British Parliament

The British General Election: Consequential and Unpredictable

Although British politics have historically been dominated by two parties, a noticeable change is occurring, as fringe and peripheral parties have started to develop larger shares of the UK electoral vote. As a result, the 2015 general election is fast becoming the most unpredictable in a generation. The cause of this fragmentation within the British parliamentary establishment has been the consequence of a number of factors including devolution to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, as well as UK membership to the European Union. The result for policy making in the UK is the difficulty in establishing majority rule, and the likelihood of more coalition governments for the foreseeable future. 

Long-Term Decline

In less than two weeks the British public will go to the polls for what has become the most unpredictable general election in over a generation. This uncertainty is not a consequence of relative weakness in either party or in their respective leadership. There are not substantial exogenous factors, such as a national scandal or war, which tend to throw elections wide-open. Instead, the current state is the result of a significant shift in the underlying structure of the British polity.

For many years, two parties dominated the political spectrum. The general election of 1951 between Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee resulted in the Conservative and Labour parties taking a combined 96.8 percent of the vote. In 1979 when Margaret Thatcher was elected to government the combined share had fallen to 80.8 percent. In 2010, the year current Prime Minister David Cameron was elected, the figure was just 65.1 percent. Current polls, although fluctuating, show that the combined total of the two largest parties could be as low as 60 percent this May. These shifts in voting patterns coincide with a decline in voter turnout and a significant fall in members of both the largest parties. A House of Commons Library Standard Note referenced the Conservative Party membership in 1951 at 2.9 million. In 2013, membership had plummeted to 134,000. The Labour Party membership in 1952 was over one million, in 2013 membership stood at just 190,000.

The decline in support for the largest political parties in Britain has been complemented by the surge in support for smaller parties. Whilst we have long had an array of political parties and movements with ideological roots across the spectrum, there has rarely been velocity in their power and electoral support.

The Liberal Democrat Party

At first glance, the Liberal Democrats seem to be the wedge that has split the Conservative/Labour hegemony. The Liberal Democrats (referred to as ‘Lib Dems’) are the product of a conglomeration between the Liberal Party and the Social Democrats in 1988. The Liberal(liberal denotes the centrist, social-democrat wing within British Politics) share of voters has more than doubled from below 10 percent in the immediate aftermath of World War II to above 23 percent in 2010. This translates to between 50 and 60 seats in parliament for the modern Liberal Democrat party, and handed them the role of king maker in the creation of the coalition government in May 2010.

Whilst the successful establishment of a third party has reconfigured the traditional voting structure, it does not explain more recent trends.

The Liberal Democrats have seen their poll ratings fall in recent years, a likely response to being in government. Polls predict a national vote of below 10 percent, well below recent norms. We would expect a subsequent uptick in the current support for both the Conservative and Labour party. However, departing voters are not returning to either the larger parties of the establishment. Instead peripheral parties have developed clusters of support among disaffected voters. Peripheral parties are of course nothing new in British politics. Like most European nations, the UK has experienced communist parties, nationalist and libertarian movements, and Christian and regional political organizations, who field candidates for elections. What makes the recent developments historically important is the electoral strength and tangible power held by these ‘junior parties’ outside of the ‘two-party’ hegemony.

The Periphery

The dominant story in British politics over the last two to three years has been the emergence of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). Once derided as a group of ‘Fruit Cakes and Loonies’by David Cameron, UKIP has now become a powerful voice of the right wing, similar to that of the US Tea Party. Leader Nigel Farage has happily reveled in this reference, with headlines like the one published by Bloomberg last month: “How a British Tea Party Is Rocking the U.K.’s Political Establishment.” They were originally a one-issue party, objecting to British membership of the European Union; however they now advocate a raft of policies that spread across international affairs, immigration, the economy, and public services. Party membership has trebled from 10,000 to 30,000 since it first published figures in 2002. Their success in both the European elections last year, where they won 23 seats (an increase of 11), and in by-elections (snap local elections caused by the vacating of a parliamentary seat by a sitting member), have firmly placed them on the electoral map. The defection of two conservative members of parliament (MP) at the end of 2014 earned them their first representatives in Parliament, and a voice in the legislative debates of the country. As the third most popular party in Britain, they are an important quantity in electoral analysis and will have an impact on who takes power in May.

The position of the Green Party will also be pivotal come election day. They already have one MP in Caroline Lucas and recent national polls place them at around four percent of the national vote. To put this figure into context, the Liberal Democrat party, one half of the coalition government, regularly scores around eight percent in the same polls. Their blend of pro-EU enviro-friendly policies with traditional socialist principles has won support across the country and lends them leverage if they were to be involved in negotiations with the Labour party to create a coalition government.

