem is that the government has not been conservative enough, recommending (if not demanding) a more Thatcherite approach. Given that the recent election can be interpreted as a statement from voters that they want the exact opposite, Cameron is suddenly in a rather awkward spot with his own party.
The real problem, however, is with the Liberal Democrats. There has always been discontent within that party over entering into a coalition with their conservative long-time opponents, but the murmurs faded a bit after Chris Huhne, the obvious successor to Deputy Prime Minister and party leader Nick Clegg (and the man who would, presumably, wield the knife in a simultaneous takedown of Clegg and sundering of the Coalition), resigned in the face of criminal charges stemming from an incident in which he asked his wife to take the blame over a traffic infraction.
Now the murmurs about leaving the Coalition are back. If Labor has been in a bad way recently, the Liberal Democrats have been far worse, pasted badly at every election since 2010. If the current trajectory continues, the next General Election could see them reduced to a fringe party on the margins of British politics.
Cameron finds himself caught between a wing of his own party that wants more austerity (and has champions if need be in Osborne, David Davis—Cameron’s former rival for leadership—and even Johnson) and a coalition partner for whom withdrawal from the government is evolving from a matter of advantage to one of survival. That this situation is developing in the face of a suddenly revitalized foe only adds to Cameron’s dilemma.
It is possible that the government’s plan is to introduce less hard-line budgets in the two years running up to the next election. If nothing else, this would keep the Liberal Democrats on board and might soften voters’ feelings toward the government. If it should result in a slight economic pick-up (in spite of conservative orthodoxy), credit for that could always be pinned on the tonic effect of the earlier austerity budgets. Such a plan, of course, relies on voters’ being grateful enough for the kinder, more recent budgets to forget the pain of the earlier austerity—a doubtful calculus indeed.
Of course, Cameron and Osborne may be sufficiently confident in conservative economic ideology to continue their policies, come what may. And they may yet win the next election, either by being right about austerity and reversing the double-dip recession, through an unexpected global or regional upturn, because Labor's internal reforms do not gain traction, or for any number of other reasons. An increasing number of those reasons, however, are beyond their control. It is very possible, two years into its tenure and three years away from the next General Election, that the Government of Britain has already produced one austerity budget too many.
Frank Spring is a consultant in politics and non-profit management.
(Photo courtesy of Matt Gibson)