UK elections brought to surface reality most commentators missed, says Meghnad Desai

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Published: June 14, 2017 5:12:17 AM

Over the last couple of years, elections have taken place where the unexpected , unforecast outcome has come about. Donald Trump won in the US, setting off a debate about the shock to the Liberal Order.

uk polls, theresa may, theresa may news, united kingdom, london, labour party uk, conservative party uk, brexitBritish PM Theresa May (Reuters)

Over the last couple of years, elections have taken place where the unexpected , unforecast outcome has come about. Donald Trump won in the US, setting off a debate about the shock to the Liberal Order. The US, according to Trump, was losing in the global order, and needed to become more selfish about its interests. The British referendum on remaining in the EU gave the shocking verdict of Brexit. After 44 years in the European community, the UK decided to go because it objected to free movement of people within the EU. Like the Americans, the British felt they were losing out from the Union. Isolation was preferable to association.

The referendum revealed deep-seated unhappiness with existing conditions and the inability of the political system to address the people’s concerns. The latest election has revealed further that the British voters are unhappy with years of austerity and have lost interest in the possible process of decision-making about Europe. British people have voted a problematic outcome for themselves. Last June, in a referendum ,the decision was to quit the European Union—Brexit, as it was called. The decision was contrary to the expectation of the then prime minister David Cameron. Then, the Conservative Party had to elect a new leader. Theresa May became the prime minister. Although she had voted on the losing side in the referendum, she promised to implement Brexit. As she put it, “Brexit is Brexit”.

She called an election which was not due for three years yet. The idea was that she wanted a larger majority than what she had inherited from Cameron. That was to give her freedom to fashion her own approach to Brexit. While her majority was small, she was hostage to the hardline Brexiteers in her party.If she had a large majority she could be flexible. But she could not say that before winning a larger majority. So, she campaigned merely on the line oft-repeated that the country needed a strong, stable government. The opposition ,she argued, could only be a coalition of chaos.

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The Conservatives did try to move into Labour territory. They adopted a policy proposed by Ed Miliband, the previous Labour leader, in 2015, of regulating energy prices. They also proposed that those who had assets could pay for their old age social care from the value of the assets. Thus, if they have a house, after their death the house would need to be sold and costs recovered except for a residual £100,000. This proved too progressive for their voters. The policy had to be reversed. This by itself undermined May’s claim of being strong and stable.

The Labour Party had elected as its leader Jeremy Corbyn, a hard Left, old-fashioned 1970s style radical. His election was an accident. The MPs were eager to get rid of Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn however put forward an old-fashioned Left manifesto with more spending on public services, increase in income tax rate at the top of the income distribution, renationalisation of Railways and Post Office. Normally, this would be suicidal . The Party members concluded this would lose a lot of seats and, then, Corbyn could be made to resign.

Yet again, it turned out that the manifesto caught the public’s imagination. Austerity had hurt deeply and Labour Party was offering an escape. A whole new generation had grown up innocent of the failures of Old Style Socialism. Again, the election process brought to the surface the reality which most commentators had missed or ignored. This raised the support for Labour. While the Conservatives concentrated on Brexit, people wanted to complain about the hardships of their daily life.

In other countries , elections have undermined the established parties (France) or professional politicians (the US). In other countries, extreme Right and Left parties have grown (Spain, Greece, Italy). In the UK, the two established parties increased their share of votes, and smaller parties were marginalised. Thus, there is no single explanation of the the post-2008 economic and political malaise. Different countries are responding in their own ways.

Western democracies are obviously under great pressure. The crisis of 2008 lingers even nine years later, and is changing politics. There are also social media which have marginalised the print media and even big TV channels. Information channels have multiplied and are too diffuse to be controlled. In the case of

Information channels have multiplied and are too diffuse to be controlled. In the case of UK , the young voters seem to have come into politics at this election and nearly three-quarters of under-25 voted. Their way of getting information and organising are totally different from those of the older generation. Thus, costs of electioneering are going to change as will the ability to communicate nuanced messages to a lot of people to suit each person’s needs. It will transform our democracies to becoming more participative via the social media—Facebook democracy. That by itself will bring new opportunities to the fore.

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