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UK General Elections

Stalemate, Instability or a New Politics?

Kirsty Hughes (hugheskirsty@gmail.com) is a commentator based in the United Kingdom. 

The new chaotic variety of British politics make it clear no single party is going to win a majority in the 7 May elections. Who will come first, and who they may be able to form a government with is uncertain. None of this is helped by the United Kingdom’s lack of a written constitution, and the increasing inadequacy of the first-past-the-post system in a time of political diversity.

 

As the UK general election campaign enters its last stage, one thing is agreed by all the pollsters and pundits amid conflicting polls, manifesto launches, and political rhetoric—no single party is going to win a majority.

The decades of alternate two-party rule in the UK—governments shifting between Labour and the Tories—is at an end. And the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition of the last five years, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, may only be unusual in the future for needing just two parties to achieve a majority in the House of Commons.

A colourful and clear snapshot of the new chaotic variety of British politics was seen in the one television debate, at the start of April, where Cameron and Ed Miliband, Labour’s leader, went live head to head.[i] But this was a seven-way, not two-way, debate. Along with Cameron and Miliband were five other party leaders (three of them women) for the LibDems, the Greens, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), and Plaid Cymru (the Welsh nationalist party). Only missing were any of the Northern Irish parties.

Who will come first, and who they may be able to form a government with, looks, as of mid-April, very unclear. Pundits proclaim the possible virtues of a minority government, a three- or even four-way coalition, even on the possibility of an opening of parliament in May without the queen.[ii]

Whether the government that emerges will manage to survive a five-year term, or new elections will be needed within months (as in 1974, the last time there was a minority government in the UK) is also quite uncertain. None of this is helped, meanwhile, by the UK’s lack of a written constitution and any clear guidelines on who gets first go at forming a coalition or a minority government.

Polls and Predictions

Opinion polls predicting general election results are an uncertain science in the UK just as in India and elsewhere. But while some polls give a small Labour lead and others a small Conservative lead, most of the  polls—and the average “polls of polls”—suggest the Tories and Labour are neck and neck with around 33% or 34% of the vote each.

In mid-April, one projection of seats in the House of Commons (based on the latest “polls of polls”), suggested Labour might inch ahead with 272 seats to 269 for the Tories—both well short of the 326 seats needed for a majority.[iii]

Behind this weak performance of the two major parties lies a mixture of stories about the up and coming—and declining—smaller parties.

LibDems Struggling, Greens Coming Up Behind

The LibDems, traditionally the third largest party in the UK system—and part of the outgoing Tory-LibDem coalition, have suffered badly in the polls as a result of participating in a right-wing government that has cut benefits, welfare services, and left the National Health Service struggling. At 9% in the polls, the LibDems have dropped dramatically from their 23% share of the vote in the 2010 election.[iv] The “first-past-the–post” system means even so they could win around 29 seats (57 in 2010), but that is not enough to give the Tories and LibDems a majority this time around. LibDem leader Nick Clegg is even struggling to hold onto his seat in the northern city of Sheffield.

The relatively unknown Green Party is polling occasionally almost level with the LibDems, but as of mid-April was around 5% compared to the LibDems 9%. The Greens are only likely to have one or two members of parliament (MPs), so they will not be a major part of any coalition (similar to the Welsh Plaid Cymru), but if they poll at 5% or more, it may add to a likely debate after the election on proportional representation and the increasing inadequacy of the first-past-the-post system.

Tory Vote Threatened by UKIP

The Tories have lost a chunk of potential voters to the further right UKIP party led by the populist Nigel Farage. Anti-European Union (EU) and anti-immigration, UKIP does best amid older, less well-off electorates in areas of economic decline—although ironically also polling highest in areas with the lowest numbers of migrants. UKIP are polling well ahead of the LibDems at around 14% but—again given the vagaries of the first-past–the-post system—this would only translate into around four seats.

On current polls, even a three-way coalition of Tories, UKIP, and LibDems would not have a majority in the House of Commons (assuming the LibDems were ready to join with the Tories again). A possible fourth coalition partner might be the northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), but with around nine seats even that may not be enough.

If the Tories make a poll breakthrough in the last weeks of the campaign these figures might just change enough for Cameron to put together a rather unwieldy coalition. But many pundits are suggesting Cameron might then go instead for a minority government looking for smaller parties to support the Tories on a vote-by-vote basis.

Scottish Politics Changing Labour

Nicola Sturgeon took over as leader of the SNP after Alex Salmond stood down following the “no” in the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014. Almost unknown in England, she performed so strongly in the early April seven-leaders television debate—pushing an anti-austerity, anti-nuclear weapons, progressive message—that her ratings after the debate matched those of Cameron, Miliband, and Farage (with Clegg trailing) despite the SNP not being a UK-wide party.

Despite losing the referendum, the referendum campaign has resulted in a transformation in—and a renewal of—Scottish politics. The SNP's membership has soared—quadrupling in the last months—putting it way ahead of the LibDems as the third largest party in the UK by membership. Scotland is a traditional Labour stronghold. But in the 2015 general election, Labour is facing catastrophe at the polls in Scotland due to the SNP surge.

A mid-April poll put the SNP on 52% of the vote compared to 24% for Labour and 13% for the Tories.[v] Scotland also has a much higher percentage of the electorate saying they are likely to vote on 7 May—around 76% compared to around 63% in England, another indicator of the revitalisation of Scottish politics.

If these poll figures are accurate, the SNP could end up with 50 or more of Scotland’s 59 MPs with Labour hanging onto a mere handful of its current 41 seats.

The success of the SNP is a combination of the 45% who supported independence last September still supporting the SNP, and also support from those who are not keen either on independence or another referendum but back the SNP’s progressive, social-democrat policies in the face of a much more cautious policy and political approach from Labour.

