UK General Election: The Case for Transforming Political Institutions

by Elbay Alibayov | Politics & Policy

General election in any country, let alone in the United Kingdom, is closely followed by observers from all walks of life. Among many other interests, it is one central subject of political risk analysis. This year’s election appears to pose yet another risk from within—as the analysts claim, the Risk of a UK Hung Parliament: “This Thursday, British voters will finally cast their ballots in what has been a short and chaotic campaign. While the snap election had earlier been forecast as the likely collapse of the Labour Party, the position of Labour has significantly improved as the Conservatives have made several missteps. Labour has recovered from its 20+ point deficit and, depending on the pollster, is now behind somewhere in the low single digits. A leftwing alliance between the Greens, SNP, and Labour has been discussed earlier, though none of the parties have made major moves in that direction. Markets are beginning to become concerned about the possibility of a hung parliament.” Markets should worry not. To the contrary, as I argue in this piece, the hung parliament is the best possible outcome – for the British political system, in the medium and long term.

Queen-State-opening-Parliament-UK

There is a claim in social sciences that luck opens space for agency—which means that key critical junctures (such as leadership change, whether through gaining independence and coups or by means of referendums and elections in democratic systems) where accidents determine which leaders prevail have long-term implications for a country’s future though a certain governance systems set and policies and reforms implemented. They cite newly independent South Asian (think of India vs. Pakistan) and African countries to prove the point: some were fortunate, like Botswana, to have pro-democracy reformists while others got authoritarian rulers (as in Zimbabwe) and dictators (take Congo)—and the rest followed from this point on.

Sounds interesting, but I do not think that it explains the interplay between all the factors involved. Against the African post-colonial example, I will offer the case of post-Soviet states. The republics which tended towards authoritarian rule and had corruption embedded in public administration even at the Soviet times remained authoritarian and with systemic corruption when they became sovereign states (take Central Asian states Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan). At the same time, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania got leaders who immediately put their countries on the path of democratic reforms and European integration.

The difference is easy to explain. The former group of countries have not had a meaningful period of market economy or democratic governance in the past, and the tendency towards tribalism or authoritarian rule has been characteristic there before becoming the part of Russian Empire centuries back. The Baltic states, to the contrary, have had a certain period of democratic governance in the twentieth century, and long established practices of checks and balances. Therefore a lot depends on the political culture and tradition—in other words, on political institutions as “stable, valued, recurring patterns of behaviour” (in Samuel Huntington’s definition).” Leaders matter, but whatever change-oriented they are not aliens but rather products of political culture and the prevailing public mood.

Consider the last presidential elections in the United States. Was it sheer luck that Donald Trump won the contest in 2016, or the electorate was ready to embrace someone who would not shy away from criticizing the political system (being “anti-establishment”), who would spell their anger at inequality, address their concerns and grievances?

The fact that Hillary Clinton, a strong establishment representative, was selected as a Democratic Party nominee was rather disruptive decision, considering the prevalent mood across the country (which itself is a manifestation of processes that are running deep in the American society but have not been appreciated, for long time). Bernie Sanders better reflected the general public’s (especially the young generation’s) aspirations and attitudes, and it is my opinion that the entire election campaign (ugly, negative and divisive as it was) and its outcome (shocking to many so much that even today they refuse to recognize the results and to accept the winner as a legitimate president) and the US policies today could have been different (for better or worse) if Mr Sanders was given an equal support from the Democrats so that he could be Mr Trump’s rival in 2016.

Therefore I think that Donald Trump became president not because of some abstract luck at the ballot boxes or some technical mistakes made by Hillary Clinton’s team, but because he was lucky that the Democratic Party was so narrow-minded to nominate a candidate destined to lose due to gross mismatch with the prevailing public mood. Luck is still in game, but its role is clarified, along with other critical factors.

And this brings us to the general election in the United Kingdom.

