Foreign Elections: The United Kingdom

Despite what some Republicans say (and apparently think), there are limits to U.S. power.  While the U.S. has the largest economy and the largest military, the U.S. simply does not have enough troops to intervene in every crisis in the world.  Similarly, there are numerous ways for countries to minimize the effect of U.S. economic sanctions.  Any significant international effort by the U.S. requires help from our allies.  However, for the most part, our allies are democracies which means that how their voters feel about U.S. proposals matters more than what the U.S. wants.  What happens in the elections in our allies matter.    This upcoming week (on May 7), voters in the United Kingdom will be voting in parliamentary elections.  As things stand with one week to go, we may be looking at another close race that could handicap the ability of the United Kingdom to commit to any major U.S. initiative.

From the U.S. perspective, the past several decades have seen politics in the United Kingdom become more “Americanized” and not necessarily in a good way.    Even before recent changes in U.K. election law, the concept that United Kingdom elections were shorter than U.S. elections was more fiction than reality.

Traditionally, there were two significant differences between the U.S. and the U.K.  The first was (and to some extent still is) that the selection of candidates in the U.K. is by party leadership.  In the U.K., local party leadership (with some input from the national party) select the candidates who will run for parliament.   Without a primary, candidates are not officially filing eight or nine months before the election and there is no extended primary campaign.  Instead, the process of “pre-selecting” candidates for parliament takes place quietly, at different times for different parties and different seats, with no public appeals to voters.  Traditionally, leadership elections were also short things with the vote limited to a party’s membership in parliament (similar to congressional leadership elections in the U.S.)  That has changed somewhat with the two major parties (Conservative and Labour) both giving a role to their national conventions.  Even with this change, leadership selection takes place far enough ahead of the election (normally right after the last election) that the leadership selection is not viewed as part of the campaign.

The other major difference was that, traditionally, there was no set date for the next election.  The maximum term of the parliament was five years, but the prime minister could call an election at any time.  While there was a general understanding that (excluding cases in which a party had a slim majority or no majority) it was bad form to call an election before near the end of the fourth year, a prime minister could go early if the news was good hold on for the full five years hoping for the news to get better.  After the 2010 election, however, the current parliament passed new laws establishing a fixed-term for parliament.  Now, an early election can only be held if the government loses a “no-confidence” vote (but only if no new government can be formed) or by a two-thirds vote (which should almost never happen unless somebody misreads the likely results of an early election).   With everybody knowing the election date since mid-2010, parties have been able to target an election timetable for their campaign.   The “formal” campaign (approximately 40-50 days) does not technically begin until parliament dissolves and the very brief filing period begins.  But the parties can plan events in the informal campaign to build momentum into the formal campaign period, similar to the way things happen in the U.S.

Another big change in the U.K. has been the growth of leadership debates.  Unlike in the U.S., where the “third” parties never get to participate.  In this year’s elections, seven parties got the opportunity to participate.

Now for the nitty-gritty of what is likely to happen on Thursday.  A crucial fact of U.K. politics is implicit in the formal name of the country.  While most people refer to the U.K. as Britain or England, the official name is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  The U.K. has four major constituent parts (or nations as they like to think of themselves):  Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and England.  Each of these four parts has distinctive politics, and those politics are going to influence the vote.  Before looking at each of the parts, a brief aside about the issues.  There are three major issues in this election:  1) the relationship between the U.K. government and the separate parts; 2) the U.K.’s participation in the European Union; and 3) budget issues (like most of Europe and the U.S., the U.K. has had some austerity policies aimed at reducing the deficit).

Northern Ireland is the smallest of the four parts.  It only became part of the U.K. in 1800 (along with the rest of Ireland).  When the rest of Ireland became independent, Northern Ireland remained in the U.K.  This fact drives politics in Northern Ireland.  In the rest of Ireland, Northern Ireland is often referred to as the “Six Counties” (implicitly connecting those counties to the 26 counties that became the Republic of Ireland).  Many protestant residents of Northern Ireland refer to Northern Ireland as Ulster (reflecting the fact that Northern Ireland represents approximately two-thirds of what was the province/kingdom of Ulster).  Northern Ireland has 18 seats total.   For the most part, Northern Irish politics represent the continuation of a bitter, sometime violent, struggle between mostly Catholic nationalists/republicans who want to rejoin the rest of Ireland and most protestant unionists who want to stay in the U.K.  Because of this division, Northern Irish politics are domination by local parties.  Until recently, the major British parties did not run candidates in Northern Ireland (although that changed in 2010 when the Ulster Unionists Party joined the Conservative Party — a new separate Ulster Unionist Party has now formed).  At the present time, the largest single party in Northern Ireland is the Democratic Unionist Party.  The DUP used to be the second protestant party behind the UUP, but many protestants thought that the UUP gave away too much in the negotiations with the Catholics that led to the restoration of local autonomy in the 1990s.  Since that time the DUP has been the main protestant party, winning eight seats in the last election.  Something similar happened on the Catholic side, with Sinn Fein (the political wing of the Irish Republican Army) replacing the Social Democratic Labour Party (which tends to support the British Labour Party) as the main Catholic party.  In the last election, Sinn Fein won five seats to three for the SDLP.  Because Sinn Fein refuses to take the required oath of loyalty to the Queen, Sinn Fein has never taken any of the seats that they have won over the year (effectively reducing the size of Parliament).  In the last election, one seat was won by the Alliance Party (loosely affiliated with the British Liberal Democrats), and one seat was won by a former member of the Ulster Unionists running as an independent.

