UK Elections Today: Unpredictable, But Depressingly Little Room Between the Parties on Austerity

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By David Dayen, a lapsed blogger. Follow him on Twitter @ddayen

While in this country somebody’s probably writing up an early analysis of the 2024 elections, for UK elections they do quick-strike campaigns only lasting a handful of weeks. And today voters cast their ballots in an election most observers agree will really get interesting in subsequent days.

To summarize, the Conservatives capitalized on the global financial crisis and took power, instituted a massive and ridiculous amount of austerity in the first couple years (see Krugman’s opus on this from a couple weeks back), enough to reach the cusp of a triple dip recession. The Tories also raised college tuition, enacted the “bedroom tax” against recipients of the dole, and cut the top tax rate, among other deprivations. They loosened up on the austerity in the past two years, allowing the economy to come back a bit. Regardless, there’s still a lot of anger among ordinary Brits, particularly with the Liberal Democrats, the junior coalition partner whose support has completely collapsed due to their status as a lapdog for the Tories (This campaign ad putting the LibDems in the middle of the political scene is embarrassing).

The potential exists for an anti-austerity party to rise in the UK. The problem is that there’s really only one in Scotland, where the SNP is poised to take virtually every seat in the country. Under Ed Miliband, Labour has feinted to the left on a couple issues, but they still adhere strictly to deficit reduction. As Bill Black points out, this is completely unjustified:

The UK still has a sovereign currency (the pound). The UK, therefore, has no excuse for following such an economically illiterate policy of austerity while the economy is far below its productive capacity. Labour, however, is proud that it is embracing the economically illiterate practice of austerity. The Lib-Dems and the Tories are also proud of their support of austerity. The only major party that is economically literate is the dread SNP. The two big things that Labour, the Tories, and the Lib-Dems publicly agree on are (1) the need to inflict austerity on the UK and (2) the evil of the Scots. Of course, they still despise the Irish and the Welsh, but at the moment the Scots have taken the lead in the race to be the “most feared Celts.”

The three major parties are then stunned that the Scots favor the SNP. Damn ingrates!

It kind of says it all that Obama advisor David Axelrod is advising Miliband, and other Obama advisor Jim Messina is at the side of David Cameron. Interestingly, friend of the friend of the blog Russell Brand has backed Labour in the final days after arguing against voting for years.

Then there’s the populist/nativist backlash from UKIP, which if anything is even more committed to austerity. The Greens are expected to have limited reach.

All of this has created a real jumble, with the outcome completely unpredictable. The latest poll of polls show a virtual dead heat between the Tories and Labour. UKIP actually polls third but their support is dispersed. The LibDems languish in fourth, with the smaller parties after that. But the SNP is expected to sweep most of the 59 seats in Scotland (they currently have only 6), taking them from both Labour and the Liberal Dems. UKIP isn’t expected to pick up more than a couple seats.

SNP has basically said they would never enter a government (they certainly don’t want to become the next version of the LibDems). They wouldn’t partner with the Conservatives, and Labour – holding out for votes in the Scottish constituencies, and rebutting claims that they would partner with SNP to break up the country – has also demurred. Without the SNP, you can’t really figure out a victor, though there could be a sort of “non-agreement” agreement between SNP and Labour.

May 2015 believes Labour will win, but that Cameron still has a chance to salvage. 538 has an analysis showing that even a Labour/SNP coalition wouldn’t have enough seats to win a majority; they’d have to pick up Plaid Cymru or the Greens or some other partner. DK Elections has pinpointed individual races to watch. There’s even an outside chance for a second election, though it’s unlikely.

The Tory press is trying to make it sound like Labour would be engineering a coup if they manage to form a government despite holding less seats, a definite possibility. They’re pitting it as a legitimacy crisis to use the existing Parliamentary rules to form a government.

John Lanchester has been doing amazing work on the election in the London Review of Books. Here’s an interesting bit:

The Americanisation and professionalisation of our politics has helped to break this general election. I don’t much like Prime Minister’s Questions, noisy and uninformative as it is, but political enthusiasts from all around the world tune it to watch it, because it’s unique. That’s what British democracy is meant to look like: argumentative, confrontational, transparent, and public. This election has been the opposite of that. In British democracy, decisive things are supposed to happen in the public arena. By avoiding that arena, the parties have helped to ensure that nothing decisive has happened. So everything is stuck. The result is an electorate that’s bored and fretful, and anxious about what Friday will bring.