Among many changes experienced by humanity due to globalization and technological revolution, there is one thing that I find profoundly troubling—we are becoming lazy. At my primary school times the only instrument to help with the math was abacus; that is why people of my generation generally are good in calculating, especially when compared to next generations which were allowed to use calculators at class. The same goes for elections—instead of talking to people and analyzing the contexts we simply rely on what pollsters would say. With all due respect, they frequently get it wrong (at least this was the case in the last election and the Brexit referendum). And what is shocking is that it appears that instead of keeping their finger on the constituency’s pulse through continuous engagement and reflections, the modern politicians also follow the polls to guess what is going on out there (at least the reaction of politicians to results not predicted by polls indicates of that).

I also follow the polls, and what I see this time is confirming my analysis—that Britain is firmly heading towards a “balanced” parliament (meaning no total dominance of any one party, the hung parliament being an ideal). Paradoxically, and perhaps for the first time in modern history, the hung parliament is the best outcome to expect from the general election this year. Because it is the only situation which demands the coalition building (if not “national unity”, at least demands more search for a common ground) and independently of who runs the government they cannot impose their will because of the sizeable opposition (especially important to reinforce checks and balances) in place.

That’s exactly what Britain needs to safely navigate a dual task of Brexit negotiations, on the one hand, and (re)establishing own bilateral and multilateral relations with the rest of the world (new tactical and strategic partnerships), on the other. Such a complicated endeavour demands a high degree of inclusiveness and consolidation, whereas it is apparent that the country (whether its political system or elites) is not ready for that, for a variety of reasons.

On the one hand, the British political system, its institutions are hopelessly outdated—so much that merely cosmetic or even not deep-enough reforms won’t do. For a long time Britain stood as an example of uninterrupted democratic governance with unique combination of localised features (such as monarch being the head of state, absence of a codified constitution, and a common law) which were interpreted as its ability to flexibly evolve, adjust to the changing environment while preserving its authenticity. Today, this system shows signs of decay; its public administration is plagued by inefficiency and incompetence (from policy to service delivery, and top down).

There is a need for fundamental, constitutional reform, and it has been evolving for quite some time. Britain’s membership in the European Union did not slow-down this process of decaying but somehow enabled it to go unnoticed—British politicians made it their golden rule (or an universal excuse) to blame Brussels for any failure at home, thus turning the spearhead of public criticism away from themselves. This game could not go forever, as the problems were mounting irrespective. Now, when the UK has opted to play solo, there is nobody to blame for the failures except for the national government.

Second and related is that the identity of the British political elites is outdated; it is out of touch with reality for quite a long period of time. They still appear to feel and behave like their predecessors did a hundred years ago, when Britain was the most powerful empire on the face of the earth. The world has changed since then; and there have been milestones, like each of world wars, end of colonial rule, new globalization, economic and social processes especially evident in the last, post-crisis decade etc. And here is the problem that they have not been appreciated as the incentives for adjustment. The shock of EU leaders at the behaviour of Prime Minister Theresa May as “delusional” is not accidental—it shows the big gap between the self-identity of British political class and the reality.

Everyone talks about economic effects of Brexit while in fact the reform of economic institutions is reliant on the reform of political institutions. They define the economic institutions, not the other way around. And the political reform is not going to happen (even if undertaken) overnight—it is an inherently cultural process, it will take generations to change the identity from one of self-centered “exclusiveness” to realistic and more inclusive one. It will also allow bringing political parties from the entire spectrum into the fore (environmentalists, leftists, social-democrats, conservatives, nationalists) so that to reflect the aspirations of all social groups, big and small.

In other words, inclusiveness is not luxury; it is demand of the day. The two-party rule does not meet this reality—the world today is much more diverse to be decided on a binary code of Left/Right (problems of the US point to and partly originate from the stiffness of this set-up). It acts more and more as a barrier, not enabler of change and evolutionary adjustment—the capabilities which define a system’s resilience.

Britain is indeed at its key critical juncture today. And it does not matter anymore, whether the citizens decided to leave or to remain in the EU, at the ballots a year ago. What matters is what you do with what you have got. And in order to get the best outcome for the British people, the political system has to start reforming. Inclusive government (whether through hung parliament and coalition government or/and a broad opposition alliance) can be the first step in this direction.

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