A year ago, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, was the first to congratulate Narendra Modi on his historic election victory. “It’s great to be talking to someone who just got more votes than any other politician anywhere in the universe,” he told him. In May 2015, it was the turn of Modi to congratulate Cameron. There are parallels in the success of the two men, and big differences too, but in both cases the election result had huge implications for the politics and future direction of their countries.
The most superficial similarity is that right-wing leaders put an end to a period of coalition government and emerged with small but workable overall majorities in the lower house of parliament. And in both cases, they delivered a knock-out blow to their opponents on the left, leaving those parties shocked and reeling at the scale of their rejection by voters. The political map of the United Kingdom, like that of India, has been redrawn.
And yet when Modi and Cameron next meet—and we are hoping to see India’s Prime Minister in the UK sometime later this year—they may well reflect that while winning power seemed like a huge challenge at the time, it is nothing compared to the difficulties of exercising that power and of satisfying the demands of both your party’s hardliners and the wider electorate who put their trust in you.
Cameron, once again like Modi, secured a parliamentary majority that most commentators believed was beyond his grasp. The opinion polls conducted throughout the election campaign consistently suggested that while he might end up with the largest number of seats in the House of Commons, his chances of getting an overall majority were slim. And yet he passed the magic number of 326 seats—the equivalent of India’s 272—with relative ease. Among the losers in this gargantuan battle were pollsters. They must now explain why all of them consistently suggested that the Conservative and Labour parties were neck-and-neck when the result put the Conservatives 100 seats ahead with a 6 per cent lead in the popular vote.
The polls deceived everybody, including Cameron. He fought a campaign that seemed uncertain and nervous, while the challenger, Labour’s Ed Miliband, was in confident and bullish form. Over the course of five weeks, the parties slugged it out without ever seeming to land a blow serious enough to give them the edge. Towards the end, most of the discussion was not about who would win, but what sort of messy coalition would have to be formed when nobody won outright. The relief on Conservative faces when the polls were proved wrong was evidence that they hadn’t believed they were on course for victory either.
Cameron had the undoubted pleasure of putting together the first Conservative majority government since 1992, a very long time in politics. The last person to do so was John Major and his painful experience of trying to make a success of a victory nobody had predicted is a nightmare that haunts his successor today. The Major government had a small majority too, and that gave his right-wing, nationalist faction in parliament the ability to make his life hell, something they did every day of his premiership. The party tore itself apart over one issue—Britain’s relationship with the European Union—and history is already repeating itself to the extent that Cameron’s biggest battle on the horizon is over the same issue.
Foreign affairs was one issue that was rarely discussed during the campaign, but Britain’s role in the world could be about to change fundamentally. Cameron says he wants to renegotiate this country’s relationship with the EU and will put the results of those negotiations to the people in a referendum. The UK’s European partners are reluctant to make any big concessions that would rewrite the basic principles underlying the EU project itself, but without them the Conservative right-wing will not be satisfied. Anti-European sentiment has been whipped up already by a small but growing party called UKIP, the UK Independence Party. Although the polls suggest a majority of the public still favour British membership of the EU, the possibility of the referendum resulting in a ‘No’ vote is very real. And, anyway, who believes the polls right now?
A British exit would have profound— and in my view hugely damaging—implications for Britain’s global influence, as well as jobs, the environment and much more besides. Trade partners, including India, will be watching the debate with care and apprehension. As India grows in importance on the international stage, the UK could soon be much diminished.
And it is not just nationalists on the right of British politics who are shaping up for a fight that could change the country fundamentally. Cameron faces a challenge for another kind of nationalism that aims to turn the UK into a Dis-united Kingdom. The biggest upset of the election was not in England, where the Conservatives were triumphant, but in Scotland, where a separatist party, the SNP, won a far bigger victory. Here the political map really was redrawn in the most dramatic fashion imaginable. The Scottish National Party won 56 of the 59 seats north of the border. The Conservatives, Labour and the centrist Liberal Democrats were left with just one seat apiece. It is as if all those BJP seats in Uttar Pradesh had been won by a party determined to take the state out of the Union.
By pandering to English nationalism on the campaign trail, Cameron merely stoked the fires of Scottish nationalism. And while the Scots rejected independence in a referendum only last year, the political mood has changed so profoundly in just a few short months that a second referendum, if it were to be held, could easily go the other way. The nightmare scenario for Cameron is to be the Prime Minister who presided over the break-up of his own country and the emasculation of what was left into an irrelevance adrift off the coast of Europe.
The political potency of nationalism was evident from the election results. Its destructive consequences may now be exposed over the next few months and years.
