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.
Immigration (a topic only Clegg addressed with any candor) is the meat and potatoes of Britain’s right-wing press, which rapidly closed ranks against a possible Labour/Lib Dem coalition. "This shabby stitch-up," howled the Daily Express; "a squalid day for democracy," scolded the Daily Mail; "a very Labour coup," complained the Telegraph when Brown resigned to pave the way for a deal. Though constitutional precedent gives the incumbent administration first crack at forming a government if no party wins a majority, even the BBC’s supposedly neutral reporters expressed incredulity at what they repeatedly called "a coalition of the losers." Democratic debate is skewed by this baseline badgering, some of it fueled by Rupert Murdoch, who backed Blair in the past but this time went all-in behind Cameron. Murdoch wants a Tory government to rein in the BBC, chief rival to his Sky broadcasting; with the Tories in power, his hold over British politics will be much stronger.
In any normal European country, an interval of days or weeks between an election and the formation of a new coalition is no cause for alarm. In Britain, though, any departure from a morning-after changing of the guard feels like a crisis—especially with the jittery financial markets hovering over this election. In a private conversation that quickly went viral, Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, told American economist David Hale that "whoever wins this election will be out of power for a whole generation because of how tough the fiscal austerity will have to be." The BBC’s election coverage paused at intervals to take sterling’s temperature; reports on the parties’ talks were accompanied by ominous rumbling about the markets’ response. Analysts at BNP Paribas advised investors to sell the pound as the chances of a Lib/Lab deal increased: "A Labour/Liberal government…would almost guarantee a downgrade of the UK sovereign…since both parties agree that early expenditure cuts could harm the economy." The pound bounced up again the minute the Evening Standard claimed that talks with Labour had collapsed. In other words, if Britain dares to flirt with Keynesianism or hesitates to implement a deflationary policy, "the markets" will dump the pound and raise the interest on its sovereign debt—just as they did in Greece, used as a boogeyman to scare voters during the campaign.
With such constraints, what price democracy? The impasse that appears as a problem of the voting system reflects a deeper crisis of legitimacy decades in the making. The deregulation of the City launched by Thatcher and embraced by Brown produced twenty years of boom that turned to bubble, leaving politics prey to the financiers’ whims. Globalization brought prosperity but also immiseration, destroying the communities where Labour once had roots. The new, fluid, market-style politics of triangulation and focus groups shot New Labour to power under Blair, to whom both Clegg and Cameron owe their style. It was on Labour’s watch that politicians finally lost their claim to the voters’ respect and trust. Blair’s "sofa administration," in which decisions were made by unelected advisers; the Iraq War, pushed through Parliament with the aid of dodgy dossiers; last year’s expenses scandal, which revealed the fantastic sums politicians of all parties had nicked from the public purse—all these contributed to the three-week eruption of "Cleggmania," the fantasy of a politician who, by talking straight and waving the magic wand of electoral reform, could restore the public’s faith in its creaking institutions.
As it turned out, the Lib Dems did far less well at the polls than predicted: in the solitude of the voting booth, people went back to the parties they knew and understood. But because neither Labour nor the Conservatives won a majority of seats in the House of Commons, Clegg was left in the impossible position of kingmaker, trying to square his role as an advocate for a more democratic politics with his power to install the next government through backroom horse trading.
Clegg turned first to the Tories—a move dictated by electoral arithmetic, and Clegg’s own statement that whichever party did best in the polls deserved a chance to form a government. The two parties soon found common ground on education, civil liberties (dumping Labour’s detested ID cards) and the environment, though not on the Lib Dems’ key demand for electoral reform. Brown’s announcement that he would step down brought Clegg’s back-channel negotiations with Labour into the open, raising last-minute hopes that the progressive coalition might yet come to pass. But while history and chemistry favored a deal between Labour and the Lib Dems, the parliamentary math was against them—as was the fact that such an arrangement would have installed a second unelected Labour prime minister. At the last minute Cameron was even able to offer a referendum on a fairer electoral system—and bring his party with him (though with no promise that the Tories would vote in favor). When it came to the moment of truth, Labour turned out to have no stomach for the long-imagined "dream team." Former cabinet ministers decried the negotiations on TV; MPs railed that the pact that would not hold—even that it would complete the Blairite project of destroying Labour’s left.
So Britain has its first coalition government since Winston Churchill’s war cabinet, led by its nineteenth Old Etonian prime minister. The Liberal Democrats have won key posts and policies. In the process, though, they may have sold their souls. Left voters who flirted with the fantasy of a radical alternative will go running home to Labour. Tainted by the coming cuts, which they will have to support and Labour can now oppose, the Lib Dems may find that the Holy Grail of proportional representation remains beyond their reach. The past few days have been a lousy advertisement for a system that lets small parties hold the rest to ransom.
While Clegg may have risen to acclaim as the would-be savior of democratic values, his actions since the election have exposed a democratic deficit running deep beneath British politics. Those protesters in suffrage purple who chanted "Fair votes now" and "Don’t sell out" at Clegg over the weekend need to acknowledge the more powerful forces holding democracy hostage. Standing for the second-to-last time outside 10 Downing Street, Gordon Brown identified the two issues facing the country: economic recovery and electoral reform. No politician has begun to talk about how the two might be linked.