Suddenly Britain looks like Italy

Story highlights

  • Will Marshall: Britain's Tories and Labour are losing political market share to fringe parties
  • The fracturing of political order likely will make it hard to form a strong government, he says
  • It will take more than one election to arrive at a new political equilibrium, Marshall says

Will Marshall is the president of the Progressive Policy Institute. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)Staid old Britain suddenly looks more like Italy. No less than seven parties are vying for seats in the parliamentary election taking place Thursday, a contest that has underscored the unraveling of any national consensus around certain fundamental assumptions about Britain's role in Europe, its special relationship with the United States and even its own political cohesion and identity. But perhaps what's most distressing about the campaign debate, from a trans-Atlantic perspective, is its utter insularity.

On Prime Minister David Cameron's watch, Britain's customary global role seems to be shrinking before our eyes. Indeed, London has been absent from the Ukraine crisis and has played only a marginal role in the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS. Meanwhile, to the consternation of UK military chiefs, Cameron reportedly refused to guarantee defense spending would not sink below the NATO-recommended threshold of 2% of gross domestic product. Britain's army is reportedly set to be smaller than it was in Napoleonic times.
Will Marshall
"David Cameron has presided over the biggest loss of influence for our country in a generation," charges Ed Miliband, the main opposition Labour Party leader. While chiding the government's "pessimistic isolationism," however, Miliband seems likely to disappoint those looking to revive Anglo-American ties. His outlook on foreign policy seems to be an amalgam of soft multilateralism and post-Iraq wariness of security cooperation with Washington. Indeed, when challenged to show he is tough enough to confront Vladimir Putin, Miliband instead cited his opposition to President Barack Obama's calls for strikes on Syria in response to chemical attacks on civilians. "I think standing up to the leader of the free world shows a certain toughness," he said
    To his credit, however, Miliband has been a staunch opponent of "Brexit" -- the idea that Britain should quit the European Union -- as well as Cameron's ill-advised attempt to curry favor with nativists by scheduling a referendum on leaving the EU. 
    The campaign, however, has centered mostly on domestic issues and Britain's deepening national and ideological divisions. The Conservatives and Labour, which between them have dominated British politics for the last century, are losing political market share to fringe parties.  
    More specifically, Cameron's Tories have lost ground since the last election to the United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP, which sees Britain's exit from the EU as the only way to stop "mass, uncontrolled immigration." The Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in the governing coalition, are also expected to lose seats. 
    In Scotland, meanwhile, Labour is hemorrhaging voters to the Scottish National Party, or SNP, which has bounced back from its stinging defeat in last year's referendum on independence. The SNP is poised to win 30 to 40 seats or more, enough to deny Labour an outright majority and potentially play kingmaker when the next government is organized. This would pose a dilemma for Miliband, who has repeatedly ruled out a formal coalition with the SNP.
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    Should Labour finish with more seats than the Tories, Miliband might still be able to form a minority government, but he'd probably have to rely on SNP support on a vote-by-vote basis to get anything done. This precarious arrangement would effectively give veto power in Westminster to a separatist party, something voters in England likely would find hard to swallow. Adding insult to injury, the SNP wants to stay in the EU even as it sues for divorce from the UK. 
    Cameron's best argument to return to power is the performance of the British economy -- it grew at 2.6% last year, the most since 2007. Over the past four years, Britain has turned in Europe's strongest performance on job creation. And as Progressive Policy Institute economist Michael Mandel has documented, London has emerged as one of the world's most dynamic "digital cities" alongside San Francisco and New York. But last week's news that Britain's growth rate fell by half in the first quarter of 2015 could not have come at a worse time for the Tories.
    To the surprise of some U.S. liberals, the Cameron government's embrace of fiscal restraint hasn't been much of an issue, in part because it hasn't been as severe as advertised. In any case, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that all four major parties (including the SNP) have also pledged to reduce borrowing, albeit at different paces. (Apparently, few in Britain are paying attention to economist Paul Krugman's jeremiads against austerity.) 
    Miliband, sounding very much like America's self-avowed "populists," is pounding away at themes of class fairness and distributive justice. For example, Labour has taken aim at "zero-hours contracts" under which employers don't have to guarantee work to temporary workers.
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    Miliband's call for higher taxes on the rich, including a "mansion tax" on expensive homes, has earned him the sobriquet of "Red Ed" from the right-wing tabloids; Labour also favors nationwide rent controls. Is Milliband offering a corrective to Britain's disparities of wealth? Possibly, but his platform also evokes Labour's roots in democratic socialism and marks a break with Tony Blair's "New Labour" strategy of updating and modernizing the progressive agenda to appeal to an increasingly middle-class electorate.
    True, in Britain's splintered political environment, this base-energizing strategy might just be enough to put Labour over the top. Yet governing on too narrow a political base is likely to prove difficult. Having lost its traditional stronghold in Scotland, Labour will need to enlarge its appeal among the aspiring voters of "Middle England." Blair accomplished this by emphasizing economic innovation and growth, and reforming Britain's highly centralized welfare state. If Miliband has ideas for a modern, pro-growth progressivism, he's keeping them under wraps.
    Ultimately, and regardless of who wins on Thursday, the fracturing of Britain's once stable political order likely will make it difficult for anyone to form a strong and coherent government. The British are asking themselves some basic questions about their national identity and purposes, and it will take more than one election to arrive at a new political equilibrium.