The Bright Coast

Progressive Thoughts from San Diego Alums on Law, Politics, and Culture

Red, Blue, or Yellow in the UK?

Posted by demkid on April 29, 2010

Next Thursday, voters in the UK go to the polls to elect 650 Members of Parliament, who will serve in the House of Commons.  This vote comes almost 5 years to the day of the previous election that saw the Labour Party win for a third consecutive time, albeit with a reduced overall majority.  This year, things are looking even bleaker for Labour, who are now the third party in most polls, behind the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.  However, there is hope that Gordon Brown’s party can maintain the largest number of seats in a “hung parliament,” and still hold onto key leadership positions next month.  I’ve been learning quite a bit recently about the election process in the UK, the key players involved, each party’s chances, etc., and it’s all been quite fascinating, especially for a political junkie like myself.  Elections across the pond certainly aren’t the same as elections in the States, particularly when one compares the length of the entire campaign (about a month in the UK vs. well over a year in the US).  However, there are important similarities, and certain aspects of the American process are even being mimicked over there.  First, let’s explore what this “hung parliament” is all about:

Now, according to Wikipedia, “a hung parliament is one in which no political party has an outright majority of seats.” That’s fairly normal in Germany, Italy, and the Republic of Ireland. But a hung parliament is a rarity in the United Kingdom.

The most recently elected hung parliament in the United Kingdom followed the February 1974 general election, and it lasted until the October election that year.

Many Americans, who grew up in a system of checks and balances, may not think that a hung parliament sounds like such a bad thing. But the British, who expect their government to be able to actually do things, are repelled by the very notion.

If voters in the UK are, in fact, “repelled” by the notion of a hung parliament, this will clearly favor the Conservatives, who are ahead in the polls.  There is very little chance that the Liberal Democrats, by far the smallest of the three major parties, will be able to gain enough MPs to have an outright majority of seats.  A lot of this has to do with how the electoral system in the UK is structured, and it has been a big issue in the recent Leaders’ Debates.  As in federal elections in the United States, the system for Westminster elections is first-past-the-post, that is, the candidate who gets the most votes in their individual constituency wins, regardless of whether or not they gain an outright majority (over 50%).  In a competitive 3-party system as the UK has now, first-past-the-post arguably discriminates against smaller parties (in this case, the Liberal Democrats), who don’t have the same resources as the larger parties to compete in every constituency.  As an example, the Lib Dems got 22% of the popular vote in 2005, but gained only 9% of the seats in Parliament.  Interestingly enough, the Lib Dems are likely hoping for a hung parliament, as they would then be the party to build a coalition with one of the other two main parties.  A hung parliament would also lead to a larger discussion of election reform, with may result in a different electoral system being used in future UK elections.  The Lib Dems, for instance, advocate a Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, where several constituencies are combined and voters rank the candidates.  Members are elected once they pass a certain number of votes, known as a quota.  Labour favors a system called the Alternative Vote (AV), which wouldn’t be as drastic a change as STV, but would serve to bring more legitimization into UK politics, because MPs would have to get over 50% of the vote.  For a great discussion of the various systems, and how each would affect the current Parliament make-up, see the BBC News page, here.  The BBC also has a great Election Seat Calculator, which attempts to show how seats would change in a new parliament based on percentage shares of votes, but see fivethirtyeight.com’s Labour Danger: Uniform Swing Calculations May Underestimate Risk to Incumbents.

As I mentioned, the Brits seem to be borrowing certain aspects of the U.S. electoral process this time around:

First, the Brits staged televised debates among the leaders of the three parties. “This abject submission to American-style politics turns British traditions upside-down and inside-out,” warned the newspaper.

Next, the Brits adopted the “Yankee innovation of instant ‘dial groups.'” So, “no sooner had the candidates ceased speaking than kibitzers in a TV studio concluded that the indisputable winner was the heretofore little-known leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg,” wrote The Boston Globe.

The New England newspaper worried that “Britain’s parliamentary system is being subverted. Thanks to practices borrowed from American presidential campaigns, a two-party race has become a three-party affair and instead of choosing a stodgy party, as they are accustomed to doing, British citizens are being asked to vote for a charismatic prime minister.”

I’ve watched two of the Leaders’ Debates, and I actually found them much more appealing than the dull presidential debates over here.  I think the thing that’s really made them work has been the interaction between the candidates.  For each question (either from the moderator or a member of the audience), each party leader was given a chance to respond, and then each had the opportunity to make a further response on that question or to something one of his opponents had said, in the same order.  The moderator generally stayed out of the discussion, and let the candidates challenge (or attempt to challenge) each other.  If there was a particular time limit for each response, I clearly wasn’t aware of it, either because the candidates were so good about keeping to the time, or it wasn’t as strict as we see here, where the moderator always seems to be cutting the candidates short.  It looks like these debates have clearly helped the Lib Dems, who have a very likable leader in Nick Clegg, and the also youngish David Cameron has also performed particularly well.  I do think that they can do without the dial/focus groups, however.

With the election now a week away and with the debates now over, we’re into the home stretch.  It looks as if Labour is in serious trouble, especially after Gordon Brown called a retired dinner lady he had talked to a “bigot,” not realizing he had a microphone on.  We’ll just have to see how well the Lib Dems can do, and if they take more votes away from Labour, or from the Conservatives.  There’s some great analysis (as per usual) by Nick Silver where he looks at various forecast models, some of which that show the Conservatives either very close to, or gaining, an overall majority in Parliament.  However, the current fivethirtyeight projection has the Conservatives at 299 seats, still 27 short of that magic number.  It’s difficult to imagine this election turning out well for Labour, but let’s hope they do just well enough (along with a strong showing by the Lib Dems) to keep the Tories from a majority.

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