Arthur I. Cyr: Britain’s earthquake election
Britain will have a general election on May 7, and the contest already demonstrates dramatic profound shifts taking place in the nation’s politics. Traditionally, the system has been characterized by stable two-party political competition, but no longer.
A televised debate on April 2 featured the leaders of no less than seven political parties. In addition to the leaders of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government and the Labour Party, leaders of the Green Party, Plaid Cymru of Wales, Scottish National Party (SNP), and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) were present.
There was no clear winner in the seven-way interchange, but SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon is generally acknowledged to have been an impressive standout. Last year, Scottish voters rejected independence in a special referendum. Since then, however, the SNP has enjoyed a membership boom.
The other main beneficiary was UKIP led by Nigel Farage. The party received impressive support in elections for European Parliament representatives. Farage’s skill in condemning immigration, membership in the European Union and other aspects of the status quo generates significant support as well as alarm.
In the last general election in 2010, the Conservatives led by David Cameron won a total of 306 seats in Parliament’s House of Commons, where governments are formed. This was short of the 326 M.P.s required for a governing majority. The Liberal Democrats’ 57 seats added enough to form the coalition government, the first since the special circumstances of World War II.
During the 2010 campaign, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg’s strong performance in first-ever American-style televised debate with Conservative and Labour party leaders generated great visibility. Traditionally, Liberal Democrats have represented anti-establishment groups and sentiments. While the coalition has provided the party with credibility in government, the attraction of being an “outsider” force waned.
Measurable Liberal revival began in the early 1960s, spearheaded by the charismatic party leader Jo Grimond. A stunning 1962 Liberal off-year election victory in the suburban parliamentary constituency of Orpington seemed to provide evidence that British voters were in the mood for radical change. For a time the Liberals rivaled the other two parties in opinion poll support.
Yet the Liberals of that era never won more than a handful of parliamentary seats. An early 1974 general election also resulted in a House of Commons with no clear majority, but no coalition resulted despite some limited Conservative-Liberal discussion of possibilities.
The 1980s brought the new Social Democratic Party, led by breakaway Labour Party leaders. The Liberal and Social Democratic parties formally merged into the current Liberal Democrats in 1988.
Odds are against either the Conservatives or Labour securing a clear majority in the House of Commons. The two parties have been neck and neck in public opinion polls, each struggling unsuccessfully to pull ahead.
The Liberal Democrats lost substantial support after joining in coalition, but likely will survive with a smaller House of Commons delegation. Maintaining governing coalition has involved intense strain, starting with Prime Minister Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Clegg, but could survive.
There is also speculation about a possible coalition between Labour and the Scottish Nationalists. Scotland traditionally was a Labour stronghold, but the rapid growth of SNP support has upended that.
Karl Marx has had profound impact around the globe, inspiring socialist and communist movements that defined much of 20th-century politics. End of the Cold War, and growth of market economies, seemed to discredit him.
However, Marx also emphasized alienation along with class conflict. British political shifts reflect growing alienation.
Americans should take note.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.