12 May 2010

The British election (2)

Anyone who has been following this story at all now knows that the Conservative party has formed a governing coalition with the Liberal Democrats. What I will focus on here is some of the less-widely-reported aspects of the outcome.

Despite its name, the Conservative party has little in common with the US Republicans (some info on British political parties here) or even with its own Thatcherite incarnation of decades past. In fact, Cameron now finds himself in a position much like Obama did in January 2009. His predecessor left an utter mess — a recession, out-of-control spending, a huge budget deficit, involvement in an unpopular overseas war, and a profoundly-unpopular policy of tolerance for high immigration. Cameron, however, also has the problem of Britain’s enmeshment in the EU — he’s not his own boss to the extent that Obama is. And unlike Obama, who took office with his party holding large majorities in Congress, Cameron's party does not quite have a majority in Parliament (hence the need for the coalition).

So wish him luck. He's going to need it.

The LibDems' demands reportedly include abolishing one of the more bizarre (to American eyes) features of the British system -- the fact that elections are held not at fixed regular intervals but whenever the Prime Minister chooses to hold them. Cameron may have hoped he could call another election in a few months and perhaps win an absolute majority. If he agrees to this change, he will no longer have that option. The LibDems also want changes in the electoral system which would, in practice, make it difficult for any one party to ever again get an absolute majority in Parliament -- meaning that the LibDems would regularly become king-makers, as small parties in countries like Israel or Italy commonly are.

What about the two smaller parties I mentioned before? Here's a table of the popular vote (scroll down a bit) compared with the previous national election in 2005. The UKIP (nationalist, anti-EU) increased its vote share only from 2.3% to 3.1% of the total, a disappointing outcome. This probably reflects the fact that, in a close election, most people did not want to waste their votes on a protest. If Cameron fails to deliver clear change from the previous Labour government, his party may lose more votes to the UKIP next time -- people are more likely to protest-vote if they see no meaningful difference between major parties.

The BNP (racist, with fascist leanings) increased its vote share from 0.7% to 1.9%, almost three times as large. In absolute terms its 1.2% gain was larger than that of any other party except the Conservatives themselves. However, 1.9% is still not large, and the BNP seems to judge the result a disappointment.

Neither the UKIP nor the BNP won any Parliament seats (here's a list of parties with seats). The Greens and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists showed no significant gains in the popular vote.

All in all, it's a guardedly-positive result. The worst possibility (a BNP breakthrough) and second-worst (Labour retaining power) were averted. Like the US 16 months ago, Britain now has better leadership -- and a daunting amount of work to do to recover from its previous government's foolishness.


Anonymous Ross said...

With the minor parties, particularly the BNP, the increase in support is due mostly to them standing candidates in more constituencies than in 2005, not an increase in support.

12 May, 2010 12:15  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Ross: Good point. In the case of the BNP that's somewhat alarming since it implies that that 1.9% is lower than the support they actually have (that is, there were people who would have voted BNP but couldn't because no BNP candidate was standing in their constituency).

12 May, 2010 12:27  
Anonymous Ross said...

Yes, although as they stand in the constituencies where their support is largest, any increase in votes wouldn't be vast.

12 May, 2010 13:40  
Blogger Green Eagle said...

Having lived in England, I learned to try not to view English politics through an American lens, where everything comes down to whether people can be made to fall once again for Republican treachery and lies.

I think there was tremendous anger from the Labour party's constituency because of Tony Blair's kissing up to Bush. As in many countries, the British public held this in check while their troops were at risk, but now, in uncertain economic times, the weak, uncharismatic Gordon Brown has paid the price. I am a firm Labour party supporter, but I am afraid they bought and paid for this victory.

12 May, 2010 17:05  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

There has also been defection because of the Labour party's support for high immigration -- hence the shift to the BNP (many people in Britain do not realize that the BNP is racist and fascist as well as anti-immigration). As in the US, it's mostly the working class that suffers from high immigration, and the wealthy that benefit from it.

12 May, 2010 17:11  
Blogger magpie said...

Britain has a first-past-the-post system. This is what allows a third party to become a king maker.

We also have elections at the time of the PM's choosing, but we have a preferential system where secondary choices are counted until an absolute majority - 50% plus 1 of the total formal votes cast - is determined. This avoids a scenario equivalent to what has just happened in the UK.

13 May, 2010 02:04  
Blogger Karen said...

Hubby said for years the Brits have the best parliamentary system of government that seems to work better than ours.

13 May, 2010 09:07  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I've always liked the idea of a preferential system, but I worry that a lot of people would find it hard to understand and would be suspicious of it.

Every system has its positives and negatives. Personally I like our two-party system because it ensures that groups need to compromise and work within one of the two parties if they want to gain any power.

13 May, 2010 09:53  

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