- The British general elections on May 7 are likely to yield an extended impasse, with lengthy coalition negotiations ultimately producing a weak government.
- Regional parties will be the main winners of this process, increasing their influence in Westminster. But these parties will divide British politics, as they will focus primarily on improving the positions of their regional electorate.
- This divisiveness will not last long however; the dysfunctional election will make it clear that the British electoral system is no longer suitable. Electoral reform and a shift to a more proportional voting system will be the result.
For the second election in a row, the Labour Party and the Conservatives (or "Tories"), the two traditional heavyweights, probably will not muster the 323 seats needed to form a majority government. Whereas in 2010 the Tories were able to form a reasonably stable coalition government with the centrist Liberal Democrats, this time the numbers do not seem to support a two-party coalition.
The person most likely to be smiling after the election results are revealed is Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the secessionist Scottish National Party — not just because disorder in Westminster strengthens her party, but also because her party looks set to increase its seat count from six to 53, with pollsters predicting a landslide in Scotland. By contrast, UKIP, another newly influential insurgent party with ambitions to extract the United Kingdom from the European Union, looks set to win just one seat. This is a meager haul, considering that UKIP already holds two seats thanks to mid-term steals from the Tories, and 11 percent of British voters claim they intend to vote UKIP.
To understand why these two movements look set to perform so differently, and where British politics is heading, it is necessary to first understand the British electoral system as it is at this moment.
The Limitations of First Past the Post
British elections, like those of many of its former colonies such as India and the United States, runs on a first-past-the-post system, in contrast to the more fashionable proportional voting system preferred by many European nations. Under first past the post, politicians compete for individual seats around the country, and at the end of the vote the party that has won the most total seats is judged to have won the election. Under proportional voting, the electorate votes for their favored party, and when the votes are counted the seats are then apportioned to each party based on how many votes they received.
The upshot of the first-past-the-post system is that a niche party is unlikely to win influence in government, since in order to gain sufficient seats it would need to be the dominant party in several constituencies. In a proportional voting system, such a party would find that its presence in government would rise as its popularity increased, even if that support was scattered around the country. As a result, first past the post is best suited to turning out strong majority governments from a two-party system, while proportional voting systems tend to be more multilateral, where coalitions are the norm.
In the British case, first past the post has largely done its job, normally producing alternating strong governments from the long-running duel between the Tories and the Liberals, and then the Tories and Labour after the latter party emerged in the 20th century. It has also frustrated insurgent parties — a famous example being the Social Democrat Party that, in an alliance with the Liberal Democrats in the 1987 elections, managed to amass 22.6 percent of the vote and win just 3 percent of the seats. However, with two main parties reliably gaining the lion's share of the vote, this did not seem to affect the system's function or effectiveness.
However, the 2010 election rang some warning bells. It brought about the United Kingdom's first hung parliament — where no party is able to form a majority — since World War II, and it spoke to deeper currents at work.
During the last seven years, the United Kingdom has seen the growth of three forces in its electorate, the first giving rise to the second two. First, there has been a growing sense of disillusion with the establishment in general, part of a wider European trend. But a wide-reaching parliamentary expenses scandal that began in 2009 exacerbated this disillusionment. Second, voters have begun to wonder whether they cannot govern themselves more effectively than the politicians in Westminster, increasing a sense of regionalism in British politics. Political autonomy concessions granted by former Prime Minister Tony Blair's government at the end of the last century have bolstered this trend. Third, there has been an increased perception, rooted in a large immigrant wave from Poland in 2004, that immigration is to blame for the country's ills.
The Rise of Regionalism
The regionalist urge has been felt most strongly north of the Scottish border, and it came to a head in September 2014 with the independence referendum. Even though the "No" vote ultimately won with 55 percent, the Scottish National Party's membership subsequently quadrupled to 100,000, and some polls have the nationalists sweeping all the seats in Scotland. Herein lies the catch with first past the post: It might keep insurgent parties at bay when they are based on ideology, but it struggles to contain a party that is specifically tied to a region with highly concentrated supporters in the manner of the Scottish National Party.
Consequently, the Scottish National Party is positioned to become the third most influential party in the new government with just 4 percent of the overall vote. Meanwhile, UKIP, which is surfing an anti-immigration wave, looks set to find its winnings limited to a handful of seats (at most) off the support of a considerably larger section of the electorate.
In its newfound position of influence within Westminster, the Scottish National Party will no doubt set about doing its best to represent Scotland's interests. These include the support of the Barnett Formula, a controversial temporary convention from the 1970s that has been neither reversed nor made into law. The formula calls for more public money being spent on Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales than on the United Kingdom's English citizens.
Also on the agenda will be further transfer of powers to Scotland's own parliament in Holyrood, and there will be added pressure to remove the United Kingdom's nuclear deterrent from Scottish soil. The big question — that of a rerun of the referendum — will be put on the back burner for now, since low oil prices have made many of Scotland's financial independence plans untenable. However, if and when oil prices return to previous levels, the clamor for a new referendum will surely be deafening.
The Scottish National Party's equivalents in Northern Ireland and Wales — the Democratic Unionist Party and Plaid Cymru, respectively — have not experienced the same popularity surge as the Scottish party. However, their traditionally few seats will carry considerably more weight this time around because of Tory and Labour weakness, since the latter two parties will be seeking all the support they can get. As a result, for the first time since Irish Home Rule was granted in 1920, British political parties will be motivated primarily by regional concerns, gaining influence over the British government. This development is a recipe for increased division within the union.
However, this state of affairs is unlikely to persist for long. Neither of the main parties look capable of forming the stable majority that the first-past-the-post system is designed to produce. It will soon become obvious to all that the electoral system is no longer suited to the new United Kingdom, in which the Tories, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, UKIP, the Greens and various regional parties all have a claim to some form of representation in government.
In 2011, the British public voted against changing the electoral system to alternative vote, in which the voter ranks the candidates in order of preference. Such a change would have been a clear step toward proportional voting. With Britain having just suffered its first hung parliament in 70 years, and with 2010 coalition talks lasting a mere five days, the drawbacks of the existing system seemed manageable.
This time, six parties are involved, 34 percent of voters are likely to vote for a party outside the main two, coalition talks probably will last much longer than five days, and any deal is likely to result in a weak and unstable government.
These conditions are likely to change the thinking about the current British electoral system. Electoral reform will be undertaken, shifting the British system to something more closely resembling its European neighbors'. As a result, the Scottish National Party and other regional parties will find their newfound influence on Westminster to be short-lived. But as one door closes, another opens, and a proportional voting system would usher in new opportunities for UKIP and any future parties built upon a similar model to gain a substantial foothold in British politics. Whatever the case, the future looks increasingly bleak for the United Kingdom's establishment parties.