Wales is the next largest nation, having 40 seats in Parliament.  The major “union” parties (Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Labour, United Kingdom Independence, and Green) all run in Wales (as well as Scotland and England) but Wales has a nationalist party — Plaid Cymru.  The Plaid (like the Scottish Nationalists) are a leftist party.  In the last, Welsh Assembly election, the Plaid finished third with about 18 percent of the vote.  Generally, Wales tends to support Labour.  In the last election, Labour won 26 seats to 8 for the Conservatives to 3 each for the LibDems and the Plaid.

Scotland with 59 seats is the big question mark in this election.  Unlike the Plaid, the SNP is the majority party in the Scottish Parliament, building up credibility with Scottish voters.  More significantly, Scotland had an independence referendum in 2014.  While independence lost, it got 45% of the voter, and the unionist parties promised to give more power to the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament.  In the last election, Labour won 41 seats (on 42%), the LibDems won 11 seats (on 19%), the SNP won 6 seats (on 20%) and the Conservatives won 1 seat (on 17%).  Current polls suggest that the SNP may get close to 50% of the vote with Labour down to around 25%.  If this happens, the SNP would probably win over 50 seats and the LibDems and Conservatives would be wiped out in Scotland.  More significantly, Labour’s losses in Scotland would make it very difficult for Labour to get to a majority.

England has the lion’s share of the seats at stake on Thursday — 533.  Generally speaking, Labour has traditionally done better in the northern parts of England and in the urban areas with the Conservatives dominating in the rural/suburban areas along with the southern part of England.  The Liberal Democrats have traditionally had certain seats where they did well.  At the last election, the LibDems got 24% of the vote in England (winning 43 seats in England).  However, even though the LibDems were viewed as similar to Labour, they opted to join the Conservatives in a coalition government.  The result has been a collapse of LibDem support.  Aside from hostility at the current government which works to the advantage of Labour and the Greens, the relationship between the national government and the parts and the relationship with the U.K. reads differently in England than in Scotland and Wales.  There is no English Parliament.  Many in England are upset that Scottish and Welsh and Northern Irish MP get to vote on laws that only apply to England.  Whether to create an English Parliament or regional assemblies for the different parts of England remains under discussion.  In addition, the English are particular bothered by the loss of power from the U.K. Parliament to the European Union.  UKIP (which wants to leave the EU) have gained significant support in England.  (Scotland and Wales like the U.K. being in the EU because they will need to be part of the EU if they ever declare independence).

Right now polls are showing a tight race.  If you take the most optimistic of the current polls (from the perspective of Labour and UKIP), Labour would finish first with 306 seats compared to 248 for the Conservatives, 54 for the SNP, 17 for the Lib Dems, 3 for the Plaid, 2 for UKIP, and 1 for the Greens (adding in the LibDems and the Greens would put Labour at 324, a de facto majority without any support from the SNP or the Plaid).   On the other hand, using the numbers that look best for the Conservatives and the SNP would result in the Conservatives winning 301 seats to 252 for Labour, 58 for the SNP, 17 for the LibDems, 3 for the Plaid, 1 for the Greens and 0 for UKIP (despite getting the third most votes overall).  Under the optimistic numbers for the Conservatives, they could probably form a coalition with the LibDems and the DUP.  (The UKIP’s problem is the problem of all third parties in a first-past-the-post system — it is better to be competitive in a handful of seats with little support elsewhere than to be a solid but distant third everywhere.)  Both parties really need to find some hidden pocket of support (perhaps in the form of tactical voting in  a few close districts,  The best polls for the Conservatives require them to gain 1% at Labour’s expense to get to 323.  The best polls for Labour require them to gain 2% at the Conservatives expense to get to 323.

The reality is that, barring a surprise, neither the Conservatives (with DUP help) nor Labour (with SDLP help) will get to 323.  That means either a formal coalition with the LibDems (who are not big fans of the U.K. committing resources and troops in aid of U.S. initiatives)  or a minority government dependent upon SNP support on major legislation (again an almost guarantee of the defeat of any measure to aid a U.S. initiative).

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