UK Election - 7 May 2015
The only certainty about the UK general election on 7 May is that the result is unpredictable – the most open in a generation. At the beginning of 2014, Labour’s lead over the Conservatives narrowed in the polls, and neither has shown any significant or sustained gains since. Polls, of course, are only a snapshot and not a prediction, and they come with margins of error – but they are the nearest thing we have to an idea of how the electorate will vote. If the Conservatives and Labour pick up broadly the same number of seats, we will be in a similar, but more complicated, scenario than in May 2010 when the coalition government was elected.
The British electoral system, known as First-past-the-Post (FPTP), is designed to return definitive results, leading to strong governments with secure mandates so that they can be judged by the electorate on their progress at the end of a Parliament. But widespread disillusionment with politics and politicians, reverberations from the 2009 expenses scandal that engulfed Parliament and the aftermath of the global financial crisis have all led to a loss of faith in government to improve people’s lives. That is reflected in the declining vote share for the two main parties: in 1951, the Conservatives and Labour took 97% of the vote. In 2010, it was 65%. Disenchantment may also lead to lower numbers of people turning out to vote (unlike Australia, voting is not compulsory in the UK). In 2010, turnout was 65% - against 76% in 1979.
The beneficiaries have been smaller parties with defined agendas such as the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the Scottish National Party (SNP). In 2010, the first coalition government for decades was elected – and demonstrated that more than one party can form a stable and lasting government. That will give those in marginal seats confidence to vote with their heart rather than grudgingly for one of the two main parties, giving smaller parties a needed boost. So the mix of austerity, disenchantment and declining turnout means that the next government will probably also be made up of more than one party, either in formal coalition again or in a less formal arrangement known as ‘confidence and supply’.
Personalities undeniably are playing a part. Both UKIP and the SNP have at their helm ardent and powerful leaders with tightly defined agendas (the former wanting to pull Britain out of the EU, the latter wanting to pull Scotland out of the UK). Since Labour campaigned against Scottish independence in September’s referendum, the SNP have attracted hugely increased support north of the border to the detriment of Labour, and would become the third party of British politics if today’s polls were translated directly into votes. The price of their support for a Labour-led government will be further devolution of powers to Scotland, a possible and contentious removal of the Trident nuclear weapons system from Scotland, and a reduction in austerity measures.
UKIP, on the other hand, have said that they will support any party which promises to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership as soon as practically possible in the next Parliament. Although UKIP has been picking up votes from disgruntled ex-Conservatives in seaside towns in the south of England, it is increasingly attracting votes from traditional Labour voters who worry about immigration and job security.
In spite of the debates about Europe and Scotland, the main focus of the election campaign is undoubtedly the economy. George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, will present his final budget of the Parliament in two weeks, where he is expected to celebrate the return to growth, promise further financial goodies for those most likely to vote, and caution that, in economic terms, ‘the job is only half-done’. Labour, on the other hand, has struggled to define a single message on which to fight the campaign, switching from the National Health Service (on which it is considerably more popular than the Conservatives) to issues such as housing and student fees.
Analysed closely, the two main parties’ spending pledges for the next Parliament are not radically different. George Osborne has promised a combination of public spending and tax cuts which, he predicts, will see the UK return to budget surplus by 2017-18. Labour guarantees the same, but 12 months later, excluding infrastructure spending, and is likely to cut a little less and tax a little more. Both parties are trying to woo voters in the north, with Labour talking about ‘rebalancing’ the economy away from financial services in the south east, and the Conservatives promising to create a ‘northern powerhouse’ with promises of city-level devolution in Manchester and transport spending in the north.
So even after the election, the economy will dominate. But given the SNP’s determination to win more powers for Scotland and UKIP’s intractable position on Europe, will a future coalition be liable to fall apart half way through?
One of the first acts of our current coalition was to pass the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, which stops a Prime Minister asking the Queen to dissolve parliament when it suits his or her party best. So parliaments in the UK are now fixed at five years, unless there is a two-thirds vote of no confidence in the House of Commons. What that means in practice is that an unpopular government may be dragged along by the opposition clubbing together and waiting for an opportune moment to call an election when they are most likely to win, and put the government out of unpopular misery.
So the next Parliament in the UK is likely to be even more bad tempered than this one, and possibly less stable. Arguments about the economy and the role of government to provide services in difficult financial times will rage. Layered on top of that is a potential referendum on Europe, demands for further devolution – and to top it all off, a Parliament building that is in need of a £3bn emergency face-lift (possibly requiring all MPs to decamp to another building). In short, interesting times in British politics.
Mark Detre is a government relations and communications manager currently based in London.