“Reflections on the British Election” by John Wooding

John Wooding, a professor of political science at UMass Lowell, shares some thoughts on the May 7, 2015 British election:

Britain went to the polls on May 7 to elect a new government. Despite the opinion polls predicting another very tight race, with a possible “hung” parliament, the Conservatives won a majority in parliament. How did this happen? Maybe a quick primer on the British system would help set the scene.

Britain’s parliamentary and political system differs in many ways from the American. Political power and elections are built around party governance and an electoral process where the winner takes all. It is a parliamentary not a presidential system. What does that mean? Well, there are 650 constituencies (roughly equivalent to American congressional districts) in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (that’s the “great” bit in Great Britain). When the Brits vote they vote for candidates representing each party in each constituency. The individual candidate who wins the majority of the vote in their constituency is elected a member of parliament (the rest get nothing). The party winning the most seats (constituencies) forms the government and the leader of that party becomes the prime minister and chooses his or her cabinet. With a solid majority, the governing party and its leader, now the prime minister, has the kind of power that an American candidate as legislator or president can only dream of. The forthcoming Conservative government will have a majority of 6 MPS as of this writing. It ‘aint much, but it is a majority.

In the recent election the conservative party won in 331 constituencies with only 36.9% of the popular vote. The voter turn out was around 66% of eligible voters – not bad for Britain and this would be exceptional in a US presidential election (the turn-out in 2012 was 53.6%). Of course, what this means is that the Conservatives have a powerful mandate built upon the vote of one third of the two thirds who voted! The Labour Party won in 231 constituencies with 30.4% of the popular vote. The Liberal Democrats (the old Liberal Party – but that’s a long story) won only 8 seats with 7.9% of the popular vote. The big news here is the Scottish National Party (SNP) – they won 56 seats in Scotland with 4.7% of the popular vote. The SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, will now have a powerful role in the new parliament. Not only did the SNP go from 6 seats in the 2010 election to 56 yesterday, but also took most of those seats from the Labour Party (Scotland is traditionally a Labour Party stronghold) – this in the light of the failed vote for Scottish independence last year (it was close). The other big losers, the Liberal Democrats, lost 49 seats and are now a very marginal third party. In the light of all this, the leader of Labour (Ed Miliband) resigned; the leader of the Liberal Democrats (Nick Clegg) resigned, as did the leader of the nationalist and anti-immigration party – UK Independence Party (UKIP) Nigel Farage – who lost his seat. It is worth noting, however, that UKIP won 12.6% of the popular vote, up 9.5 percentage points. For me this indicates a worrying amount of support for what is a very reactionary and dangerously xenophobic trend. UKIP tends to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

So why were the pollsters so wrong? I think the real issue here is Scotland. The SNP will now be a major player in the new government and David Cameron (the PM) will have to pay attention to their demands. The polls underestimated support for SNP in Scotland. Indeed, a 20 year-old college student from SNP unseated Labor’s shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, winning by over 5000 votes – representing a 27% swing from Labour to SNP. Truly remarkable. The second interesting development is the collapse of support for the Liberal Democrats – in 2010 Nick Clegg became “deputy” PM on the basis of the showing of his party in that election. But Clegg was unable to promote his party during the last government and was essentially sidelined by the Conservatives. He appeared to be pretty much ineffective. Liberal Democrat supporters moved, probably, to the Conservatives. It is likely too that some Labour and Conservative supporters shifted allegiance to UKIP.

All in all, these are changes that are very significant. For many decades after WW2 the British political system was, as political scientist like to say, “a two-party dominant” system — meaning that the Labour and Conservative parties alternated in power. This has now ended. We are likely to see more coalition and quasi-coalition governments as each party now struggles to gain a majority. The reason are many and complex: changing demographics, immigration, Britain’s relationship to Europe (this will be a big issue), the consequences of pressures for devolving power from Westminster (for Wales, Northern Ireland and, especially Scotland); and, of course, the global economic collapse of 2008. Although Britain has done better in overall economic growth and recovery than other European countries (Britain is not part of the Eurozone), the policies of the Conservative government have been built around cutting public spending and some pretty brutal austerity measures. The result is that Britain now has a higher level of income and social inequality than at any time since the 1920s. The Labour Party offered few creditable policies to change this and the electorate sought explanations in the “threat” of immigration (pushed and exploited by UKIP), the “excesses” and costs of membership in the European Union, and – perhaps – a little bit of greater trust for the incumbents. That all said, the Conservatives do not have a huge majority and will have to court the SNP to help pass legislation.

The future? One burning question is: what happens to Britain’s membership in the European Union? Cameron had promised a referendum about whether the UK should remain a member as a way of placating fears about Eurocrats controlling Britain but whether that happens remains to be seen. It will certainly be catastrophic for the EU if Britain leaves and will probably a disaster for the UK as well. Another issue: will there be a second vote for Scottish independence? That concern has led to much punditry about the break-up of Britain. Finally, these results must lead to some deep questioning about the future of the Labour Party – the once proud voice of the socialist alternative (at least back before Blair) and its ability to represented the poor and the disenfranchised in Britain. Given all this the question remains: is there a political alternative to business as usual or the consensus to change what has become one of the most socially and economically unequal societies in Europe? Solving that problem has never been a priority of Conservative governments and I doubt that it will be in the future.

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