The UK General Election Explained360°CONTEXT
The 2015 UK General Election could see the Conservative-Labour dominance in Westminster diminished.
On May 7, the British electorate will take to the polls in an election that seems virtually certain to end in a second consecutive hung parliament. Though it has been widely predicted that no party will possess sufficient seats among the 650 in Westminster to form a majority government, what remains unpredictable is the form an eventual government will take. The results that emerge on May 8 are likely to be followed by days, or even weeks, of negotiations toward the creation of a viable coalition.
In 2010, the right-wing Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats — who had long been the United Kingdom’s third largest party, with no experience of government at that time — combined to form a coalition that few had expected ahead of the election. Their marriage was one of convenience, and arguably necessity, as it represented the only way two parties could command an overall majority in parliament.
In 2015, however, polls indicate that Labour, the main opposition party, are at risk of losing many of their Scottish seats to the Scottish National Party (SNP), while the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) may chip away at the Conservatives’ current holdings.
The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, have suffered from being the minor partner in the ruling coalition, failing to promote their successes in tempering the Conservatives’ austerity program, and are also likely to see their tally diminish. The presence of several smaller parties, including some like the Greens and Wales’ Plaid Cymru, who have gained in prominence during this year’s election coverage, will fog the post-election political landscape even further.
Just ahead of the election, the two main parties remain extremely close in polling, with many aggregate polls indicating as little as 1% between them. Notably, Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system — in which each constituency is won by the party with the largest share of the vote, regardless of whether this represents a majority of the electorate in that seat — means that the significant poll counts of some of the smaller parties will not translate into a similar share of seats. UKIP, for example, has a support base that is far too thinly spread across the country for them to claim anything like the number of seats that would reflect their poll level, currently around 14%; they are, in fact, unlikely to win more than one or two seats.
Why is the UK 2015 General Election Relevant?
The result of the 2015 UK General Election could represent the diminishing of the Conservative-Labour dominance that has characterized much of the last century. It seems highly likely that in order to command a majority in Westminster, any government will have to include at least three parties. While the resulting horse-trading and compromise over policies and pre-election promises are familiar to many countries in Europe and beyond, this is something with which British parties have had very little recent experience.
The matter is complicated by the supposed red lines held by certain parties. Labour leader Ed Miliband, for instance, has ruled out a coalition with the SNP due to its stance on Scottish independence, despite the willingness of the party to support a Labour-led government, not to mention the fact that such an alliance could prove necessary if Miliband is to take over 10 Downing Street. An alternative arrangement may see one or more parties offering support to a minority government’s legislative program on a case-by-case basis, without being part of a formal coalition.
The unpredictable nature of the post-election environment and the virtual certainty of in-depth negotiation between the parties mean that no political party will be able to carry out its manifesto in full. As such, the positions of each party represent a mere starting point for negotiation over policies that often diverge in profound ways.
Among the landmark policy areas of the 2015 election are the future of the economy, the UK’s status in the European Union (EU) and the country’s immigration controls. The parties’ stances on each of these issues could prove potently divisive during negotiations.
Under the Conservative-led coalition, the British economy has started to emerge from the malaise of the previous decade’s financial crash. In 2014, the economy grew by 2.8%, and wages are gradually rising. Meanwhile, the national deficit has been reduced by around a third. However, the government has faced persistent criticisms for failing to keep borrowing in check, or for placing too much faith in its policy of austerity as an economic panacea.
All three of the major parties promise to continue to lower the deficit, and though opposition to this as an overall priority has been voiced by both the Greens and Plaid Cymru, the influence of either party in any governing arrangement would likely be too small to hold much influence. The differences between the three main parties are to be found in the speed with which the deficit is to be reduced, and the balance sought between tax rises and spending cuts. Whatever form the next government takes, it will face the difficulty of continuing both deficit reduction and economic growth.
The UK’s membership of the European Union has been a prominent point of contention between the parties, and an area in which one of the smaller parties — UKIP — has had a notable influence. UKIP advocates a complete withdrawal from the EU, despite winning the 2014 European elections in Britain. The party views the EU as a costly, inefficient and undemocratic restraint on British sovereignty.
In an attempt to mollify its long-standing anti-Europe wing, the Conservative Party has pledged to hold a referendum on membership of the EU. Labour and the Liberal Democrats are much more pro-European and would only support a referendum in certain circumstances, like a further transfer of power to Brussels. While the Conservative Party commands a great deal of support from the business community, many have warned that a withdrawal from the EU following a referendum could have profound economic ramifications. Banking giant HSBC has warned that it may relocate its headquarters in event of a British withdrawal from the EU, and a recent German study has suggested that a so-called “Brexit” would cut Britain’s gross domestic product (GDP) by up to 14%.
Immigration is another issue where the nascent UKIP has held a disproportionate influence. The party has employed persistently tough and divisive rhetoric regarding infrastructural strain, loss of jobs to foreign labor and “health tourism,” capitalizing on the government’s failure to reach its target of reducing immigration to below 100,000 a year. The resulting pressure has driven even the left-wing Labour Party to speak of the need to control immigration; though some parties — most notably the Greens — have pointed to the benefits it has brought the country.
The negotiations that follow the election will test the resolve of the parties involved to stick to their manifesto pledges. The set of policies that results may not strongly resemble those espoused by any single party, but if the present trend of increasingly multipolar politics continues, this is something the UK electorate will have to get used to. The same may be true of the uncertainty that will characterize British politics after the election, as the two-party dominance of Westminster continues to ebb away.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.