The Pendulum Shifts Left in UK Elections

Professors John Weeks and John Grahl make sense of the gains made by the Scottish National Party and the effects it may have on the Labour Party

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

According to the Guardian newspaper of London and according to their most recent polls, if the UK elections were held today the Labour party would win 271 seats, and the Scottish Nationalist party would win 55 seats. And together they would form the next UK government. The elections will in fact be held on May 7th. To discuss the latest developments and what this would mean for British politics we have two Londoners, John Weeks and John Grahl.

John Weeks is joining us from London, obviously, and he is Professor Emeritus of the University of London and author of the new book The Economics of the 1%: How Mainstream Economics Serves the Rich, Obscures reality, and Distorts Policy. Thank you so much for joining us, John.

JOHN WEEKS, PROF. EMERITUS, UNIV. OF LONDON: Thank you for having me.

PERIES: And also joining us is John Grahl. He is professor of economics at Middlesex University, specializing in European integration and European economic and social policies. He’s also a founding member of the EuroMemorandum Group. Thank you for joining us as well, John.

JOHN GRAHL, PROF. OF ECONOMICS, MIDDLESEX UNIVERSITY: Very pleased to be on. Thank you.

PERIES: In the last interview I did with John Weeks, he predicted this outcome that Labour and NSP would form a coalition government. John, why were you so firm in your prediction?

WEEKS: Well I think that first of all, that Scotland is a social democratic country, and it was always going to elect left-wingers whether they were Labour or Scottish Nationalist. And the Scottish Nationalists won a 45 percent of the vote in the referendum. They lost the referendum for independence last year, but they got 45 percent of the vote. Under the British electoral system, that is enough of a vote to give you almost all the seats. Now, I don’t think they’ll get that many. John, the other John, can talk about that a bit more, but that’s one thing.

The other thing is in England, while the population isn’t close to being as social democratic as Scotland is, I think it came as a shock to the British electorate just how far right this current coalition government is. No one expected these huge cuts and this assault upon the public services. So I think it’s a combination of those two things.

PERIES: John Grahl, the Guardian has NSP at 55 seats. If they actually manage to garner that, what would that mean for British politics?

GRAHL: If that prediction was verified that would be astonishing. It would mean essentially that the Scottish National Party could be assumed to hold the balance of power for the foreseeable future, and to arbitrate between the policy strategies of the other parties. I don’t think, I find it hard to believe as a Scot that they would go quite so far as to wipe out the Scottish Labour party, which that figure would imply. But I certainly believe they’re going to damage the Labour party in Scotland very much, and take a lot of seats from them. And they’re taking them on the basis of a program which is rather clearly to the left of the program of the Labour party.

PERIES: Now—yes.

WEEKS: If I could–if I could just add one thing to what John said. When you–while it looks like that Labour is, quote, only getting something over 270 seats, we have to remember they’re losing a lot in Scotland. So actually the number of seats they’re getting in England and Wales is going up.

GRAHL: That’s right. By roughly the same amount. A formal coalition I think is very unlikely, because the Labour party have been forced to reject that possibility. What you would have would be a system which is known as confidence and supply. That is to say, the Scottish Nationalists would vote for, support a vote of confidence in a Labour government. They would make sure that a Labour government had sufficient revenue to run its policies. But then on each piece of legislation, on each policy decision, they would make a decision along with the other minority parties as to whether they wanted to support that decision or, that choice of the Labour government or not.

So it would be like less a coalition than a minority Labour government without a full majority in the House of Commons, sustained by a strong Scottish National Party which would be essentially centering their policies and driving them to the left, rejecting the more neoliberal, or the more anti-redistributive or inegalitarian initiatives that Labour might attempt.

PERIES: Right. So tell us a little bit more about the Scottish Nationalist Party and the atmosphere politically that they bring to British politics. And why this change is having sort of a wildfire effect in terms of catching on in the UK.

GRAHL: A key development was the way in which the Scottish referendum–the recent referendum on Scottish independence was conducted by the main parties who were opposed to Scottish independence. And that was largely done, firstly, with a cross-party alliance, which put Labour and the Conservatives–the Tories as we call them–into the same bed, and tended to discredit them in Scotland. Secondly the way that the negative campaign was run was in a sense demeaning to the Scots. It consisted largely of threats. If you dare to vote for independence all kinds of terrible things are about to happen to you.

And although the referendum for independence was lost quite narrowly, there’s been a very, very strong reaction against the way that the Scots were treated in that campaign. And in a sense of the, almost the bullying that was taking place. And I think that’s really, seriously damaged the Labour party in Scotland.

WEEKS: I agree with that. And I would–the viewers might compare it as a mild version of what’s happening in Greece. You know, with the European Union saying, warning against the election of Syriza and those policies and so on. In Westminster where the British Parliament sits, and the British Prime Minister didn’t have that power. But it was the same type of thing, you know, that, and it was certainly condescending if not a little bit colonial in its approach to Scotland. And people didn’t like it.

