LONDON — Britain could be on the brink of electing, almost by accident, its most left-wing government since the aftermath of the Second World War.
If current polls prove accurate, Britain’s next prime minister is likely to be the son of a leading communist whose weakened Labour Party would be propped up by an insurgent bloc of progressive Scottish nationalists.
British people overwhelmingly tell pollsters that a second term for Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron is a better idea than inviting Labour’s Ed Miliband into Downing Street, but Britain’s political system doesn’t work like a presidency. An archaic electoral system, competing nationalist groups and splintered political loyalties mean the outcome of the election is almost certain to be complex and disputed.
For months, the polls have agreed that we are heading for a hung parliament, which will give no party overall control. Barring a late swing to the incumbent Conservatives, the most likely outcome on May 7 is that Labour and the Conservatives will have a similar number of seats while the Scottish National Party (SNP) surges into a crucial third place.
Last year, Scotland was close to quitting Great Britain altogether. In the end, the SNP’s campaign for independence was defeated. The SNP’s very reason for existence was decisively rejected by the Scottish people, and yet it now stands poised to help shape the government that will rule over all of Britain. Bloodied but not vanquished; Braveheart is looking for revenge.
The party is forecast to take more than 50 of Scotland’s 59 seats in the House of Commons, and they have made it clear they will do anything to prevent the Conservatives clinging to power. Informal support for Labour would probably put Miliband at the head of a left-leaning government that could fundamentally realign Britain’s international standing.
Ed Miliband’s father, Ralph, arrived in Britain 75 years ago when his parents fled the Nazi advance across Europe. One of his first acts was a pilgrimage to Highgate Cemetery in North London where he stood, fists clenched, and made a private oath of loyalty before the remains of his hero, Karl Marx.
This 16-year-old would grow up to become one of the world’s leading Marxist academics. Half a century later, his two boys began careers in the Labour Party which their father had often scorned as an ineffective institution trapped by the confines of the capitalist system.
Ed beat his brother, David, to the leadership of the party in 2010. After 15 years of the moderate and rebranded “New Labour,” which Tony Blair led to three election victories, Miliband ushered in a different era where a Labour leader would once again happily describe himself as a socialist. David, by contrast, had been one of Blair’s most loyal aides.
Ronnie Campbell, Labour MP for Blyth Valley and member of the Socialist Campaign Group, said it had been a great relief for the left of the party when Ed Miliband was elected. “He's certainly more left than his brother, without a shadow of a doubt, that's why he got elected, basically by the trade unions, everybody was fed up with New Labour,” he told The Daily Beast. “It's more like going back to real Labour, proper Labour like what it used to be; we were there for the working man.”
Campbell, like Miliband’s father, would still describe Ed as a moderate, but that would have been the case with every Labour prime minister in the last 70 years. To find one more left-wing than Ed, Campbell argued: “You've got to go back to Attlee. He was on the right of the party but after the war it was a different kettle of fish, for the heroes coming back, we needed a land fit for heroes.”
In the era of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, Clement Attlee’s Labour government founded Britain’s National Health Service, set up the modern welfare state, and nationalized the coal and steel industries.
Peter Kellner, president of YouGov, one of Britain’s leading polling firms, said there was no way you could claim Miliband was as left wing as some of the leaders who operated before Margaret Thatcher revolutionized Britain’s political and economic structure.
“If you define Ed Miliband against Tony Blair he’s more left wing than Tony Blair, but Tony Blair fundamentally accepted virtually all of the Thatcher reforms, in terms of privatization, council house sales, the way trade unions were regulated and so on. It’s very easy to be left of that,” he said.
Miliband has rushed enthusiastically into the space on the left that was vacated by Blair, the party’s most successful leader. "I call it democratic socialism,” he said last week during the first of several quasi-debate events. “That’s what’s on our party card… because I believe in a fairer, more equal society.”
Among the policies announced by Miliband since he outlined his opposition to “predatory capitalism” are limits on rent increases, caps on utility bills and university fee reductions. He would also return the top rate of income tax from 45 to 50 percent.
His latest proposed intervention would include a ban on most “zero-hour contracts,” through which tens of thousands of people are employed in Britain by companies who do not guarantee that they will be given a minimum number of remunerated hours.
