News

A Brit Explains the UK Election Results to Americans

We talked to Gavin Haynes about the Conservative Party's surprising upset and the prospects of an independent Scotland.

by Grace Wyler
May 11 2015, 5:30pm

Americans don't usually pay attention when other countries vote. We don't know who the candidates are, or how those other electoral systems work, and unless a war breaks out afterward, we may not know there was an election at all. As a general rule, we're not interested in news that's not about us. Plus, now that our own presidential contest has turned into 18-month reality TV show starring Hillary Clinton and a rotating cast of right-wingers, anyone with even a vague interest in politics doesn't have time for anyone else's political issues.

But other countries do hold elections, and sometimes the results can be interesting, or at least can give you something to talk about when your friend starts yelling at the bar about America's need for a third party.

The UK held such an election last week. Billed as the most important political contest in a generation, the campaign was weird, at least by British standards, which means that it mostly involved a lot of doughy white guys talking politely about the deficit. Analysts predicted that the contest was going to be unprecedentedly close, but in the end they were all wrong: The Conservative Party, led by David Cameron, swept to a surprisingly strong victory. And unsurprisingly, lots of people aren't happy about the result.

To find out more about what all this means—and why we should care—I reached out to VICE UK's political correspondent Gavin Haynes and asked him to fill us in on what went down across the pond.

VICE: First of all, can you explain what exactly was so interesting or important about last week's election? Even American reporters were paying attention to it, at least for a minute.
Gavin Haynes: What was so important was that everyone thought it was going to be so close. In terms of "closing the deficit" or "dealing with the NHS [National Health Service]" or "solving the housing crisis," it was difficult to drive a Rizla between the big three parties and their boring, risk-averse campaigns.

But the polls had been tied for months. Nothing moved. So you had a real race on, plus a bunch of fragmentary pieces in play at the same time: The rise of smaller parties like UKIP [the anti-immigration UK Independence Party] and the Greens, and Scottish Nationalists, the SNP. This meant that, with every possibility of a hung parliament, political pundits could have a field day yakking up any of the 192 possible coalitions and minority governments that could have been formed based on the fractious multi-party shitshow everyone imagined emerging.

But you ended up electing the same guy you've had since 2010. What happened?
Voting. In many constituencies, people went into booths and in pure secret, told the politicians which ones could stay. The results were so many miles from the polls that the polling companies have now launched an official inquiry.

Indeed, US hero Nate Silver—who predicted the US 2012 election down to each state—came over, and made a program with the BBC in which he attempted to predict our own polls. His prediction:

Conservatives: 281 seats
Labour: 266 seats
SNP: 52 seats
Lib Dems: 26 seats

The ultimate outcome:

Conservative: 330 seats
Labour: 232 seats
SNP: 56 seats
Lib Dems: 8 seats

It's not all to be lumped at the door of the poor pollsters though: One in four voters hadn't made up their minds right up until polling day, according to some analysts. They simply went into the booth and let God guide their hands. Turns out God is a Tory.

During the campaign, there was a lot of talk about voter disillusionment and outrage—what happens to all of that anger now? What's the mood over there?
It spills onto the streets. This weekend, there were already protests in central London, where a broad range of anti-austerity campaigners decided that the British people had made the wrong choice and should simply go back and vote again till they got it right. More of this will come if [the Conservative government is] actually going to start putting through £12 billion ($18.7 billion) of welfare cuts. I suspect Cameron will move quickly—he suddenly has a lot of political capital to burn through, so expect an angry year.

Explain the UKIP — you aren't a fan, but why? It seems like they are sort of the Tea Party of the UK, but is that the most accurate American analogy?
UKIP are essentially one man—walking 70s time-traveller Nigel Farage—and a bunch of cranks he found down the back of his sofa, but mainly just him. They represent everyone from retired colonels in the Cotswolds to delivery drivers in Dagenham, who want to protest-vote against the 21st century and who retain a rather romantic view of Britain's historic destiny as an island nation (Nazis, Empires, etc...). Until recently, they were generally considered to be a joke—loopy bearers of the sacred flame of British patriotic anti-Europeanism, fanned by tabloid tales of the EU banning "bendy bananas."

That is, until they hit upon immigration as a neat dovetailing of the EU [issue], with something people were already hot under the collar about: migration. The rise of UKIP comes down to the 2005 decision by the Blair government to allow full immigration rights and benefits to all citizens of Eastern Europe, in accordance with EU law. Blair's team predicted "a few thousand" would make the trip, but there are now over a million Poles living in the UK, and some folks ain't too happy about it. UKIP then bang on about low-skilled wages dropping and schools and hospitals filling up, and they managed to coral 26 percent of the vote at the last European elections, and 11 percent in the General Election.

