UK Election Musings

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I’m going to put almost all of this post under the fold because it’s just some general observations about the UK election. See below for U.S. stuff.

With that aside, you’ve certainly seen that the British Labour party basically destroyed the Tories in yesterday’s election. I believe it’s still the poorest showing for the Tories in their history going back almost two centuries. It’s close to Labour’s best, though that gets complicated because there’s vote share and then there’s the amount of seats you get. Looking at the current results, in which all but two seats have been decided, Labour has 412 seats. The Tories are down to 121. Shockingly, the Liberal Democrats, the perennial third party of British politics, isn’t that far behind at 71 seats. After that you have a host of regional/national parties from Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Notable there is that the Scottish National Party’s dominance in Scotland seems, at least for the moment, to have been broken.

But it’s under the hood of these seats results that things get really interesting. When I first saw these results it reminded me of Labour’s win in 1997. There’s this pattern in which the Conservatives hang on for so long — 14 years in this case — that when they finally lose they lose in these kinds of armageddon-like defeats. But again, under the hood there’s a lot more going on here.

Two other parties got virtually no seats between them but accounted for over 20% of the vote. One of those is the Green Party, which got just short of 2 million votes and 7%. The other is Reform UK which got four million votes and just over 14%. This crazy underperformance in seats is the result of Britain’s first-past-the-post system. You can come in second everywhere, rack up tons of votes and still get close to shut out in seats. But look at Reform UK. It got 4.1 million votes versus the Tories 6.8 million. In other words, pretty comparable, albeit significantly behind. Reform UK is essentially a far right Trumpist party led by Nigel Farage, the Brexit guy and all around Trumpy weirdo.

In other words, beneath the seat count toplines, this is actually very different from 1997. The Tories were crushed by Labour but their base was to a great extent stolen out from under them by Reform UK. Nothing like that happened in 1997. You can sort of make a similar argument about Labour and the votes racked up by the Greens. But it’s 9.7 million vs 1.9 million votes, totally different. And in any case, Labour is laughing last and long. They’re the ones with 412 seats.

Another way to look at these results is to look at the Greens and Labour as parties of the left and the Tories and Reform UK as parties of the right and see that their vote totals combined aren’t that different. The first a touch over 40% and the second 38%. Of course the Liberal Democrats figure into this too. It would be a mistake for me to try to capture what the LibDems are on the ideological spectrum. But they’re certainly not a party of the right. It’s probably best to say that the LibDems are closest to the right of the Labour party, but without a left wing and without the historic and present roots in the Labour movement. Add into this a socio-demographic profile unique to the UK. They’re also very pro-Europe, though I’m not sure what that currently means post-Brexit.

(Thumbnail history: the LibDems are the product of the amalgamation of two parties, the Social Democrats and the Liberals. The first was a group of defectors from the Labour Party, essentially people from the right of the Labour Party during the height of Thatcherism when these defectors thought the party was too dominated by the left. The Liberals were one of the UK’s two major parties until they were overtaken by Labour in the years just after World War I. But they never totally disappeared, eeking out a small but non-trivial number of seats through most of the 20th century. They combined I think in the mid-1980s.)

What you can see from all this is that UK politics is headed for a period of deep electoral if not political instability. The feature of first-past-the-post politics is that people don’t like throwing away their votes. And they won’t do it for long. A massive number of votes were thrown away in this sense by the Greens and Reform UK. History is usually the best guide. So the most likely thing is that these voters will mostly migrate back to the dominant parties of government, Labour and the Tories. But if you’re the Tories you can’t totally discount another possibility. Their number of seats are historically low, not dramatically higher than the LibDems. Maybe conservative voters decide that Reform UK is the better vehicle and the Tories just disappear or go the way of the old Liberals. Again, I’m definitely not predicting that. And even discussing this possibility I’m pretty far over my skis as an outsider to UK politics. It’s not just unlikely. It’s very unlikely. All I’m saying is that if you’re the Tory Party I don’t think you can say “Oh, there’s no way that can happen. We don’t have to worry about that.”

The bigger issue goes beyond particular party structures and labels. There’s a very big question whether center-right parties of government are really possible any more. We see in France that the historic center-right party of the government, the Republicans, have been reduced to minor party status by the rise of the Le Pen. The U.S. is similar but it’s all happened within the structure of the Republican Party. Traditional Republicans have been reduced to something like bell hops within a Trumpist party. It’s probably best to say that in these countries and many others we see similar political developments just playing out within different electoral and party systems.

But all of this is under the hood and really the future. For now the Labour Party has total control of the British state and is unlikely to lose it any time in the near future.

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