Elections in Britain – a turning point?
Yesterday’s elections in the UK have been attracting a lot of media and political attention across Europe over the last several weeks. One of the reasons perhaps are the lively leaders’ debates that took place for the first time. However, both the campaign and the election results may have much deeper implications for the political system in the UK.
It is now clear that the UK will have a hung parliament. That is, no party will get 326 seats in the House of Commons and have a majority (the UK lower chamber has 650 MPs in total). Speculations have been circulating that there may be a coalition government or else, a minority government may soon result in new elections. As of the early afternoon today the results are :
Conservatives: 36% (305 seats)
Labour 29% (258 seats)
Liberal Democrats 23% (57 seats)
(See the bottom of the page for a detailed interactive map of the election results)
In fact, last time we had a hung parliament, new elections followed within months. This time, both politicians and the business are afraid of such prospects as it would mean that for some time there will be no one in Downing Street 10 to take the hard decisions that need to be taken. And they must be taken, if the country wants to tackle the alarming situation with its public finances and move from recession to recovery.
A coalition government (so untypical for the British political system) may take place if the Liberal Democrats of Nick Clegg support a cabinet lead by either David Cameron or Gordon Brown. Yet this seems unlikely, as Clegg would not want to play kingmaker with the current Prime Minister who has just been dethroned. As Clegg himself said, he would not let Brow ‘squatting’ in Downing Street. At the same time, although Liberal Democrats say that conservatives should first try to make government, they have a number of policies very different from those of the Tories and consider themselves closer to Labour.
Some suggest that a Red-Yellow coalition may emerge if Gordon Brown offers the Holy Grail of election reform to the Liberal Democrats. In fact, the incumbent PM emphasized such intentions on several occasions during the first election debate. An election reform that would move the voting system toward a proportional one would be a precedent in UK history and will largely benefit the Lib-Dems. They are currently under-represented and even though they have a share of the vote close to that of the Labour party, they have nearly 5 times less seats.
The topic of electoral reform is what makes these elections most interesting for me. The British system is the only one in Europe which is purely majoritarian. It prioritises big and regional parties with its 650 constituencies. Such a system facilitates attachments between representatives and their regions/electorate. On the other hand it creates a huge disparity on a national level between the share of vote and share of seats won.
Currently, Labour benefits most from the voting system. With small majorities in the densely populated areas it has its share of supporters evenly distributed around the country. On the other hand, Liberals get high results but rarely make it to the first place in the single-seat constituencies. Conservatives are also losing from the current set-up as they have big support in England thus creating unnecessary surplus of votes in certain regions.
An example of this is the last election in 2005 when n the labour party got 55% of the seats with 35% of the vote. At the same time 22% voted Liberal, but this resulted in only a little over 9% of the actual MP mandates.
So even though Cameron has not favoured election reform until now, it would be an obvious advantage for his party in fighting the traditional Labour enemy. Such a reform may bring the Lib-Dems to an equal footing with the two big parties, which would be a fair prospect, given their growing popularity over the last decades. One of the most curious results of this election campaign was that their policies as well as their leader became very recognizable to the public.
The hung parliament signals a trend in British Politics as well – the declining influence of the two traditionally big parties. While 30-40 years ago the Conservatives and Labour together were getting around 95% of the vote, now this figure has gone down to around 65%. There will rise to least 87 MPs (14% of all seats) from other parties in the new parliament, 9 more than before. The growing representation of small parties despite the unfavourable voting system shows that electoral reform is knocking on the door. Maybe not during this term, but definitely soon.