Finally, the Scottish National Party (SNP); founded as a movement to campaign for Scottish Independence, have grown to be the dominant party in Scotland and have established themselves as the party of Government in Edinburgh. Their failure to secure a ‘yes’ vote for independence in September of last year was perceived to precipitate a period of decline. However, under new leadership and a renewed sense of purpose, with their popularity unaffected, the SNP are a key determinant in the next election. The Spectator Magazine recently noted that one in 50 Scottish adults has signed to become a new member of the SNP since last September’s ‘No’ vote. They now have more members than there are soldiers in the British Army. As a left of center party, they have lent their allegiance to the Labour Party were there to be a hung parliament in May. With polls suggesting the SNP may win up to 51 seats north of the English border (an increase from six today), Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party, would need their support to form any government.

In the current parliamentary make-up there are 29 MPs representing ‘peripheral parties’ (excluding the Liberal Democrats). According to research conducted by polling company YouGov and academics at the University of East Anglia, Durham and the London School of Economics, peripheral parties could make up 81 seats after the 2015 general election. This is an unprecedented shift in power and cannot be just the result of a cyclical upswing in anti-establishment sentiment.

The Causes of Fragmentation

The cause of this fragmentation is multi-layered. At the root is a larger constitutional and political tectonic shift, most notably the devolution of power in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland and British membership to the European Union. These issues created a sub-system of party organizations antithetical to the Westminster-EU establishment.

The story of Scottish devolution is not a modern one. Devolution replaced secession, which in turn replaced rebellion. Scotland first voted in favor of proposals for devolution in 1997, creating a Scottish legislature and executive. The SNP has flourished in a culture of disdain for what is perceived as ‘English Rule’ in Scotland. The first election for the Scottish Parliament was held in 1999, where the SNP won just 35 seats against Labour’s 56. In the 2001 UK general election, the SNP won just 5 seats. Since then it has been a growing success story, with Alex Salmond leading the party to power in Scotland in 2007 with 47 seats or 31 percent of the vote. In 2011, the most recent election, these figures had risen to 69 seats or 44 percent of the vote. The SNP power in Westminster is also predicted to follow a similar trajectory, with some polls predicting a 51-seat overhaul at the election.

Similar efforts to devolve power to the regions also took place in Northern Ireland and Wales, and their regional parties have been experiencing similar, although not such ferocious, success. The Democratic Unionist Party, the Social Democratic Labour Party, Plaid-Cymru and Sinn Fein are expected to increase their shares of the vote and seats in parliament in May this year.

The support for devolution in Britain has always been a vote for democracy, not political fragmentation in Westminster. However, as regional parties become more established and embark on periods in government, they risk destabilizing the long-term hold on seats in parliament that the Conservatives and Labour have taken for granted. Like the policy of devolution, UK membership to the European Union has sparked a surge in support for parties in favor of ‘Brexit’ (UKIP) and those in favor of staying in (Greens). British membership to the EU is an area of contention within the right wing. However, recently anti-EU sentiment can be found across the spectrum, and UKIP has effectively taken votes from all parties.

The Age of Coalition Government

It would be remiss at this point not to briefly discuss the implications of this fragmentation. With this parliamentary reconfiguration rooted in a wider genetic change in the British politics, it is hard to envision any pendulum-like return to the previous two-party dominance. As long as Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland remain a part of Britain, and Britain remains a part of the EU, we will continue to see peripheral and non-mainstream parties win support across the country. The UK could potentially end up looking more like Germany, with their 14 separate political parties, of which four have over 50 seats in the Bundestag. Coalition governments are the norm in Germany, and it seems within just months of another general election returning no overall majority, it is the soon to be norm in Britain.

This has important implications for foreign, domestic, and economic policy making. With divergence between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives on the war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Britain’s role in Syria, it is hard to see coherent policy making between the two parties with regards to future military intervention. Any rainbow coalition, including the Liberal Democrats, SNP, and Labour would almost certainly be predicated on scrapping Trident (the UK nuclear missile defense system). As ISIS continues to shock the western world with its depravity and barbarity, and with the UK as one of the only partners of the United States willing to put boots on the ground, the notion of parliamentary deadlock on issues of foreign policy is a serious problem facing the US and the West. On domestic and economic policy, coalition government increases the scope of bargaining and deal making on issues of immigration, budget cuts, EU membership, social services spending, and all other significant areas of policy. A coalition on the right between Conservatives and UKIP would place EU membership as a top priority for the new government. Whereas a deal between Labour and the SNP would reverse the IMF supported austerity measures that have been implemented so far. The Financial Times noted last October that any hung parliament could trigger uncertainty in debt markets, a spike in UK government bond yields and risk the country’s premium credit rating.

The UK electorate is faced with an unpredictable election with the very real prospect of change for the country. A new establishment is in the making with repercussions far from the capital city.

Featured image: Flickr/(Maurice)

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