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Europe / Elections

The Upcoming British Elections Explained

On May 7th, 2015, the people of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will vote in one of the most tightly contested elections in British history. The next Prime Minister will either be Ed Milliband of the center-left Labour party or David Cameron of the Conservative party, returning for a second term in office. Given the incredibly narrow polling margins that have become the norm in recent months, the next British government could be decided by a very slim margin.

The British electoral system is very different from the American one. Unlike in the United States, voters select a party rather than an individual when they vote. Each constituency acts like a district in the House of Representatives, with each party selecting a member to run and the one receiving the most votes becoming the next Member of Parliament (MP) for that constituency. Generally, even though there are several large minor parties in Britain, one of the two major parties (Conservatives and Labour) will win a majority of the seats. When this happens, the majority party elects the Prime Minister, the British head of state, from amongst themselves (currently David Cameron of the Conservative Party). The Prime Minister in turn selects members of Parliament, generally from his or her own party, to become his cabinet ministers, forming “Her Majesty’s government.” The next largest party forms a “Shadow Government,” led by their leader (currently Ed Milliband of the Labour party) and formally known as “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.”

However, it is not always the case that any one party can win a majority of the seats in the House of Commons, the main house of the British Parliament. Currently, the Conservatives only hold 303 of the 650 seats, 23 short of a majority. In order to achieve a true majority, the Conservatives formed a coalition with the third largest party, the Liberal Democrats, who currently hold 56 seats. Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, is the Deputy Prime Minister, and the Liberal Democrats hold several seats in cabinet.

This match has proved disastrous for the Liberal Democrats’ popularity. Their support has fallen from 23 percent in the last election to around 8 percent in recent polls. Mr. Clegg and his party suffered a great loss in popularity early in Cameron’s first term, when they were unable to keep a promise to prevent the rise of university tuition in England. Over the past five years the party, traditionally further to the left of Labour, has alienated many of their former supporters by aligning themselves with the Conservatives. Their share of seats is expected to fall from 56 to just 16 in the next election, according to the Electoral Calculus (a respected election prediction site much like FiveThirtyEight in the United States.)

As the Liberal Democrats have fallen, competition has heated up between Labour and the Conservatives, with their respective leaders clashing on television and in the news for the weeks leading up to the election. Weekly “Prime Minister’s Questions” (PMQ’s) have been one of the more dramatic battlegrounds of the election, with Milliband and Cameron sparring before a cheering and jeering audience of MPs. In the last PMQ’s before the election on March 25th, the two joked about each other “planning their retirements” among other things in between questions about the National Health Service, the Value Added Tax, and Income Tax cuts. Milliband repeatedly insisted that “nobody believes his promises” and accusing Cameron of dodging questions, who responded with his own questions about promises Milliband had made. With the rapid fire parry and riposte nature of question times (accompanied by a vocal crowd of MPs worthy of a cage fight) it is no wonder that the two sides of the Halls of Parliament were designed to stretch just over two sword lengths apart.

General consensus has been that Cameron has gotten the upper hand of these shouting matches. His party has been inching forward in the polls, closing the narrow lead that Labour previously held, with Cameron touting a growing economy and new doctors in the NHS among other achievements of his government. The day after the last PMQ’s, Cameron and Milliband participated in a forum with British presenter Jeremy Paxman, who is famous for his aggressive and unforgiving interview style. The debate was judged to be a good performance by both candidates, although more undecided voters indicated they would switch to Labour than to the Conservatives after the forum. Milliband’s strong performance helped tone down concerns about his charisma and authenticity. What would follow not long after was ITV’s full debate, more like an American one, with seven parties instead of only two.

Cameron was initially disinclined to participate in the recent TV debates, citing his obligation to govern as more important, but when he was nearly “empty chaired” he agreed to participate in just one, with all of the major leaders. Between the Left-oriented Plaid Cymru (Welsh Nationalists), Green Party, and Scottish Nationalists (SNP), the center-left Liberals and Labour, the center-right Conservatives, and the right-leaning Nationalists of UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party), the spirited debate represented a much wider variety of viewpoints than traditionally witnessed on the American stage. Solid performances by Milliband and Cameron, a spirited and forceful show from Nigel Farage of UKIP, and a charismatic pitch from Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP led polls to pick them as the winners. Farage and Sturgeon in particular outperformed their voting expectations, with 1200 new members signing up for the SNP during the debate. (In Britain, most people are not members of parties; members pay dues and are more committed, generally, than party members in the US.)

Sturgeon’s successful performance in the debate drew attention to an important possibility on the horizon: it currently appears that neither the Labour party nor the Conservative party will be able to hold a majority in Parliament. This was the case in 2010, and the Liberal Democrats were able to form a coalition with the Conservatives to allow the Conservatives to form a government. The collapse of Liberal Democrat support, however, has made it unlikely that the Liberal Democrats will be able to make the difference between either of the major parties and the critical majority number of 323 (members elected from the Sinn Féin party in Northern Ireland have traditionally abstained from Parliament, meaning that there are effectively only about 645 seats instead of 650). The SNP are poised to take between 40 and 55 of Scotland’s 59 seats and may be prepared to take the role of “kingmaker” that the Liberals held in 2010, potentially being able to choose between Labour and the Conservatives. Despite the fact that the SNP are expected to win less than 5 percent of the vote across the whole of the UK, the fact that their support is concentrated in Scotland alone (as Scottish Nationalists they do not run candidates in the other countries) means that they may end up with twice as many seats as the Liberal Democrats, who have more than twice the vote share but are more spread out. This power in the SNP’s hands may give them significant power to direct government policy.