There are other policies at issue besides austerity – regulation of the banks, for one – but it would be nice if there was a clear distinction that a country with its own currency can ignore bad economics and help their people. That’s not really the election we have.

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About David Dayen

David is a contributing writer to He has been writing about politics since 2004. He spent three years writing for the FireDogLake News Desk; he’s also written for The New Republic, The American Prospect, The Guardian (UK), The Huffington Post, The Washington Monthly, Alternet, Democracy Journal and Pacific Standard, as well as multiple well-trafficked progressive blogs and websites. His has been a guest on MSNBC, CNN, Aljazeera, Russia Today, NPR, Pacifica Radio and Air America Radio. He has contributed to two anthology books, one about the Wisconsin labor uprising and another on the fight against the Stop Online Piracy Act in Congress. Prior to writing about politics he worked for two decades as a television producer and editor. You can follow him on Twitter at @ddayen.


    1. EoinW

      It’s never good news so long as the political(pseudo-democratic) system remains intact.

  1. vlade

    sorry, calling SNP economically literate is just wrong. look at their policies of holding the pound (without central bank – sort of like being in EUR but without even th small bit of having a national CB that is a part of ECB) oil predictions etc.

    in theory, there may be someone in SNP who is economically literate, but the image they project publicly isn’t better than fairy stories about austerity – it’s just different fairy stories (because the elctorate wants to hear fairy stories, and don’t want to hear say that independant Scotland would have to do away with pound etc),

    Simply put, there is no economically literate party in the uk, and I doubt anywhere. but you know what? that means the populace is not economically literate, because the parties we get are the parties we deserve.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      The SNP policy on the pound is not economic – I’m sure they are perfectly aware Scotland would be better off with a weaker currency. Its a matter of politics and practicality. There is no realistic political/constitutional settlement in the short term which would allow Scotland to create its own currency – and it is highly unlikely that they could join the Euro (even if the Euro survives).

      1. vlade

        I don’t disagree, but then it’s not really different than Labour going for “austerity”. You tell voters what you expect they want to hear. And in general parties got pretty good at knowing what the voters want to hear – they (the parties) usually start with telling them (voters) what they (voters) want to hear, so it’s a pretty safe bet.

        1. Oregoncharles

          Yeah, that’s why both major parties are down around 30% – in VOTES, not just loyalty.

          You see the same numbers here, but in loyalty (in Polls), not votes. Yet. Americans mostly just vote “no” by not voting. Why would they?

        1. vlade

          Ah, really victims?
          I could, possibly, consider someone who was very active in say OWS (or Tea Party before it become fully coopted, to get both sides of spectrum) as a victim, although even there I’d have some reservations.

          But in the latest presidential elections, both Democrats and Republicans got about quarter of all eligible voters, and an almost half didn’t even bother to turn up. Yes, yes, I know, there wasn’t anyone to vote for. But whose fault is that? Just re-read the post above, on how UK elections changed from a nearly 100 years of two-horse race into a multiple horse-race – virtually overnight. It was done (even in the US), it will be done, it can be done – but people have to get off their butts and do it, and not wait and complain that there’s no-one to vote for and they are victims of the politicians. It’s easy to believe in saviours ala Obama (or Rand Paul if you’re the other side of the spectrum), but they are rarely what anyone expects them to be – unless there’s a mass of people behind them that do the actually nitty gritty stuff.

          Real democracy gives you back what you and others put in. You put in nothing, you get nothing and stuff can even be take from you. It’s not a free lunch. Unfortunately, it’s often presented so, because that is what makes the masses easier to control, as they want to sit down and want for a saviour that does deliver the free lunch. If austerity is economic faith healing, democracy w/o real grass roots is a political one – even delivered to you via a telly.

          1. hunkerdown

            People show up just fine when there are important initiatives on the ballot. Maybe, if we dispensed with the Great Chain of Being and Oligarch Beauty Pageant, and the concept that everyone must have a manager, and thus dispensed with (nominally, at best) representative government altogether, more people would have a reason to show up.

            Any particular reason you’re so married to the workplace model of civic engagement?

    2. Schofield

      You are spot on with your comments. It’s really just a matter of waiting for the “dark ages” to return now in the Western world as the NeoCons push relentlessly towards it!

