Reflections on the 2015 UK General Election

First of all, I must say I am deeply disappointed with the results. Not because the Conservatives managed to win a majority of the seats, but because any party was able to do that! I was truly looking forward to a very messy hung parliament; days, if not weeks, of talks and negotiations between the various parties; and a chance to see the provisions of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act come into play. Alas, that is not to be.

I — like most viewers I would imagine — was incredibly surprised by the exit poll results announced as soon as the polls closed. Not so much by the forecast that the Tories would be the largest party — that I had expected, but by how many seats both Labour and especially the Liberal Democrats were set to lose (and did).

The Lib Dems paid a steep price for their brave decision to go into a coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. It’s common knowledge that coalition government takes a greater toll on the junior partner. The Lib Dems endured five years of abuse for their decision and ironically, once the results were in, it didn’t take long for a number of columnists to write tribute pieces pointing out how much of a contribution the party had made and how history would judge them and Nick Clegg far more favourably than had voters. (Some examples: this piece by James Kirkup, this one by Helen Lewis, or this by Harry Phibbs.) Small consolation for the party after such a resounding defeat at the polls.

And speaking of polls… I will leave the discussion and analysis of why the polls were so far off to others. I will only comment briefly on a few of the theories put forward. One attributed part of the problem to the fact that a large number of voters quite literally decided how they were going to vote only once they had the ballot paper in their hand. I have to say that when polls were being discussed during the campaign (and before), I rarely saw any numbers for undecided voters. I know that in Canada, the undecided feature rather prominently — particularly when it’s a significant percentage. The British media rarely mentioned them. Another theory put forward was the “shy Tory” factor — quite simply, people too embarrassed to admit that they planned to vote for the Conservatives.

However, another important factor appears to be “lazy Labour” voters. Or should that be “lazy Labour” non-voters. It turns out that Labour’s support was strongest among young people (18-30), and — unsurprisingly — they simply did not bother to vote.

Of course, this election, like the one in 2010, has renewed calls for electoral reform. While I fully sympathize with those who would like a more proportional system, I do get annoyed with how they present the “realities” of FPTP. For example, a number of sites have produced graphs purporting to illustrate how many votes it took to elect an MP from each party, such as this one:

Source: Daily Mail
Source: Daily Mail

As I’ve explained in many other posts, under FPTP, it makes no sense to collate a national total of the electoral support for each party because it is not one national election, but rather (in the case of the UK) 650 individual constituency elections. Consequently, it did not take 3,881,129 votes to elect the single UKIP MP, it took 16,206 — one vote more than the candidate in 2nd place received (16,205). The UKIP candidate did better than that, mind you; he received 19,642 votes — well ahead of the second place candidate. In all of the other constituencies in which UKIP ran candidates, those candidates failed to win enough votes to win those seats. Others point out the unfairness of UKIP receiving over 12% of the total vote and winning one seat while the hapless Lib Dems received only 7.9% of the vote and won 8 seats or the Scottish Nationalist Party received  4.7% of the vote and won 56 seats. Again, the national vote percentages don’t mean anything when it comes to FPTP (especially in the case of the SNP since they ran candidates only in Scotland). The Liberal Democrats won 8 seats because their candidates won the most votes in those 8 constituencies. The SNP won 56 seats because they finished first in 56 constituencies. I’m not saying FPTP is a good system for a multi-party democracy, I’m simply objecting to attempts to apply nationally what only matters at the constituency level.

Finally, while the Conservatives may have a majority, it is a very small one, ranging from 6 to 11, depending on how you want to calculate it.1 While a Canadian political party would be able to make such a small majority work because of our iron-clad party discipline, the situation is very different in the UK. The new Conservative Whip has apparently warned Tory MPs that attendance at votes is mandatory, but even if they do all show up, that doesn’t mean they’ll all necessarily vote the way the party leadership wants them to. The previous parliament was the most rebellious of the post-war era, but a lot of that was due to the Coalition government. Many Tory backbenchers felt far less loyalty to the Coalition than they would have to a Conservative government. They will probably be less rebellious in this parliament, and more importantly, they will also have far more influence over the party leadership in this parliament. Don’t forget that it takes only 12% of the Tory caucus to bring about a confidence vote in the party leader — that means 40 Conservative MPs unhappy with how the party leadership is governing could force a confidence vote in David Cameron. Cameron has already launched a charm offensive, and backbenchers have already issued a warning over defence cuts, so a slim majority is no guarantee of success. On top of that, the Cameron government will have to deal with a House of Lords where the Conservatives aren’t in the majority, and the 100+ Liberal Democrat peers will no longer be government whipped. Plus, his majority may well get smaller as the parliament progresses due to by-election losses. This is likely to be an interesting parliament, even with a single-party majority government in place.

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1There are 650 MPs in the UK House of Commons, meaning 326 is a 1-seat majority. However, the Northern Ireland Sinn Fein party elected 4 MPs, but they never take their seats because they refuse to swear an oath to the Queen, which reduces the “magic number” for a majority to 323. Also, the Speaker and the two Deputy Speakers don’t vote, so that further reduces the number needed for a majority.

 

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