It’s Friday night here in Japan and I have better things to do with my time than political punditry, but I’m very interested in the shock results coming in from the UK general election. It appears that, against the flow of two years of opinion polls, the conservative party (the Tories) have not just held on to their hung parliament, but may have actually seized enough seats to rule in their own right. If they don’t get those seats it looks likely that they’ll be able to rule with the help of either just UKIP or just the Democratic Unionist Party.
It’s too early to tell but it looks to me like Tory gains have come primarily at the expense of the Liberal Democrats, who have been (deservedly, in my opinion) slaughtered at the ballet box, with the Guardian at this point in the count suggesting only 8 seats remain – down from 53. Another three might cling on, but even the best case scenario is a disaster.
The obvious dark horse in this race was the Scottish National Party, which took Scotland from Labour – they gained 50 seats, almost all of which were from Labour, and have basically ejected Labour from the North. This would not, however, by itself have been enough to prevent Labour from governing, if they had been able to get enough seats by themselves to form a majority with SNP support. Labour leader Milliband (immorally, in my view) refused to enter a coalition with the SNP, but he could have changed his mind on that had he seized enough seats in his own right. And this is where Labour failed – they couldn’t take seats back from the Tories south of Scotland, and this election, obviously, was a referendum on the performance of the ruling coalition. This coalition is very unpopular, but they only suffered (at this early stage) a 0.44% swing against them to Labour, indicating a dismal failure to punish the Tories for their unpopularity at the ballot box.
I think this is possibly because of the spoiling role that the UK Independence Party (UKIP) have played in many Labour seats. According to the Guardian, UKIP issued a statement that said
In many constituencies we are the opposition, on behalf of working class voters who have been neglected and taken for granted for decades. This is true of both Northern England where we are the opposition to Labour and in Southern England where we are the opposition to the Conservatives.
We’ve provided hope and truth for the electorate and driven the political agenda.
In Britain’s first past-the-post system, it’s possible that the spoiling role of UKIP in conservative seats was not enough to win Labour the vote, or that it was equally spread between the two parties, so Labour couldn’t capitalize on Tory unpopularity. Did UKIP cost Labour the chance to lead?
Of course this question would be moot if the UK had a functioning electoral system, with preference allocation, held on a Saturday. More working people would have come out to the vote, and those UKIP votes would have flowed back to the party they defected from. But the ruling parties have both resolutely refused to consider electoral reform. This election shows in stark detail the consequences of continuing with the UK’s flawed electoral system: it benefits regional parties, which both major parties have claimed don’t have Britain’s interests at heart, but worse still it disenfranchises a huge proportion of the electorate. Between them UKIP and the Greens won 16% of the vote but hold 2 seats out of 650; while the Scottish National Party won just 5% of the vote and hold 50 seats. This is because the SNP is a holdout from the time of local politics, while UKIP and the Greens are parties of national opinion – broad movements across the whole country, connected not through local constituencies but through national issues. In a system like Australia these parties would gain significant representation in the Senate, where they are nationally representative – but the UK “Senate,” the House of Lords, is unelected and the ruling parties have refused to give UKIP and the Greens seats in the Lords consistent with their vote share. In a system like New Zealands, these parties would gain some representation through lower house lists – but the UK ruling parties refuse to countenance any change to first-past-the-post systems.
Essentially the UK ruling parties want to cling to a system that dates back to the 19th century, when politics was by necessity local, or the immediate post-war era when politics was strictly defined on class lines and classes were strictly segregated by region and area. Labour thrived under this system 50 years ago as the party of the industrial north, and the Tories as the party of the landed gentry; residual class barriers and geographic prejudices mean they can maintain this benefit for the short term, but at a huge cost to the political aspirations of a large minority of the country. You may not like UKIP or Green politics, but their voters have a right to be heard; you may like SNP politics, but that doesn’t mean they deserve representation in parliament well beyond their ultimately very localized base. Yet this is the result of the current system in the UK.
I hope that the sudden surge in the SNP presence in parliament will get the major parties to finally seriously think about electoral reform. If they don’t do something about it, then at some point in the future the conservative vote will collapse, as always happens in the electoral cycle, and the country will find itself being ruled by a coalition of labour unions and Scottish nationalists. If the conservatives care at all for the future of their country they will look on that prospect with genuine fear, and start working on real electoral reform. Or not … given that if they do UKIP will eat them from the right.
Oh the horrors of being a British voter …