  2. PlutoniumKun

    As Seamus Milne in the Guardian wrote yesterday, it is clear that the right wing are plotting a constitutional coup – similar to that which brought Bush to power. They are setting up a situation whereby a Labour government will be seen as illegitimate, even if it can pull together the votes required to form a majority. The loathing the right wing press (which is most of it) for the very moderate and weak Labour Party is astonishing – it really comes down to the fact that most of the proprietors are non-dom tax exiles (or in the case of Murdoch, not British), and will do anything to avoid tax. Its quite disgraceful. Even more disgraceful is that even if Labour do come to power, they won’t actually do anything about it.

    1. ben

      The establishment are worried about land value tax. Labour saw their biggest jump in the polls when they did the non-dom thing. All everyone in the UK wants is a party that stands up and says “we are going to shit all over The City from a great height”. Labour should have taken the initiative, but as you say they don’t want real change.

      1. James Levy

        The problem is that the City is the British economy. Thatcher et al. drove a stake through the heart of industrial Britain. So what you have are various financial services and tourism once the North Sea oil dries up. Britain needs to move away from that, but goodness knows how, and to what (wind farming? fresh water exporting?). Britain is in need of a transformative vision, but it’s an exhausted and cynical culture dominated by a cranky, reactionary superwealthy elite. I love the place, but until things get vastly worst they are unlikely to get any better.

  3. paul

    The wretchedness of the labour and its unstinting efforts to avoid laying a glove on the most depraved administration i’ve witnessed have long convinced me that they do not want to win.
    They are the silent partners in the tripartite coalition government. Miliband is just this year’s Michael foot, programmed to fail.
    Seeing them wiped out in Scotland will be a cold but welcome comfort in this most depressing of elections.

  4. vidimi

    there’s precious little between the tories and labour on just about everything, not just austerity? on the TTIP, fracking, NATO/interventionism, the NHS, privatisation, and more. it’s no wonder at all that the Lib Dems, who position themselves between the two, are being completely squeezed out. Tory strategic voters, however, are planning to vote for Nick Clegg in his riding so that he can at least win his seat.

    as an aside, I am disappointed in Russel Brand that he’s put his credibility on the line backing the Millibandit. Apparently, the latter was able to good cop Brand into believing he will listen in a private meeting but, if he hasn’t got the guts to say whatever he said privately in public, you can bet your last penny that he won’t commit to it. Brand missed an opportunity to challenge Labour on the TTIP, fracking and empire and he will pay a price for it as his credibility with the youth erodes over the next few years under a labour government.

    1. ben

      what about the ideological gulf on land price pumping?

      Tories: help2buy cap 600K

      Labour: help2buy cap 400K

      A veritable chasm that dwarfs historical left/right differences!

    2. NotTimothyGeithner

      Brand spends much of his time on obvious lunatics and frauds such as Fox news. The more relevant discussion would be how does a GE owned news service brand itself as lefty. He preaches to the choir too often.

      I wouldn’t bother with him too much, and people who made the decision not to vote Labour already don’t care about pleas of trust and claims that Milli band might be a secret lefty if he heard good ideas because those people already know the leaders have no business not knowing major issues.

      1. hunkerdown

        Movement-building and preaching to the choir sound alike, from a distance. I’m not sure which boat I’d put Mr. Brand in before the Labour endorsement, but sloppy wet kisses to the party of Blair are a bridge too far.

  5. ben

    Both parties get power from the boomers. Boomers want austerity because it doesn’t effect them thanks to the pension triple lock. The one part where austerity doesn’t count is housing. Both parties ramp housing.

    If we’d gone down the non-austerity route in general we’d have seen inflation which would effect boomers many of whom are on fixed incomes.

    There is no difference between Labour and Tory. They are both pro bank. Frankly I’m a little disappointed to see the false presentation of choice on this web site.

    1. hunkerdown

      (Note to us readers “past our sell-by date”: feel free to substitute “landed gentry” for “boomers”, so that the critique is rightly directed at the interests, not the people that represent them.)

