Cameron’s Surprising Victory Owes a Lot to the Fear Factor, À La Israel

Voters saw Labour's Miliband as an unworthy leader while fearing the Scottish National Party if no big party won a clear victory.

Anshel Pfeffer
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Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron waves as he leaves the Conservative Party headquarters in London, Britain May 8, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Anshel Pfeffer

LONDON — Defying all predictions, David Cameron and the Conservative Party secured not only to a victory in the British general election, but a majority of seats in the House of Commons.

Netanyahu at Likud Headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 18, 2015.
Netanyahu at Likud Headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 18, 2015.Credit: Reuters

Unlike in 2010, the Tories won’t need a coalition partner to rule. Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, who has announced his resignation, is now responsible for one of his party’s worst-ever election results.

It’s hard to link Cameron’s surprising victory to just one factor. At the finish line it seems everything worked for him. He was credited with the revival of Britain’s economy under his watch and wasn’t held to account for the deep cuts in social services. And he had the advantage of facing a weak opposition leader, easily ridiculed by the cruel Tory press.

Cameron’s reelection strategy is very reminiscent of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s. Cameron refused to directly debate Miliband, appeared less often than his rival in the media, and successfully framed Miliband as a less-competent alternative for running the United Kingdom.

Above all, Cameron had, just like Netanyahu, the fear factor of the Scots/Arabs descending in their multitudes on the polling stations. The fear of a Miliband government controlled behind the scenes by the Scottish National Party made many voters, even if they weren’t particularly fond of the Tories, tick their ballot papers accordingly.

Another similarity to Netanyahu’s winning strategy was the way the Conservatives cannibalized the votes of their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, who lost over 80 percent of their power and are down to only 10 seats.

Victory today, headache tomorrow

Cameron was quick to drive back to London from his constituency. From Downing Street he continues to Buckingham Palace for a reception with the queen. In the short term he has won, but he is in for a series of headaches very soon.

The new Conservative government is based at most on a tiny majority of MPs. For now Cameron can enjoy the winner’s halo but rebellious backbenchers will soon be demanding a hard line on European issues. Opposite them will be sitting 56 members of the Scottish National Party, who from Thursday night represent all the constituencies of Scotland but three.

Their unprecedented sweep (which conquered one of Labour’s oldest strongholds, leaving the party with only one Scottish MP) will revive demand for another independence referendum. It doesn’t matter that only nine months ago 55 percent of the Scots voted to remain in Britain. Independence is on the agenda once again. Cameron will have to maneuver very deftly to give the Scots the sort of autonomy that will dampen demand for independence, and offer citizens in other parts of Britain regional powers.

And there’s another referendum on the way. Cameron promised the Europhobes to hold one on Britain’s membership of the European Union in 2017. He’s against leaving the EU; he’s fully aware of the financial damage it would cause Britain, but it will be hard for him to show his party members that he can significantly improve Britain’s membership terms. Scotland and Europe will dominate his second term.

Divided Kingdom

The election results underline not only the growing distance between Scotland and the rest of the U.K., but also deepening divides between classes and minority communities.

Labour may have been wiped out in Scotland but it was strengthened in London, mainly in working- and middle-class areas. It also kept most of its strongholds in the poorer north, where communities still feel they’re paying for the Thatcher-Blair revolution that saw Britain de-industrialized and become a center for financial services, almost exclusively based in London.

A closer analysis will reveal Labour doing well in areas with large minority and immigrant communities, while the Conservatives deepen their hold in “white” working- and middle-class areas, particularly with defectors from neighborhoods that became home to large Muslim communities. These voters are now being described as “English nationalists.”

The UK Independence Party hoped that these angry feelings would yield electoral riches, so it ratcheted up its anti-immigrant rhetoric accordingly. It seems UKIP has failed to win more than one seat and the Conservatives brought some of those voters home on time. But now Cameron has to deal with the increasing tension.

Polls wrong again

So why did the British pollsters get it so wrong (though the television exit poll was pretty accurate) and insist that the two large parties were deadlocked and neither had a chance to reach a majority? There are two possible reasons for their failure to detect the Conservative majority.

The first is the “shy Tories” phenomenon — voters living in an environment in which the Conservatives are seen as “the nasty party.” These voters are reluctant to disclose their true voting intention. The pollsters were supposed to take this factor into consideration, but obviously to do so sufficiently.

The other reason is similar to what we saw in March in Israel — a last-moment hesitation by many voters, probably out of concern of the Scottish Nationalist wave and of the possible constitutional chaos if no party won a clear victory. The best pollsters can’t predict how voters may change their minds once they step inside the booth. Once again the system beat the pollsters.

Changing the system

Britain apparently has been saved from constitutional turmoil. Queen Elizabeth will not be stuck with the dilemma of whether to support one of the party leaders in parliament, fearful that this could be portrayed as political intervention on her part. But the results are still a convincing argument for electoral reform.

Two parties, UKIP and the Greens, both won millions of votes but will each be represented in parliament by only one member, due to the dispersal of their voters across the country. The SNP, on the other hand, will have 56 MPs and be the third-largest party, despite reaching only sixth place in the popular vote.

The demand to change the first-past-the-post system and add at least an element of proportional representation has for years been an aim of the Liberal Democrats. Ironically, following that party’s worst result ever, that demand is finally finding much wider support.

The Jewish angle

Miliband, Labour’s first-ever Jewish leader, is resigning. Some observers saw an anti-Semitic tone in part of the coverage, especially in the excessive use of a not very flattering photograph of Miliband trying to eat a bacon sandwich. That image graced The Sun’s front page on Wednesday.

But on the whole, Miliband’s Jewishness played no role in the elections. On the other hand, his criticism of Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza seems to have harmed him in at least two north London constituencies with large numbers of Jewish voters. The Conservatives defended both those seats with relatively large majorities, despite the prediction of a close race in both. At least some pro-Israel Jews there probably contributed.

In any case, there will surely be satisfaction at the Prime Minister’s Residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street. Netanyahu sees Cameron as one of his closest allies, a politician who shares many of his views on both economic and regional issues.

The new Conservative government, which has no need of the Liberal Democrats who are more skeptical toward Israel, will be even more friendly. In addition, the two most anti-Israel (veering on anti-Semitic) MPs, George Galloway and David Ward, lost their seats. Those two represented constituencies in Bradford, the city with the largest Muslim minority in Britain, but they both lost to Muslim Labour candidates.

Above all, Netanyahu will derive satisfaction from the very similar way Cameron paved his way to victory — the scare tactics, the avoidance of debate, the portrayal of his rival as a weak man and an unworthy leader. All this combined as the perfect formula for reelection.