Those parties that take a different view are, for now at least, in no fit state to fight back. The triumph of nationalism, in its very distinct forms in England and Scotland, has left the forces of internationalism, liberalism and socialism in disarray at the centre. It is true that the SNP is a left-leaning, progressive and outward looking party that favours EU membership, but for all its remarkable electoral success north of the border, it cannot influence the balance of power at Westminster.
The biggest losers were the Liberal Democrats. Until 7 May, they were partners in government with 57 members of parliament. They held the post of Deputy Prime Minister and four other Cabinet positions. Today, they are left with just eight MPs. Having painstakingly built up their representation over many years, they have been sent in just one election back to the political dark ages. It is a warning to junior coalition partners everywhere. They sacrificed some of their core beliefs in return for a share of power, but voters could only see their broken promises and compromises while all credit for the former government’s successes went to the Conservatives.
The opposition Labour Party wasn’t wiped out to anything like the same degree, but its defeat was still one of the worst in many decades. The shock of losing was all the greater because opinion polls had misled them, like everybody else, into thinking they had a shot at power. Miliband resigned as the party’s leader the morning after the election, and Labour is now in the process of working out what went so horribly wrong and why.
Those deliberations are complicated by the very different results in England and Scotland. North of the border, Labour lost dozens of seats to the SNP, which campaigned to their left. In England, they were trounced by the Conservatives on the right. Only in Wales, the smallest of the three mainland countries that make up the UK, did Labour support hold up reasonably well. Labour remains strong in London and the industrial heartlands of the north of England, but elsewhere in the midlands and the south, the result was disastrous for it. As one MP observed, more people have walked on the moon than now represent Labour in this part of the country. And it is here that British general elections are won or lost.
It is tempting here to drawn a parallel with the Congress party, but that would be misleading. Labour did badly, but not that badly. It is still far and away the second largest political force in parliament and its claim on the post of Leader of the Opposition is unquestioned. It is severely wounded, demoralised and powerless, but it is not out for the count. Unlike Congress, it is ready to face up to the reasons for its defeat and make a clear-headed assessment of where it went wrong. There is a danger that its response to its humiliation will be too simplistic, but at least it has a response and is utterly determined to pick itself up and get back in the game.
For 20 years, politics on the left in Britain has been dominated by the personality and ideology of one man, Tony Blair. He is the only Labour leader to have won a majority since 1974, and he won three of them, all much bigger than Cameron has just secured. I worked for him during his first term as Prime Minister and was Labour Director of Communications in the run-up to his second landslide. So successful was he in winning elections that you might think he’d be the first person you’d turn to for guidance if you wanted to build on his success. Instead, the opposite happened. For the past five years, he has been almost a non-person in the eyes of his party. Miliband decided Labour had to move on from Blairism, but in doing so, he threw the baby out with the bathwater. The consequence was crushing defeat at the ballot box.
So now Blair is back. The weekend after the election result, he reminded the party he once led that “the route to the summit lies through the centre ground”. His message was clear and came as a surprise to nobody: Labour lost because it moved too far to the left. It championed causes of the poor and disadvantaged and attacked the super-rich and over-privileged. So far, so good. That is what parties of the left are supposed to do. What it failed to do was address the real concerns of the vast majority of people who are somewhere in the middle, neither in poverty nor in the comfort of exceptional wealth. The party lacked credibility on the economy and seemed far more interested in talking about how to intervene where it thought capitalism was failing rather than how to help businesses succeed and create more jobs and more prosperity for the country as a whole.
If there is any good news for the left, it is that all the credible candidates for leadership are talking about moving Labour back onto the centre ground, the only place from which it can hope to win again. One of the frontrunners is a Black man whose father was Nigerian. There are impressive women in the running too, so there’s a good chance that Labour, which has only ever been led by White men, could be changing in more ways than one.
There are some who say elections make little or no difference; that voting changes nothing. Here in Britain, as in India 12 months ago, the facts tell a different story. Fundamental changes in direction can be brought about by the people’s choices at the ballot box. For better or worse, we in the UK must now contend with the implications of the result and prepare for a period of extraordinary uncertainty.
It is often said that Britain has never managed to work out its place in the post- Imperial world. In the next few years, that question will have to be faced head- on, and the consequences, not just for ourselves but also for our friends and partners around the world, will be truly profound.
Lance Price is an author and political commentator. He is a former BBC journalist and later adviser to Tony Blair. He has published four books including Where Power Lies and The Modi Effect: Inside Narendra Modi’s Campaign to Transform India