Monday, April 12, 2010

U.K. Election Preview I

I don't believe I've ever posted before on an election in the United Kingdom (the one of Great Britain and Northern Ireland), but that's just because there hasn't been an interesting national election there in over 15 years.

I would make an analogy between Britain's electoral politics and ours, on the one hand, and cricket and baseball, on the other: the common pattern is that our games, both the political one and the ball-and-bat one, come from the same roots as the Brits' but have evolved differently over the centuries.

To push it a bit too far, cricket made the connection with me one day laid up in a hotel room in Delhi with "the belly"; it was a test match, and the hitter was parrying the thrown offerings, just like a batter fouling off pitches. Similarly, we can use our understanding of American politics to try to get some perspective on the British elections.

Like in the US, the British are struggling to recover from the economic crisis; also there, credit markets froze and business activity tumbled. Like the US in '08,
there is widespread fatigue with the governing party and longing for a change. And, like our political environment in this year, neither of the two major parties has inspired much confidence; as I believe we will see here this year, neither can seal the deal, so there will be much uncertainty as the polls open.

That's about as far as I can take it, though. The British election campaign lasts exactly one month (how I envy them!); unlike this year's US midterm elections, in which the game will be to get interest and turnout, the May 6 balloting in the U.K. will be a general election with everything at stake, and previews of the campaign agree that the key will be televised debates with the party leaders. Another difference is that over there it's the "left" party which has overstayed its welcome.

The largest difference--apart from minor things like traditions, parliamentary government and a monarchical head of state--is that there is a major third party in the U.K., a viable alternative for those dissatisfied with both of the major contenders for governance, Labour and Conservative. The Liberal Democrats are a party with a long tradition themselves (as the Liberal party), they have plenty of talent on offer, and they may well find themselves in a decisive role after the elections. To some extent, while their policies are similar to Labour's on many issues, and not necessarily closer to the Conservatives' than Labour's, they find themselves occupying a position attractive to moderates turned off by the partisan divide.

The Conservatives, under their most effective leadership in decades with David Cameron, held large leads in national polls until recently. Now, though, it seems the electorate is having second thoughts about going back to the party of Margaret Thatcher and to the agents of big capital (even if Cameron has done a great job of giving 19th-century political thought a 21st-century brand). Since Tony Blair left the leadership to Gordon Brown, though, New Labour's New Clothes have looked very flimsy, too authoritarian, controlling everything but not necessarily so effectively. While voters choose among candidates seeking pluralities in local elections, all voters will be aware that behind their choice is the question of the next leader of the national government.

Labour's victories in the last three general elections have been so decisive that they could form majorities in Parliament and governments just from their own membership. The outgoing House of Commons has 349 Labour members (of 650 total), 210 Conservatives, and 62 Liberal Democrats (the other 29 are from minor parties, primarily regAional-based ones in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, or independents). Labour is expected to lose seats; the question is how many (once again, like the US). While it is possible that Labour could retain a majority, or even that the Conservatives could defeat them so decisively that they would be able to gain a majority and form a government, the more likely outcomes are ones in which neither party can get 325 members elected in Commons.

In the event of a hung Parliament, some form of coalition or alliance will be required. Traditionally, the party which gets the most seats in Commons will get first shot at forming a government. If the Conservatives are leading and close to a majority they might be able to put together a shaky government with a few odds and ends, but a combination with the Liberal Democrats appears unlikely (and one with Labour, impossible).

An interactive tool which I found fun and instructive was included in the Guardian's coverage. This "swingometer" allows you to shift voters from the last election (uniformly) in any direction--towards one party from both the others, or towards two from the third, any amount of swing up to 10%. As you do so, some of the 650 boxes--one for each Commons seat--shift color, indicating a change in the party winning the seat.

Most of them don't change, though. One can shift the view to looking just at the seats which had narrower margins last time, the swing seats. One thing that is interesting is that there appear to be few seats that are closely contested among all three parties, but there are ones close between each of the two-way matchups. It's impossible, though, to get the LibDems past 100 seats, though it is possible to get very dramatic swings toward either Labour or Conservative majorities.

After some play, I came up with the outcome that looks like my prediction: a 4% shift from Labour, split about evenly toward the Conservatives and LibDems. The result in seats won favors the Conservatives a lot more--Conservatives +40 and Liberal Democrats +7--but the resulting totals would still favor a Labour/LibDem government: Labour 300, Conservatives 250, Liberal Democrats 69.

I'll attempt another post before the May 6 elections, attempting to distinguish between the policies, and the flavor, of the three major parties. The key thing we should try to understand is why there is a stable three-party system there, how its dynamics play out in this critical environment of a close contest, and, yes, why that can't happen here. Or can it?

1 comment:

Chin Shih Tang said...

The first televised debate was held last Thursday (even as I was preparing the above posting), and, though it wasn't too clear to the talking heads watching it, it was clear to the voters that the winner was Liberal Democratic party leader Nick Clegg.

Clegg is, like David Cameron, young and dynamic-looking, but he is selling something other than the "same old-same old" of the two leading parties. At least, that's what he's saying, and that's what the voters are hearing.

As a result, the Lib Dems' numbers have shot up, to the point where their overall projected vote is very close to Labour's (and just behind the Conservatives). Still, though, as I indicated in the post, their number of seats will lag far behind, and the current projections are that Labour may get the greatest number of seats even if it finishes third!