Be careful what you wish for. On May 7 Britain woke up to a hung Parliament—the dream of center-left politicians since Nick Clegg was in diapers. Here at last was the chance for Labour and the Liberal Democrats to form an alliance that would ditch Britain’s winner-take-all electoral system, replacing it with a more proportional arrangement that would reflect the country’s longstanding center-left majority, freezing out the Conservatives for a generation. Instead Clegg (a former Nation intern) took his party into government with the Tories, serving as deputy prime minister to David Cameron, a politician he’d called "the con man of British politics." Where did it all go wrong?
Part of the problem was numerical: though Labour and the Lib Dems together won 52 percent of the votes, their combined seats left them short of a majority. But politics was probably more decisive. Though both main parties played to the center, Britain, like the United States, is a deeply polarized society. Take a close look at the election results, and the mirage of a stable center-left consensus melts away to reveal a country deeply riven not just by party but by region, gender and class. The Tories remain the party of wealth, aspiration and home ownership; Labour is still the party of the unions, the public sector and the poor.
The Tories may be dominant in England, but in Scotland, where the threat of a Tory government brought both Lib Dem and Scottish Nationalist voters back to Labour in droves, they managed only a single MP. Coalitions are a messy business, and while Cameron—and Clegg—could bring their parties with them, Labour’s Gordon Brown could not: Scottish Labour MPs wanted no part of a deal with Lib Dems or the Scottish National Party. Nor did many on Labour’s left, who apparently feared marginalization in government more than a spell in opposition. Labour did well among women under 35, and unskilled and low-income workers. But the Tories made gains among skilled workers and the lower middle class—parts of old Labour’s base who have good reason to feel neglected by New Labour. Dependent on the state for education and healthcare, with their savings locked up in houses whose value has been wiped out by the credit crunch, these are the voters whose resentments have been channeled into the issue of immigration.
We spent the day before the election in Dagenham, a mostly white working-class suburb east of London. The Ford plant here once employed 40,000 people, and the Becontree Estate’s council homes formed a stable working-class community. But in the 1980s Thatcher’s government sold half the houses to tenants, who then moved on, leaving the estate to the most disadvantaged. In 2002 Ford Dagenham stopped producing cars, laying off all but 4,000 of its workers. Becontree’s main avenues still look neat and clean, but turn down a side street and you’re in a different world: apartment blocks with no locks on the doors, stairwells stinking of urine, concrete crazed with weeds and people home all day. Dagenham, says Nick Lowles of the antifascist Hope Not Hate campaign, is one of Britain’s fastest-changing communities. The cheapest housing in London attracts recent immigrants; some of the old white working class draw a straight line from their new neighbors to their own sense of abandonment. Jon Cruddas, Dagenham’s left-wing Labour MP and a possible candidate for the party leadership, held his seat against a Tory challenger, though his share of the vote dropped by 8.9 percent. Most of the votes he lost went to the fascist British National Party.