The UK’s political system embodies the ideal type of republican democracy in many ways and the constitution – for something that was never put down on paper – has provided a remarkable degree of stability. However, keeping this in mind, Kalyani Unkule argues that the far reaching changes in society and polity that were in evidence pre and post-election must not be ignored, not least for being instructive as far as what democracies around the world, including India, can expect as they evolve.
Identities in Politics
Group affiliations and social identities play a strong role in electoral outcomes even in mature democracies. True, the Labour party registered stunning loses within its traditional Scottish base on this occasion. However, this is owing to a perceptible shift in the determining group affiliation from class-based to ethnic/ethno-nationalist. The Guardian’s prescription for Labour that is must learn anew to reach out to the public “in a voice – and perhaps an accent – that speaks to the individual ear” is telling in this regard.
Ideological spectrum and policy options
Reputed scholars of European politics, among them Tony Judt, have presaged the blurring of the left-right divide which finds its genesis in the region and has long defined electoral battle-lines. Judt describes this as “the disappearance of the old master narratives (Socialism vs Capitalism); proletarians vs owners; imperialists vs revolutionaries)”. Sworn allegiances are admittedly not entirely a thing of the past but it appears that voters increasingly ask themselves: “Who has the right answers on an issue that matters most to me?”, rather than wholesale policy packages and ideological grandstanding. Much of the pre-election public sentiment in the UK was one of chagrin over lack of distinct and clearly articulated policy options anyway. In this situation, voters seem to opt for continuity by default. In stark contrast, post-election commentary has, for instance, taken Labour to task for not being Centrist enough while the dismal Liberal Democrats’ performance at the polls has been blamed on too much Centrism.
Another emerging trend where this same phenomenon is clearly manifested is the varying fortunes of the far-left and far-right. Thus, while the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party fared well in the 2014 European Parliament elections, it only managed to secure a single seat this time, suggesting, once again, issue-specific suffrage at various levels.
The public’s pro-continuity bias, leading to successive terms for the same administration more or less, in the case of New Labour, was deemed by many to be a case of going deeper in a certain direction – the wrong one. History will be the judge of Cameroon and his cabinet’s successive stints in government. It is plausible however, that the first term of any government would be spent in course-correction and back-pedaling on perceived faux-pas. A second opportunity to serve in office must be awaited to take any action aimed at moving forward.
Secession and Devolution
With different parties and political agendas in power at different levels of government one thing seems assured for mature democracies – devolve or perish! Less than a year after the Scottish referendum on independence ended in a No vote, the pro-independence Scottish Nationalist Party bagged 56 of 59 seats occupied by Scots in Westminster. The SNP does not favour the austerity policies that have been at the heart of the last Conservative government. Its MPs will no doubt push Cameroon to deliver on the promise of greater financial autonomy and decision-making authority for Scotland, within the Union. Moving forward, the only options confronting mature democracies are likely to be a willingness to loosen the central government’s stranglehold or be permanently riddled by policy paralysis.
Brussels, Berlin and Paris must now also be equally willing to negotiate afresh, a place for the UK in the European Union. Although personally not in favour of pushing the exit button, David Cameron must contend with Conservative Eurosceptics as well as the likes of UKIP, whose poor showing at the polls will not deter them from setting the terms of the debate. Whatever be the specifics of the deal that is finally put to vote, this referendum would once again bring to fore thorny issues of identity, immigration and economy and above all entail a re-imagination of the place the UK seeks to occupy in the world and its relationship with its European self and the European other.
The Rules of Ruling
The outcome of this election has left pollsters somewhat baffled. All per-poll predictions pointed to a neck-and-neck race between the two leading parties. At the very least, nowhere near the kind of majority secured by the Tories was anticipated. Some have attempted to save face by blaming the first-past-the-post system for this surprising result. Reports suggest that underlying the Tory seat share of above 51% is a much less impressive vote share of 37% of the 66% of eligible voters who exercised the ballot. Others have sought redemption by arguing for improved forecasting models.
A promising supplement to these approaches would be to follow the long-term evolution of democracies and to more fully appreciate the nature of and links between electoral strategies, voter behaviour and social consensus.
Kalyani Unkule is an Assistant Professor at the Jindal Global Law School and Assistant Dean, International Collaborations