On Tuesday, 100 business leaders signed a joint letter to The Telegraph claiming that the Conservative Party would be the better guardian of Britain’s slow economic recovery. Labour responded with its own letter signed by ordinary people stuck on zero-hour contracts demanding that business leaders consider the living standards of their staff. It was a risky move by a party that is apparently willing to go head-to-head with big business, something that would have been anathema to Blair.
Miliband also signaled a radical departure on foreign policy. In 2013, he became the first leader of the opposition to defeat a sitting prime minister on a question of war since 1782. Miliband’s refusal to support the bombing of Syria until the United Nations had completed its report into President Bashar al Assad’s alleged war crimes effectively ended joint military action that had already been privately agreed to by Cameron and President Obama.
Tony Blair continued to support the party ahead of the upcoming election, with donations to Labour candidates totaling more than $150,000, but he issued a public warning to Miliband during an interview with The Economist this year. “I am still very much New Labour and Ed would not describe himself in that way, so there is obviously a difference there,” he said. “I am convinced the Labour Party succeeds best when it is in the center ground.”
Blair’s calculated move to the center in the mid-1990s came after Labour had spent the best part of two decades in the electoral wilderness. Blair told The Economist that next month’s election is in danger of becoming one “in which a traditional left-wing party competes with a traditional right-wing party, with the traditional result.”
Despite Blair’s pessimistic forecast, a traditional result looks unlikely. For only the third time in almost a century, a hung parliament is expected. At best, Labour could win the most seats of any party, but gaining a majority, which would allow it to govern alone, looks impossible.
That’s where the Scottish National Party comes in. The party’s deputy leader, Stewart Hosie, told The Daily Beast that they would try to use their position in a fragmented Westminster to force Miliband further to the left, encouraging him to rethink plans to radically cut the deficit and urging him to halt the renewal of Britain’s Trident submarine nuclear deterrent.
“We would hope that we can bring progressive politics to the table at a U.K. level as well as seeking more powers for Scotland,” he said. “We've already laid out up front where it is we're coming from, so we have said, for example, an end to austerity; that means a very modest real terms increase in spending. And, of course, we wouldn't countenance spending £100 million on Trident.”
Hosie, who is the MP for Dundee East, said he has a vision of the first genuinely left-wing British government since the 1970s. “I think there's a really strong chance we could do that,” he said. “We would certainly go so far as to say we would like to try to create and work within a progressive bloc to try and deliver those gains for ordinary people.”
Kellner, of YouGov, said the SNP surge would give the party an unprecedented opportunity to make an impact on politics at Westminster, where they have previously held a maximum of six seats. Alex Salmond, who was leader of the SNP until the referendum, hopes to be one of the new intake of MPs. But neither he nor Hosie are likely to be invited to join the government or forge any formal coalition with Labour.
“I think the SNP might well have influence without any formal dialogue, direct negotiations or discussions taking place between the SNP leadership and the Labour government,” said Kellner, although he suggested they were more likely to prioritize winning greater powers for Scotland than promoting left-wing economic aims.
The last time Britain was caught up in a series of hung parliaments and left-wing governments was in the 1970s. One man who experienced the full range of Labour governments from Harold Wilson to Tony Blair is Michael Meacher, an MP for 35 years, who was appointed to his first junior ministerial role in 1974.
Labour MPs in the Socialist Campaign Group say they will try to force Miliband to abandon his pledge to continue with the vast majority of the current government’s spending cuts in order to reduce the deficit, even if that means working with the SNP directly.
Meacher said Labour MPs on the left of the party would encourage Miliband to soften his approach to austerity if they were elected. “I hope we are all loyal Labour MPs but I think we have a right in the current situation to exert pressure to try and get the kind of result that we believe in and we feel will restore Labour Party principles,” he told The Daily Beast.
As one of the longest serving ministers in Blair’s government, he says the man who ended Labour’s commitment to nationalization, and took the country to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, could hardly be more different from Miliband. “There’s not just an abyss between them, there’s a gulf, there’s an ocean,” he said.
Miliband has more of a reputation as a geek than a political Rottweiler, but Meacher thinks he could yet emerge as a Thatcher of the left. “I know him pretty well and I’m sure that’s what he’s determined to do,” he said. “Once someone becomes the prime minister and has the power which goes with that office, and the power of patronage and the control, which it gives you over the party and the levers of government, I think people can become themselves.”