  6. gonzomarx

    The legitimacy question is one that the Tory press (with quietly prompting from the Tories) have made an issues in the last few days. It seems to have been part of the shift in the Tory campaign which started with just 2 themes 1) Red Ed is a weirdo and 2) the economy but they shifted focus when Ed started to campaign well and wasn’t being weird enough, followed by (and I’m guessing here) that their internal polling showed the economy message wasn’t getting any traction. The message finally became Stability vs. Chaos

    Former civil service chief questions Cameron’s claim of Miliband ‘con trick’
    PM’s questioning of legitimacy of Labour government that would rely on support of SNP contradicted by former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell

    TV news focuses on election race at expense of policy issues

    and for those that are interested

    UK Election 2015: a guide to results night

      1. James Levy

        The LibDem leaders are idiots and they got screwed on electoral reform by the Conservatives so why would they expect anything else from Labour? It is impossible to image how anyone could vote for the LibDems considering that they got hosed by the Tories, prostituting themselves for nothing but Clegg getting a chance to peek into the red boxes.

  7. Tammy

    I follow what Peter Hitchens’ has to say, and I think the thrust of his argument is similar, in that, “There are other policies at issue besides austerity – regulation of the banks, for one – but it would be nice if there was a clear distinction that a country with its own currency can ignore bad economics and help their people. That’s not really the election we have.” I don’t necessarily agree with every position PH takes, yet, I think he makes to strong arguments considering he’s critiquing his own party. “If he wins, he will – as the first Tory leader to win an Election in 18 years – have the power to crush all his critics in the Tory Party.”

    1. Ben

      The whole election has been a huge fillibuster to avoid banking / land price regulation. And they’ve done it again.

  8. Cassiodorus

    I gather the Green Party is as dysfunctional in the UK as it is in the US?

    1. ben

      Like all parties the Green party has some odd policies. In the UK the Greens announce they want land value tax plus other stuff and the establishment owned press all find the most unpopular environmental policies and say “this is what you get if you vote Green”.

      There has been no discussion whatsoever of addressing land prices in the UK so the UK establishment have won the election – again.

      1. hunkerdown

        What are Britons doing about that deferential character of theirs, that lies at the root of all their governance problems and plenty of the rest of the world’s as well?

    2. Oregoncharles

      No, the UK Greens are polling around 10% IN VOTES – a huge increase.

      “Dysfunctional” is what you get when there’s little or no money. But the “dysfunctional” US party got on 85% of ballots – a hugely difficult task – and qualified for federal revenue sharing. Pretty damn functional, if you ask me.

      In general, this kind of complaint is an excuse for not helping (a highly ironic one). What about you?

    1. James Levy

      Queen Elizabeth must be thinking that this is no way to end a reign. She has no “elder statesmen” to turn to for advice and cover, because the UK has no living statesmen. When John Major is probably the most decent politician you have left on the bench, you know your country is in deep shit.

      1. hunkerdown

        The Comic Strip Presents… “The Red Nose of Courage“, (Dailymotion, 50m), in which John Major’s secret double life is tastefully chronicled.

        Most kidding aside, she could give Vladimir Vladimirovich a call (by way of Cheltenham, if that can’t be avoided) and no doubt receive some excellent advice, even though he’s just a pup.

    2. Oregoncharles

      THAT should make for entertaining footage – and potentially a really impressive riot. I’m guessing the police will keep them WELL away from #10.

      the next couple of weeks should be very entertaining in Britain – especially if you don’t live there.

  9. Oregoncharles

    They’d have a populist party if they took the Greens seriously.
    Let me correct that: the UK Greens are looking at 10% and probably multiple MPs, which makes me pretty jealous.

    The most important thing about the UK elections is that the 2-Party system (well, 2 1/2, there) has collapsed, to the point they may not be able to form a government. That’s even though they use districted plurality voting, as we do. Yes, it can happen.

  10. okie farmer
    Election results: Conservatives on course for majority
    David Cameron says he hopes to govern for all of the UK as a BBC forecast gives the Tories 329 seats – enough to form a slender majority in the Commons.

    The prime minister said it was “too early to say” the final result but he hoped to form a government.

    Labour has been all but wiped out by the SNP in Scotland and is failing to make enough gains in England and Wales.

    The Lib Dems are heading for as few as eight MPs, with Vince Cable, Ed Davey and Danny Alexander losing their seats.

    The BBC forecast, with well over half of the results now in, is Conservative 329, Labour 233, the Lib Dems eight, the SNP 56, Plaid Cymru three, UKIP two, the Greens one and others 19.

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