Dr. Gene Frankland
Ball State University
Since 1945 British general elections produced majority governments by either the Conservative party or Labour party until 2010. That year the Conservatives finished first, but fell short of a majority in the House of Commons. They formed a coalition with the third place Liberal Democrats and were able to form a government. Political observers differed on whether the outcome was just an “anomaly” or marked an historical turn toward the continental pattern of multiparty coalition governments. In recent decades small parties have tended to win more seats in British elections, especially at the regional and European levels.
The polls during late April-early May 2015 indicated that the Conservatives and Labour were running neck-and-neck while small parties were making inroads within the electorate. There appeared a strong possibility that neither big party would emerge with a majority of seats (326) in the House of Commons. It had not been a particularly inspiring or enlightening campaign, but media speculation about coalition options or minority governments was lively. Exit polls on May 7 came as a shock: the Conservatives would finish well ahead of Labour and be within reach of an absolute majority. Even American electoral analyst Nate Silver, who had predicted correctly the outcome for all 50 states in the 2012 U.S. Presidential election, had missed by a mile! Final results were: Conservatives 331 seats, Labour 232, Liberal Democrats 8, Scottish National Party [SNP] 56, Welsh nationalists [Plaid Cymru] 3, UK Independence Party [UKIP] 1, Green Party 1, Northern Irish parties 17, and one independent. Turnout was 66.1 percent (compared to 54.8 percent in the 2012 U.S. Presidential election).
Why were the pollsters and pundits so wrong? One explanation is the same one used regarding the failure of the polls to get right the 1992 UK general election outcome: there were a sizeable number of “shy” Conservatives, who would not admit their actual preference. Second, there was a last minute surge of voters to the Conservatives due to an “endowment” or “status quo” effect. In other words, swing voters feared that a Labour victory would jeopardize the gains so far from a recovering economy under David Cameron’s Conservatives and had little confidence in the economic competence of the Labour leader Ed Miliband. This unease was compounded by fears about a post-election alliance of Labour with the independence-minded SNP, which furthermore had espoused leftist themes during the campaign. Finally, there were technical flaws in the sampling strategy of the pollsters and as a result they ended up with unrepresentative samples. Thus, Labour votes had been overestimated and Conservative votes underestimated throughout the campaign.
The polls since 2011 had indicated that the Liberal Democrats were not benefitting from being the junior partner of the austerity-oriented Conservatives, and were likely to take a hit in the election. The boost that Liberal Democratic candidates hoped for from being well attuned to local issues did not materialize. The Liberal Democrats lost seats to Conservatives, Labour, and the SNP. Only eight Lib Dems were elected to the Commons (-49), far worse than projected by the polls.
The SNP did not fade after the failure of the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014; in fact, it quadrupled its membership to 100,000 and found a new star to lead the party, Nicola Sturgeon. The SNP (which only runs candidates in Scotland) was expected to do well, but its performance on May 7 exceeded expectations: SNP 56 seats, Labour 1, Conservative 1, and Liberal Democrats 1. Labour was all but wiped out in one of its traditional strongholds. The British “first-past- the-post” or single member plurality electoral system works in favor of the two major parties, but it also favors a small party with geographically concentrated support. The SNP won 4.7 percent of the total votes (56 seats) while the Liberal Democrats, whose support is nationally diffuse, won 7.9 percent of the votes (8 seats). If the election had occurred under a “pure” PR (proportional representation) electoral system like in the Netherlands, the top four parties would have ended up: Conservatives 239 seats, Labour 198, Liberal Democrats 51, and the SNP 31. Such an outcome would have necessitated negotiations, including smaller parties, to form a multiparty coalition.
In terms of votes won, the performances of a couple of small parties are noteworthy. The populist rightwing UKIP party, which favors British exit from the European Union and takes a hard line against immigration, won 12.6 percent of votes (+9.5 compared to 2010); the environmentalist Green Party won 3.8 percent (+2.8). With a PR system, the UKIP would have won 82 seats and the Greens 24 seats and both would have been likely participants in coalition negotiations. But under the first-past-the-post system (FPTP), each won only one seat!
What are implications of the 2015 election for British politics and government? First, Cameron has won a second term as prime minister without needing a coalition partner. However, his Conservative majority is a small one, and he confronts intraparty strife, especially regarding the question of British membership in the EU on which he has promised a referendum by 2017. On the other hand, Cameron’s way is clear for pursuing Conservative “neo-liberal” economic objectives such as: reducing taxes, privatizing public services, cutting social spending, and reforming public education.
Second, in an effective sense, Scotland now has its own party system with the SNP as the predominant party. Tactically it is in Cameron’s interest to devolve economic powers to the SNP-run regional government forcing it to make unpopular decisions before the Scottish parliamentary elections in 2016.
Third, Labour and the Liberal Democrats face major challenges of renewal. In the case of the Liberal Democrats, it is likely to take a generation. However, it is not all doom and gloom for Labour. Despite the debacle in Scotland, Labour increased its share of the national vote to 30.4 percent (+1.5) while the Conservative party’s share, 36.9 percent, increased less (+0.8). Furthermore there were pockets in the North East and London that shifted to the left while the rest of England went to the right. The Labour left seeks to renew the party’s links to British civil society while the Labour center wants to bring back pro-business Blairism. The party will need to sort out where it stands and rally around fresh leadership.
Finally, one can conclude that the 2015 election will go down in the history books not only because of the surprise majority for the Conservatives and the stunning victory of the SNP, but also because of the continuing shift toward a multi-party system in the UK. This time its FPTP system just barely produced a majority for the Conservatives while one-third of potential voters did not turn out and one-third of those who did, voted for neither the Conservatives nor Labour. At some point this trend will raise a question of “legitimacy” for British parliamentary democracy and put electoral reform back on the public agenda.