PERIES: So gentlemen, let’s now take up what’s happening in the UK economy, and why such a rejection of the incumbent government, and what are the people in the UK hoping to achieve in these elections? And let me start with you, John Weeks.

WEEKS: Well, I think that the coalition government, or the chancellor one should say, that’s like the Secretary of the Treasury, brags quite a bit about the recovery. And in fact it’s the slowest recovery on record, and it has mostly been a recovery that has benefited the better off. So much like in the United States, except perhaps not quite so extreme. So you’ve had a lot of growth of employment in Britain, but much of it has been low-skilled, low-paid, frequently low-paid for skilled labor, and part-time. And self employment, which is largely employment of last resort.

So I think that there is quite a strong feeling among people that not only have they not gained but they aren’t very optimistic under this government, and they’re looking for hope and a better future for themselves. And it doesn’t seem to be promised by–on the contrary, the coalition government or the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as he is called, is talking about more austerity absolutely necessary, the deficit’s not going down fast enough, and that’s a very negative message to run on.

PERIES: John Grahl, let’s talk a little bit about SNP and their economic platform, and in which direction the pull would be politically if they were to have greater influence in the government.

GRAHL: I’m going to select three issues where I think they would try to force Labour in a certain direction, a clear direction.

I think the SNP would be quite careful not to take very strong positions on issues where the Scots already have self-government, where they already have control. So I wouldn’t expect them for example to try to interfere very strongly in educational policy, because the Scots already control their own educational policy and it would annoy the English somewhat if the Scots not only had their own education policy but then enforced a particular one on Britain, on the English.

However, there are some–.

PERIES: This includes higher education, John, it’s important to note that–

GRAHL: That’s right.

PERIES: –that it is free university in Scotland, whereas in one of your papers you indicated that the average UK university student pay about 7,000 pounds a year to go to the university. So already those, these kinds of divisions exist.

GRAHL: That’s right. I think that the SNP would, would restrain from interfering too much in an issue like that, where they already have self-government. However, the key issues which affect the Scots I think, and which are issues where they don’t have complete control–firstly, macroeconomic policy. The macroeconomic policy that Labour are promising is still very, very restrictive. It’s not quite as restrictive, not quite as negative as the set that’s been pursued by the Conservative government, but it’s still extremely restrictive. Involves cuts in public expenditure.

I think the SNP would try to resist that. And they would try to push for a more expansionary budgetary policy for the United Kingdom as a whole. I think also they would push very hard on tax. There’s, Labour are already having to move this, because there is enormous popular discontent throughout the whole United Kingdom on tax avoidance and evasion, both by strong multinational corporations and by wealthy individuals. And I think the SNP would be pushing hard for stronger, more deliberate measures to deal with that problem.

Finally there’s the issue of welfare. Welfare policy is still controlled at the United Kingdom level, at the level of the whole country, not in terms of Scotland. I think the welfare policy pursued by the Conservative party, and not seriously challenged by the Labour party, was, has been very cruel. Very harsh. And has cut the incomes of poor people, either welfare-dependent or working, the working poor who also receive some support from the state. These people have paid a very heavy price in the last five years. Although they’re the group of, that section of the population which is most vulnerable. I think the SNP would reject that approach to welfare because it doesn’t correspond to the values of contemporary Scotland.

PERIES: John Weeks, what do you make of what John Grahl is saying, and how do you think that the Labour party will respond to that kind of pull from the SNP?

WEEKS: If I could just reiterate one of the first points that the other John made about macroeconomic policy, the head of the Scottish Nationalist Party, and also in their manifesto, says that they would expand public expenditure by a half of one percent of GNP a year. That doesn’t seem very much–actually it isn’t very much. But that at least shows the priorities of the Scottish Nationalist Party. They are essentially a party which puts the emphasis on generating employment and generating growth while the Labour party is still stuck in a neoliberal macropolicy which stresses deficit reduction.

Now, what will happen when the two sides meet. Well, I have friends in the Labour party that say oh well, you know, David Milliband is you might say the prime minister in waiting–you’d say Ed Milliband, excuse me. And Ed Balls, who is the Shadow Chancellor, they don’t really mean it, they just have to say this in order to seem credible on fiscal policy. I fear they do mean it, actually. Because the polls show that the majority of the people, even in England, do not support austerity policies. And so why, then, does the Labour Party leadership pursue it? The only explanation I have is, I can give, is because they think it’s correct.

And so it will be up to the Scottish Nationalists primarily, but also some of the smaller parties, we should mention the Welsh Nationalists who will have at least a handful of seats, three or four, for them to get together and try to push the Labour party to more progressive macroeconomic policies.

PERIES: We look forward to watching the next two weeks unfold in the UK. Thank you both for joining us today.

GRAHL: Thank you. Thank you very much.

WEEKS: Thank you for having me.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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