Coalition, Minority Government, or New Elections?

In policy terms, Labour and the SNP look as if they should be able to form a decent centre-left coalition—and on some poll predictions might even have a majority allowing a two-party coalition. But Miliband has already ruled this out—under pressure from Cameron who suggested it would be akin to agreeing to the breakup of the UK to go into government with the SNP (even though the SNP has not said another independence referendum is on the cards soon).

However, if Labour does come out with the largest share of seats, there is a possibility that it could form a minority government and agree a so-called “confidence and supply” deal with the SNP. More informal than a coalition, this would give such a minority government somewhat more confidence of getting the bulk of its programme through rather than having to negotiate every vote with different players in the House of Commons. Sturgeon has said the SNP will not support a government or go into coalition with a party that renews the UK’s nuclear deterrent “Trident” but the expectation is that the SNP would be likely to support a minority Labour government in some form.

Such an outcome would also be likely to mean a renewal of the debate around the UK's political structures—with the Tories pushing again for “English votes for English laws” and attacking the SNP MPs for voting on legislation that does not directly affect Scotland.

If, in contrast, there is a Conservative minority government or Conservative-led coalition (though on current polls there is no majority Conservative coalition possible), then the UK's membership of the EU will come to the fore. Cameron has promised a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU by 2017 if he wins again—promising to negotiate a better deal in the EU with more restrictions on migration (tricky indeed given the EU’s commitment to free movement of labour and people). UKIP will only support a government that holds such a referendum and would certainly campaign for a “no” vote.

While current polls suggest such a referendum would result in a “yes” to the UK staying in the EU, the figures are volatile and the outcome highly uncertain if a vote went ahead. Sturgeon has already said that each of the four countries of the UK should have a veto on leaving the EU—something that might be reasonable if the UK had a written and federal constitution but would certainly be rejected by a Cameron government. If an EU referendum led to a vote to leave the EU, this would be a major transformation in the UK's international position, leaving it as a small offshore island with no clout in the EU and less clout globally. Such a “no” vote would doubtless lead to rapid demands for a new independence referendum in Scotland and a much higher chance of a vote next time for independence (enabling Scotland to stay in the EU or rejoin if England had left).

Left-Right Issues Still There  

Amid the uncertainty as to what sort of coalition, minority government, or political stalemate might emerge from the election—and the possibility that it might be so unstable that new elections will be needed—it might seem that the policy choices facing the electorate are fairly unclear too.

Certainly Labour is positioning itself as the party of fiscal and economic responsibility—and in a strange role reversal, Miliband attacked Cameron in early April for promising £8 billion of unfunded new money for the National Health Service. Yet, in other ways, the left-right divide still runs deep. Cameron has committed to a further £12 billion in cuts to the welfare budget—a budget already cut again and again in the last five years leading to desperate poverty and insecurity in unemployed and low-income households. He has also committed to increasing inheritance tax thresholds—a measure designed to appeal to the wealthier sections of the propertied middle classes. The threat to the UK’s membership of the EU also comes from Cameron—Miliband has determinedly said he will not hold such a referendum and will restore the UK’s influence in the EU.

Labour are committed to increasing the minimum wage, to reducing student fees at university, and to taxing so-called “non-doms” (some of the richest individuals in the UK who claim their domicile is outside Britain). But Labour is struggling, similarly to other European social democrat parties, to come up with a convincing economic rhetoric—scared to stand against austerity while trying to limit cuts to spending. So Miliband has promised to balance the budget, getting rid of the deficit, and making some substantial spending cuts, yet promises to protect the NHS.

Both leaders also know their jobs are on the line. Neither Cameron nor Miliband are likely to last long as leaders of their respective parties if they lose the campaign. And even if Cameron wins, he has—rashly—said he will not serve a third term, meaning that half way through the five-year term of a minority or coalition government, leadership contenders will doubtless be vying to take over.

It will take several days for the dust to settle after 7 May as coalition and “confidence and supply” talks are carried out behind closed doors and through a loud debate in the media. The UK may end up with an anti-immigration government that will hold a referendum on EU membership and make swingeing cuts to benefits for the poorest. Or it could end up with a pro-EU Labour government kept in power by a pro-independence SNP. Neither of these two outcomes are certain, nor are they likely to be very stable.

In an ideal world, another result of a rather chaotic and unstable election outcome, might be a serious discussion about finally endowing the UK with a written constitution, and about moving to a fairer proportional representation system that can capture and represent the new range of parties and views. But while these issues may get an airing, rapid constitutional change looks unlikely for now. And so the likelihood in the near future for British politics is of relatively weak government, of the right or the left. Despite its weakness, it could probably have major effects on the UK’s domestic and international political, social, and economic position and standing.

Notes

[i] “Election TV Debate: Leaders Clash Over NHS, Cuts and Immigration” (2015): BBC News, 3 April, http://www.bbc.com/news/election-2015-32166354, accessed on 16 April 2015.

[ii] Dathan, Matt (2015) : “General Election 2015: What Happens If No One Wins? Here Is All You Need To Know”, Independent, 15 April, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/generalelection/general-election-2015-what-happens-if-no-one-wins-10147685.html, accessed on 16 April 2015.

[iii] “Election 2015: The Guardian Poll Projection” (2015): Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/ng-interactive/2015/feb/27/guardian-poll-projection, accessed on 16 April 2015.

[iv] “Election 2015: Poll Tracker” (2015): BBC News, http://www.bbc.com/news/politics/poll-tracker, accessed on 16 April 2015.

[v] “Election 2015: Economy Dominates Start of Week Three of Scottish Campaign” (2015): BBC News, 13 April, http://www.bbc.com/news/election-2015-scotland-32277592, accessed on 16 April 2015.

 

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