Sunday, April 5, 2015

United Kingdom election 2015

The United Kingdom will be holding a parliamentary election on the 7th of May. The incumbent government is a coalition between the centre-right Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, and the centre to centre-left Liberal Democrats, led by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. The opposition Labour Party, which is led by former Secretary for State for Energy Ed Miliband. A number of smaller parties, including the Greens, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), and the Scottish National Party.


The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy, and has had universal suffrage since the 1920s. Before 1910, elections were mostly between the centre-right Conservatives (Tories) and the centrist Liberals (Whigs). These two parties alternated in government. However, in 1895, the Independent Labour Party contested 28 seats, but only won 1% of the vote. In 1900, Labour improved their vote slightly, and won two seats.

Over the subsequent years, the Labour Party improved their vote consistently. However, this was rarely at the expense of one single party. The Liberal Party split in 1918, with some members joining the Conservatives and some staying independent. This led to the Liberals declining dramatically over that period, to the benefit of both other parties. The Conservatives formed government after this, but lost their majority in 1923. Because neither of the other two parties wanted to deal with the Conservatives, the first Labour government was formed in coalition with the Liberals, under the leadership of Ramsay McDonald.

The McDonald government did not last, and an election was called later that year. The result was a dramatic loss for the Liberal Party, and a somewhat smaller loss for Labour. The Conservatives won a landslide majority.

While the Liberals made slight gains at the next few elections, the party split again coming up to the 1931 election. At this election, the Labour Party also split into factions supportive of a coalition with the Conservatives (led by Ramsay McDonald) and an independent party. The independent party won only 46 seats (out of 615), down from 287 at the last election.  The Liberals did poorly, winning only 33 seats; this was the first step in what would be a long decline for the party. The Conservatives, running in coalition with the various Labour and Liberal spinoffs (under the banner of 'National Government'), won a landslide 554 seats.

At the 1935 election, Labour made some gains under the leadership of Clement Atlee, while the Liberals continued their decline. General elections were postponed because of the Second World War, but an election was held in 1945. To some surprise, the wartime government of Conservative Winston Churchill was handily defeated, with Labour winning 393 seats (out of 640). The Conservatives won only 197, while the Liberals continued to decline.

The Atlee government was controversial, and lost some seats in 1950. In 1951, an election was held due to the slim majority of the government. The Conservatives won this relatively comfortably. This election was also notable for the poor Liberal performance; the Liberals only managed 6 seats, later reduced to 5. If a political party in a 625 member assembly can hold its meetings in one car, that party has serious problems.

In the next few elections, the Labour Party lost seats, and the Conservatives gained some. A significant change took place in 1964, when a hard-fought campaign resulted in a narrow Labour win, with a 2-seat majority. Harold Wilson, the Labour leader, became Prime Minister. The Liberals gained three seats, meaning that a large people mover would be required for party meetings.

Wilson was unsatisfied with his narrow majority, and called an election for 1966. This resulted in significant gains for Labour, at the expense of the Conservatives. Labour won a 46-seat majority. The Liberals gained three, while the Conservatives lost 52. One seat was won by a 'Republican Labour' candidate in Northern Ireland, one of the predecessors to Sinn Fein.

An election was called by Wilson for 1970. This election took place against a relatively gloomy economic background, and the Wilson government was defeated. Conservative leader Edward Heath took office with a majority of 14. This election was also notable for a halved Liberal seat tally of 6, and the first Scottish National MPs elected in a general election. Northern Ireland elected four members from local parties.

The 1974 election was somewhat remarkable. Strikes, trouble in Northern Ireland, and a stagnant economy reduced support for the government. Both parties were led by the same leaders as in 1970. Labour won 301 seats, becoming the largest party; however, 318 seats were needed for a majority. The Conservatives won 297. The Liberals won 14 seats, the SNP won 7, the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru party won 2, and one independent was elected. All Northern Ireland seats were won by local parties.

The resulting government was a minority Labour government, led by Wilson. This government did not last, and Wilson called another election for later that year. He won this, with 319 seats: a majority of 1.

Poor economic conditions reduced support for this Labour government, and even after Wilson resigned and was replaced by Chancellor (Treasurer) James Callaghan, the government continued to tank in the polls. Conservative leader Edward Heath was defeated by Margaret Thatcher, and Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe was brought down due to a scandal. After the Labour Party failed to form a coalition with the Liberals, a no-confidence motion brought down the Callaghan government, and an election was called for 1979.

