Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Parliamentary procedure

On May 7, British voters will head to the polls to elect a new Parliament. If mid-April forecasts are correct, the formation of a government will be a bit more complicated than in elections past. The results of those elections will have important ramifications for the conduct of economic policy in both Britain and the European Union.

For most of the last two centuries, British governments have been formed by one of the two major political parties of the time. Before World War I, either the Conservative (Tory) Party or the Liberal Party; since then, either the Conservatives or the Labour Party.

The dominance of two parties can be explained, in part, by Britain’s first-past-the-post (FPP) electoral system. Under this system, there are no primaries and no run-off elections – the candidate who garners the largest number of votes in each constituency wins the seat. Hence, a minor party with 20 percent support in each constituency will not win any seats in Parliament. The only way for such a party to be a serious contender is if its votes are concentrated in fewer constituencies, for example, if their candidates received 50 percent of the vote in 40 percent of the constituencies. Hence, it is not surprising that British governments have been overwhelmingly one-party affairs during the past two centuries.

Contrast the FPP system with proportional representation (PR), which exist in Germany, Israel, and elsewhere. In PR systems, winning 20 percent of the overall vote is likely to translate into approximately 20 percent of the seats in Parliament. Governments in PR countries are usually coalitions of two or more parties, since in multiparty countries it is unusual for any one party to secure the 50 percent of seat in Parliament necessary to govern alone. Coalition governments are therefore the rule, rather than the exception in PR countries.

The results of Britain’s 2010 elections were unusually close. Neither the Conservatives nor Labour won enough seats to form a government on its own; the Liberal Democrats (LDP) – which already had some strength in the west and north of England and in Scotland—had a slightly better-than-usual result and gained enough seats to put the Conservatives in power, make David Cameron Prime Minister and the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg Deputy Prime Minister.

2010 UK General Election results, by Johannes Rossel. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
2010 UK General Election results, by Johannes Rossel. Blue equals Conservatives. Red equals Labour. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In the five years since the previous government was formed, a number of developments have made the results of the May 2015 election even more difficult to predict.

First, party loyalty appears to be a thing of the past. In 1951, according to the Economist, Labour and the Conservatives took a combined 97 percent of the vote. These days, however, dyed-in-the-wool Tories and Life-long Laborites are increasingly dinosaurs: the two big parties are currently polling around a third of the vote each and, according to mid-April projections by Election Forecast UK are likely to win only about 280 seats (plus or minus 40 seats), short of the 326 or so needed to govern.

Second, the Liberal Democrats will likely make up a much smaller contingent in the incoming Parliament, making it unlikely that they will again play the role of kingmaker. Viewed ideologically as holding the middle ground between Labour and the Conservatives, going into a coalition with the Conservatives has alienated many of their supporters. This resulted in a poor showing in last year’s local elections, in which the LDP lost more than 40 percent of their local office-holders. Additionally, one of the LDP’s main accomplishments—and a condition for entering the coalition—was to hold a referendum on introducing proportional representation to Parliamentary elections. That referendum lost by a two-to-one margin in 2011, making them less relevant on policy grounds. Finally, the LDP’s pro-Europe stance is increasingly unpopular.

Third, the Scottish National Party (SNP) is poised to make substantial gains. After proposing—and losing—a referendum on Scottish Independence, the SNP has rebounded and now looks like it will be far more popular in Scotland than Labour, which held the majority of Scottish constituencies in the outgoing Parliament, or the LDP. The SNP has said that it would back a Labour government—only because it holds an even greater distain for the Conservatives. Since the Labor Party opposes Scottish independence, it is not clear what the consequences of a Labour-SNP coalition would be for the future of a united Britain.

Finally, the fallout from European sovereign debt crisis has led to a rise in anti-EU sentiment across Europe. David Cameron has had an increasingly contentious relationship with the European Union, blocking several measures that had widespread support among the other EU members, supporting a long-held view in Europe that Britain is not a full-fledged partner in the European enterprise. As leader of the most euro-skeptical of the large UK parties, Cameron has promised that if he is reelected he will hold an “in-or-out” referendum on Britain’s continued presence in the European Union in 2017. Cameron is looking over his right shoulder at the rise of the UK Independence Party, which advocates withdrawal from the European Union and has already drawn some defectors from Conservative Party ranks.

It is impossible at the time of this writing to predict what coalition will emerge from the May 7 election; in fact, the results may remain unclear for several days and weeks as the parties scramble to find a winning, stable coalition. In addition to the parties mentioned above, there are a handful of other tiny parties (e.g., Welsh Nationalists, Greens, and several Northern Ireland parties) which may hold the balance of power. Any coalition that leads to a break-up of the UK or the removal of Britain from the European Union will be costly to Britain, Europe, and the wider world.

Featured image credit: Ed Miliband, by ‘Ed Miliband for leader’. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. […] Thursday, May 7 is election day in the United Kingdom.  Read my Oxford University Press blog on the Parliamentary elections here. […]

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *