Ambivalent UK, ditto world

Written by Michael Walton | Michael Walton | Updated: May 12 2010, 13:54pm hrs
After a dramatic election, the UK electorate brilliantly managed to generate a loss for all three main parties. The Conservatives made big gains and became the largest party in Parliament, but didnt achieve their cherished absolute majority. With 36% of the vote, they got 48% of parliamentary seats. Labour suffered big losses, receiving 29% of the vote and 40% of seats. And the Liberal Democrats, despite the extraordinary surge in support after the performance in the TV debates of their leader, Nick Clegg, actually lost seats on polling day. Owing to the first-past-the-post electoral system, they remain hugely under-represented in parliament: with 23% of the vote they got 9% of the seats. Electoral reform is their holy grail.

The LibDems nevertheless got the balance of power and both parties were eager to offer deals. When intensive negotiations with the Conservatives fell short of electoral reform, Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown dramatically announced he would be resigning as leader of the party in order to increase the prospect of a Labour-LibDem progressive pacthe will only step down after a new leader is elected. Critically Labour are recent converts to the Alternative Vote, that keeps single member constituencies but in which second choices count; this does not achieve proportionality, but would give more seats to the LibDems. The Conservatives, until then dead against any such a move, swiftly offered a referendum on the Alternative Vote, but not to support it.

Amidst the excitement of deal-making, unresolved at the time of writing, I think there are two deeper sets of issues at stake. First, there is genuine collective ambivalence on societal designson the balance between the state and the market, between individual freedoms and intrusive protection, and between cultural diversity and fears amongst the still dominant group of white working and middle class citizens over perceived threats from others, with the current focus on Polish workers. And second, there is dismay over the distance and arrogance of the political classes. This came into sharp focus with the scandal over the over-exuberant use of expenses by MPs of all parties. (The Labour ex-minister whose husband had inadvertently put pornographic movies on his wifes expenses lost her seat.)

Labour would normally have been the custodians of getting the social democratic balance right, especially in their current, New Labour, incarnation. This favours globalisation and support for markets, but with an active state as an agent of fairness, inclusion and security. As Chancellor, Gordon Brown had made the central bank independent and initially pursued contracyclical fiscal policy. There has been a serious attempt to tackle social inclusion and child poverty. There was a major effort to improve the state, through results-oriented reform and putting badly needed, more resources into health and education. And Labour made the last decade a golden age of support for culture, linking creativity to both inclusion and economic dynamism.

But New Labour was a tired brand. Power had been too seductive. There was too strong a predilection for top-down, control-oriented approaches to making the state work better, even when this went against professed beliefs. An obsession with spin was pervasive. Gordon Brown combined all this in one person: moral commitment to social justice and intellectual support for devolution of power alongside an obsession with control; arguing fiscal prudence while laterally going for electorally inspired spending.

Yet the Conservatives have been acting out a paradox. It is hard to profess to be the party of change when youre supposed to be conservative. And claiming the mantle of compassionate security and equity still falls short on credibility when Thatcherite individualism is part of the collective memory. The Conservatives simultaneously pledged the most vigorous cuts in spending alongside cuts in inheritance tax64% of the electorate did not vote for them.

So the hung Parliament seems to embody both a search for balance in an insecure world and a desire to shake up the established political classes. The LibDems were given the chance to decide who would govern. This could be a poisoned chalice. All agree that major fiscal consolidation is unavoidable with the deficit at 11% of GDP. An alliance with the Conservatives has been dubbed a coalition of cutters, with Labour a coalition of losers.

Whatever happens, behind the deals there remain the big questions, of delivering security, inclusion and cultural recognition in a globalising world, of making the state work, and the political classes more accountable. There arent easy answers. Im convinced a middle ground is not a cop-out, but one of the most serious quests of our times. A progressive coalition, with electoral reform, could offer the kind of realignment that would support this. The UK electorates ambivalence reflects the state of the world, but it dealt a tough hand.

The author is at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Centre for Policy Research