The Conservatives won the 1979 election comfortably, with 339 seats. Labour won 269, the Liberals won 11, the SNP won only 2, Plaid Cymru won 2, and as before, all Northern Ireland seats were won by local parties.

During the 1979 parliament, the Labour Party elected a left-wing leader, Michael Foot. This led to certain members of the party leaving and creating the new Social Democratic Party, which formed an alliance with the Liberals. This alliance did relatively well in the polls due to the lack of support for the Thatcher government. However, as the 1983 election approached, the Thatcher government gained support, and won comfortably. The Labour Party polled poorly, winning just 27.6% and 209 seats. The SDP-Liberal Alliance polled relatively well, winning 25.4%, but won only 23 seats.

The Conservatives won re-election comfortably in 1987, with Labour under the leadership of Neil Kinnock. However, in 1990, Thatcher resigned due to a number of policy controversies. By this point, the Conservatives were relatively unpopular. Thatcher was replaced by John Major, the Chancellor. Major led the Conservatives to the 1992 election, which he was expected to lose. However, Major won, but with a reduced majority in the Commons of 10.

The 1992 parliament went very badly for the Conservatives. A number of scandals, a poor economic situation, and divisions over Europe dramatically reduced Conservative support. At the same time, Labour was led by popular Tony Blair, who was successful in removing the more stridently socialist bits of the Labour policy. The 1997 election resulted in a Labour landslide, with Labour winning 418 seats out of 659. The Conservatives won just 168, and the Liberal Democrats won 46.

The Labour Party's first term in office was relatively successful, and Conservative leader William Hague failed to make much of a mark. Labour only lost 6 seats in the 2001 election.

However, the second term of Labour government was somewhat more controversial. The Iraq War, a number of scandals, and controversies regarding Labour's handling of immigration and healthcare led to the first significant increase in Conservative representation since 1983. Labour won 355 seats, the Conservatives won 198, and the Liberal Democrats won 62.

Blair resigned in 2007, and was replaced by his Chancellor, Gordon Brown. While Brown polled relatively well in his first months, a number of scandals involving ministers and a serious economic downturn dramatically reduced the support of his government. In the 2009 European elections, the Labour Party came third, behind the Conservatives and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP); Labour won only 15.7%. In the Henley by-election to fill the seat of London mayor Boris Johnson, the Labour candidate won 3% and came fifth, behind not only the Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates, but the candidates of the Greens and the far-right British National Party.

In the leadup to the 2010 election, Conservative leader David Cameron was widely expected to become Prime Minister. However, after a televised debate (the first of its kind) which didn't go as expected, the Liberal Democrats received a polling surge. While the surge was relatively short-lived, it took enough momentum away from the Conservatives to prevent them from winning a majority.

The results were 306 for the Conservatives (with 326 needed for a majority), 258 for Labour, and 57 for the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats chose to go with the Conservatives, seeing that a Labour-led government would be relatively unstable.

This has dramatically reduced Liberal Democrat support. Opinion polls have put them behind UKIP, and the 2014 European election resulted in them winning no seats. In the Rochester and Strood by-election, (which resulted in UKIP winning a seat), the Liberal Democrat candidate won 0.9%.

The electoral system

The electoral system of the United Kingdom is the 'first-past-the-post', or single-member plurality system. It is relatively simple: voters have one vote, and they cast it for a party candidate. The candidate with the most votes wins. This happens in every district nationwide.

A colour-coded map of the UK's electoral districts from the 2010 election (Wikimedia) Blue=Conservatives, Red=Labour. Orange=Liberal Democrat, Yellow=SNP, Light green=Plaid Cymru
This electoral system is fairly majoritarian, and tends to favour the two largest parties. The Liberal Democrats have had a consistent parliamentary presence, but their vote share has been consistently below their seat share. This goes for the other political parties, including the Greens. It also happens for the SNP and Plaid Cymru, but given that they are regionally based parties, they do better.

There have been proposals to replace the system with a more proportional one. The Electoral Reform Society has put forward proposals to replace FPTP with the Single Transferable Vote, a system already in use in Scottish local government and Northern Irish regional and local elections. As part of the coalition agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, a referendum took place on introducing the Alternative Vote; while the proposal led in the polls in the lead-up to the campaign, a Conservative-led fear campaign led to the proposal's defeat by a significant margin.

The electoral system is likely to have a significant impact on how the government is formed. In 2005, the Labour Party won a majority off just 35%, and it is possible that a majority government may be formed off a lower amount.

Another factor will be that the Labour Party is able to win more seats off fewer votes due to lower turnout in less well off safe Labour districts. This means that there is the possibility that the Labour Party can win a majority off a relatively small share of the vote.

Party prospects

Conservative Twitter account

The Conservatives have been accused of making overly harsh cuts to public services during their term in office, and generally trailed in the polls from early 2012 by significant amounts. During this period, they were not only losing votes to Labour, but also to the United Kingdom Independence Party; traditional eurosceptic Conservatives have been angered by Cameron's relatively conciliatory stance on Europe and immigration.

The Conservative opening party political broadcast (in the UK, TV political paid advertising is banned, and parties are given free airtime)

However, in recent months, Conservative polling has picked up, mostly at the expense of Labour. This may be due to somewhat more optimistic economic forecasts, or due to Labour losing support to the SNP. Nonetheless, it has made the 2015 election more competitive, and it looks unlikely at this point that either party will win by a significant margin.

Incumbent Prime Minister Cameron, the Conservative leader, is relatively popular personally. However, he has announced that he will not serve a second term as Prime Minister, providing reasonably fertile ground for a Labour campaign based around leadership candidate speculation


The Labour Party are likely to make gains at this election. The party has moved significantly to the left under the leadership of Ed Miliband, who defeated his brother David in a leadership ballot following the resignation of Gordon Brown after the 2010 election loss. The Labour Party led in the polls for a significant amount of time, but have recently dropped back.

One of the reasons that the forecast for Labour is looking less optimistic is the lack of support for Labour in Scotland. Traditionally a Labour heartland, the pro-independence Scottish National Party has increased their support significantly since the independence referendum in 2014, which, ironically, was a setback for the Scottish pro-independence community. This may be because the Labour Party has alienated their (not insubstantial) pro-independence wing by strongly backing the No campaign in the referendum.

However, Labour's task is not insurmountable. For a start, it is possible that they could deal with the SNP to form a government (the Conservatives are making hay with this, so their polling must be suggesting that it is unpopular). As discussed before, the Labour Party is able to win more seats with fewer votes, so that will work to their advantage. 

Miliband is not an especially popular leader, however. Opinion polls have put his approval rating consistently below 30%, and it looks unlikely that he is the main reason for his party's success.

Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats, a centrist liberal party, are going into the 2015 election with little chance of doing well. Five years of coalition with the Conservatives have dramatically reduced their support, and opinion polls have put them below both UKIP and the Greens. Leader Nick Clegg, who was the beneficiary of a polling boost going into the 2010 election, looks likely to lead the Liberal Democrats to an extremely poor result. Clegg's own seat of Sheffield Hallam is in peril, with opinion polls showing Labour ahead.

However, it looks unlikely that the Liberal Democrats will be wiped out. Incumbent MPs that have built up a personal profile might be able to hold their seats, and it looks likely that the Liberal Democrats will remain the largest nationwide party outside the Conservatives and Labour. Clegg is extremely unpopular, with opinion polls showing him to be the least popular UK party leader; however, he has been challenged for that title by Miliband several times.

United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)

UKIP are a right-wing populist anti-EU party, whose main policy is the removal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. They were formed from the Referendum Party, a party supporting a referendum on EU membership which contested the 1997 election. They are opposed to immigration, but are left of centre on economic issues.

The party has performed well in European Parliament elections, coming first (albeit with only 27% of the vote) in the 2014 elections. Despite this, they have been weak in general elections. In the last general election, under the leadership of former Conservative Lord Pearson, the party managed just 3%.

In the 2010 parliament, traditional Conservative (and Labour) voters have become disenchanted with what some see as an unaccountable and opaque European Union intent on removing Britain's powers. These voters have switched to UKIP. However, UKIP voters are spread across the UK, meaning that they will struggle to win many seats under single member plurality.

UKIP hold two seats in the Commons; both are hold by former Conservatives, who defected to UKIP, resigned, and won by-elections in their old seats. Mark Reckless, the UKIP member for Rochester and Strood, won with a 7.3% majority, while Douglas Carswell holds Clacton on a 35% majority. Both seats are in the traditionally conservative South of England. Given that these MPs are incumbents, these results are not strictly representative, but they do suggest that when looking at UKIP polls, it is important to look at regional results.

Scottish National Party

The Scottish National Party is a left-wing nationalist party founded in 1934, after the merger of two nationalist parties. The party's influence was marginal until the 1970s, when the discovery of oil in the North Sea led to an upsurge in support for Scottish independence. This led the Labour government to be forced to hold a referendum on the establishment of a Scottish government. While a majority voted for devolution, a turnout requirement meant that the referendum was lost. The devolution issue went on the back burner for a decade, but in 1997, the Labour Party was elected, and a referendum to implement a Scottish government was won.

The SNP came second in the first Scottish Parliament elections in 1999: well ahead of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, with around 28% of the vote. However, they did not repeat this success in the general election in 2001, with only 20% and 5 seats out of 72.

In the 2007 Scottish Parliament election, the SNP won the most seats: 47 seats to 46 for Labour. The party formed a minority administration with the support of the Greens. Despite this success, the SNP's performance in 2010 was lukewarm; only 6 seats.

The SNP's support in the Scottish Parliament hit a high in 2011, with the SNP winning 69 seats. This was the first overall majority for any Scottish party in the Scottish Parliament. Even that did not give the SNP's national polling a significant boost. 

However, the independence referendum seems to have polarised Scottish politics. Labour's strong campaign against independence has meant that pro-independence Labour voters seem to have switched to the SNP. The party has relatively consistent support across Scotland, meaning that it will be likely that the SNP will be the largest party in Scotland, and it is possible that they will enter a coalition with Labour.

The others

The Greens have been a relatively marginal influence in UK politics for a long time, but they won a record 15% in the 1989 European elections. The usage of single-member plurality for these elections meant that they won no seats, and they failed to repeat this success in the 1992 general election. However, they have improved their support recently, and Caroline Lucas, the former party leader, was elected to be the member for Brighton Pavillion. Their leader, the Australian Natalie Bennett, is reasonably popular, but it looks unlikely that the Greens will win many more seats.

The far-right British National Party received a boost in the 2009 European election, winning 2 seats. However, they did not repeat any of this in the 2010 General elections, winning just 1.9%. They lost their seats in the European elections, and look almost certain to do very poorly in the general elections.

George Galloway's Respect Party is a rather odd outfit. Galloway is a former Labour MP from Scotland, who was expelled from Labour in 2003 after making controversial statements about the Iraq War. He formed a new party, called Respect, and won the immigrant-dominated seat of Bethnal Green and Bow from Labour. He contested the seat of Poplar and Limehouse in 2010, but lost. He managed to win the seat of Bradford West in a 2012 by-election with a large swing. No polling has been done in this seat, so it is uncertain if Galloway will be elected, especially considering his controversial comments on Israel and Julian Assange.

Plaid Cymru is a centre-left Welsh nationalist party that supports independence for Wales. They are a significant presence in the Welsh parliament, but are weaker then the Scottish nationalists. They hold three seats in the Westminster parliament, and their polling shows that they have little chance of winning many more.

Overall picture.

It is still far too early to make any solid predictions about the UK election. However, if the polls are correct, a significant amount of votes will be cast for parties that will win few seats. This does not bode well for the future of the UK two-party system, and suggests that a switch to proportional representation may be possible.

However, it is too early to say whether this will happen. A change that large would require a referendum, and judging by the campaign waged against AV in 2011, that would be a hard referendum to win.

Nonetheless, this election is one of the closest, and one of the most interesting elections in UK history. I will be posting further on this election in the future, so please follow this blog for updates.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the read. Although I didn't absorb all, due to constant interruptions, silence is hard to find, it gave me a real insight into the UK system. Wondering now the value of our preferential system given the election results being similar. Powerful campaigning from all angles but very different politicing here. Different issues also. I'm dubious of regions who are wanting full sovereignty but I wish Scotland well in gaining more political control and voice. Their struggle is evident. Learnt a few words - excuse my ignorance 'devolution' and others I wouldn't be able to spell. But an interesting read and well supported with visuals for visual readers like me. It also generated a discussion between my husband and I, a few heated moment to boot, and a point he raised regarding the significance more broadly of UK's European Union membership.


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