Critically, however, the SNP are relatively unpopular in England: most English people opposed Scottish independence, and many more are leery about Scottish Nationalists who do not even want to be a part of the UK making critical decisions on issues that affect England. Center-left Labour seems like a more natural partner than the Conservatives for the left leaning SNP, and the Conservatives have seized on this state of affairs to argue that putting Labour in power would lead the SNP to a powerful position: “Go to bed with Ed Milliband, wake up with Alex Salmond [former head of the SNP currently running for the Westminster Parliament],” went a campaign slogan that the Conservatives nearly published. During his interview with Paxman, Ed Milliband expressed confidence in his ability to win a true majority, and before that he had already confirmed that he would not form a coalition with the SNP. Sturgeon stated in the Scottish leaders’ debate that she would “never prop up the Tories,” and that she was keen to work with Labour, but she met with reluctance from Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, who echoed Milliband’s unwillingness to form a coalition.

Sturgeon may or may not be able to be a member of the next government formed in Westminster, but as First Minister of Scotland she needn’t lose sleep over Milliband’s unwillingness to extend an olive branch. Her party netted 300 new members during the forum with Paxman, and she is polling stronger in Scotland than Milliband by double digits. Her charisma at the debate earned her the respect (if not the love) of many English voters, and as her party stands to take most of Scotland’s seats it is unclear that any of the other parties will be able to succeed without her support.  Labour may have no choice but to cooperate with the SNP, and many have speculated that a “Confidence and Supply” agreement may be made between the two parties, meaning that the SNP would support Labour in “no confidence” votes and budget matters while being free on all other matters.

Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, however, does not believe his party is done for, and it is true that they have a few advantages that may give them a chance to survive: for one, their candidates can argue local issues effectively while Clegg himself (a rather weak personality who underperformed dramatically at the debate) proposes relatively inoffensive national policy. Beyond that, their incumbents are at an advantage; Lib Dem MPs always poll better when mentioned by name than when only party names are given. Clegg knows, however, that his deal with the Conservatives has been disastrous for his party. His inability to reconcile his party’s left-leaning ideology with Conservative policies has hollowed out his support base, so he has gone on the attack. In the last debate, Clegg spent much of his time criticizing David Cameron, despite the fact that they have been partners in government for the past five years. If Clegg can survive, then Milliband may have an out from his Scottish problem, but the polls simply do not indicate the the Lib Dems will be able to maintain a strong presence, and Clegg failed to deliver the strong debate performance needed to definitively turn that around.

Nigel Farage’s role in this election has been very different from Clegg’s or Sturgeon’s in that his party (UKIP) does not stand to hold a large number of seats after this election. They seem poised to win three, perhaps four if Farage’s personal celebrity allows him to win his own constituency. However, they have consistently polled in the double digits nationally, and most of these votes have come from Conservative voters. This led to a dynamic at the debate that saw Cameron promising a referendum on EU membership and offering some support to immigration restrictions while carefully avoiding alignment with Farage’s anti-immigrant sentiments, which drew fire from the left-leaning party leaders. Farage was undoubtedly the loudest leader at the debate, and though his voice in Westminster is likely to be weak after the election, he has nonetheless been able to shape the national conversation.

Cameron himself faces a difficult set of circumstances going into Election Day. A renewed Liberal coalition seems unlikely and the SNP are hardly a natural fit, while UKIP are both too right-wing and too weak to be able to fill the gap Clegg’s party will likely leave. Even if the Conservatives win the most seats, they may not be able to form a government, and if they are, they may find themselves forming a coalition with UKIP, small Northern Irish parties, or perhaps even Wales’ Plaid Cymru. In the Scottish leaders’ debate, the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson expressed that the Conservatives would rather form a minority government than form a coalition with any of the other parties. Such a situation could lead to an ineffective government that would struggle without a strong voting majority, but it would keep Nigel Farage’s xenophobic reputation a safe distance away from David Cameron and the Conservatives.

As Election Day approaches, the fate of all the major leaders and parties remains profoundly uncertain. With predicted margins between the two biggest parties as slim as .1% , it is unclear which party or parties will find themselves in control after Election Day. Any of the many possible outcomes could have massive ramifications both within the UK, as issues such as NHS funding and immigration hang in the balance, and outside the UK, as debate rages on foreign aid, banking policy, and the EU. If Cameron fulfills his promise to have a referendum on EU membership, the foundations of the Union could be shaken, and the pro-Union leaders of Wales, Northern Ireland, and especially Scotland could face renewed internal pressure to leave the UK. If the SNP end up in any kind of power, a debate about devolution could lead to major constitutional changes. Any government with any coalition could negotiate radically different deals with the US or with the EU, and different philosophies on banking regulation and taxation could impact London’s massively influential financial markets. A minority government could lead either to compromise or to years of gridlock. As the future of the UK hangs in the balance, there is no doubt that on the 7th of May, the world will be watching.