Nigel already has strong links with the US Tea Party—he is buds with Rand Paul—but perhaps the best antecedent is that woman in Arizona who wanted to make immigrants wear pink jumpsuits and drag manacles behind them, Jan Brewer, I think. [Note: Gav is confusing Brewer, the former Republican governor of Arizona, with Arizona's lunatic sheriff, Joe Arpaio, although neither is a fan of immigration.]

He is an ex-stockbroker and a tweedy pint-loving libertarian who wants to return smoking to pubs and personally thinks drugs should be legal. Hilariously, they once had an official policy to return Pullman steam trains to British railways. That is the level of misty romanticism they're digging.

This year's election was seen as a proxy battle for Jim Messina and David Axelrod, two of the leading strategists of Barack Obama's presidential campaigns. Are you guys experiencing some kind of Americanization of British campaigns?
Axelrod [who worked for Labour] was derided by the press for his lack of involvement: popping over to Britain in short hops rather than sticking it out here for the duration, all while collection a stoinking (by UK election standards) £250,000 (about half a million dollars) consultancy fee.

His supposed genius does not seem to have shone through. There were many cooks in the Labour kitchen making that tepid broth, and he seems to have been just one voice, shouted out by those arguing for the disastrous "35 percent" core-vote strategy, which meant that Labour ended up seeming economically incoherent and socially chippy.

God knows what Messina did—it was Lynton Crosby, Cameron's Australian spinner, who took all the laurels. I guess much like Nate Silver, being associated with success gives you a halo effect, and failure the opposite—the contribution itself is often dependent on uncontrollable economic and cultural factors.

It's already very Americanized in the sense that there is an absolute focus on the party leaders—the idea of collegiate government, of the prime minister as chairman of the board, that a Westminster system is meant to represent barely gets a look-in.

Thankfully, though, someone who should have a gold statue dedicated to them at the foot of Big Ben took the decision many years ago to ban all TV advertising. Meaning that our politics remains largely free of money. The Tories, for instance, spent double Labour's £8 million ($12.5 million) in 2010. By contrast, in 2012, Obama spent $775 million.

The one issue that rarely came up in this election was foreign policy. But will the results have any effect on the UK's relationship to the rest of the world?
We are going to bomb the US, starting with Maine and working our way along the Eastern Seaboard until we can do unto Washington what we did in 1812, but with Trident submarines.

As for the rest of the globe, well, they have re-employed World's Most Boring Man contest winner Phillip Hammond as Foreign Secretary, so no boats will be rocked, and foreign policy will mainly come straight down from Cameron, who is a sort of timid liberal interventionist. A dovish Blairite, you might say—he wanted to act over Syria, he bombed Libya, but overall, his ideas on foreign policy are managed decline of a dwindling power. Britain's armed forces have shrunk by a quarter since the last election. They're knackered after a decade in Afghanistan and Iraq. The new world order is almost upon us with the rise of China and Russia, and even Japanese re-armament on the horizon, but Cameron's a "domestic president'" as you guys might say: He doesn't want to go haring around re-shaping the globe like Tony did.

What about with Europe? Will the UK hold a referendum on EU membership any time soon?
[Cameron] is going to be bleeding Europe through the eyeballs for the next two years. He had promised a referendum in 2017, perhaps believing that he would conveniently be able to drop that as part of his next coalition negotiations. Now, he has to follow through.

He will be going to Brussels at some point to try and get concessions for Britain on various European issues—most notably the Eastern European migration thing that has lead to the rise of UKIP. Then, whatever concessions he gets, he will have put them to the people in an in-out vote.

But getting any concessions will mean getting 27 EU countries to agree unanimously to reverse the present policies—which is going to be nigh-on impossible for the big stuff. Obviously, Cameron is playing chicken with them on this front—"Give me the concessions I want, or else I'm gonna hafta ask my friends the British public, and they ain't gonna be too happy with you..." The rest of Europe definitely wants Britain in, or else it could unravel the whole EU project, so there is at least an incentive for them to bend.

He's taking a huge gamble. If he pulls it off, it'll be a stunning coup. If not, his head will roll by the end of 2017.

The other big story that came out of the election was the overwhelming gains by the SNP. What does this mean for the union? Are we going to see the break up of the UK?
Nothing will break down in the next 20 years—but after that, yes, almost certainly. As a concession after the mind-blowing rout by the Scottish National Party (who seek complete independence), Scotland is going to be given as much autonomy as Westminster can fill its boots with. This will buy them off, but by 2035, Scotland—pursuing a Scandinavian-style economic and social destiny—will look so different to England—Tory-dominated, lean and capitalist—that the next independence vote will simply be the formal seal on what everyone can already see with their own two eyes.

Of course, if Britain leaves the EU in 2017 and it is shown the Scots voted to remain, then this could all come hurtling back towards us far sooner than we'd imagined. It's a new world as of this week. It may soon require new maps too.

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Follow Gavin Haynes on Twitter.