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Too Many Parties? Governing Britain after the Election

By the time Gordon Brown, Britain’s former Labor prime minister, arrived at the school in Nottingham where he was scheduled to speak, he was an hour late and the audience had dwindled to 130 people. Brown’s message was “Don’t lose hope.” He said Nelson Mandela once told him of a painting called Hope that he had kept on the wall of his prison cell in South Africa. It showed a girl wearing a blindfold, sitting on a globe trying to play a harp with all its strings broken. “[Mandela] was saying, even in a situation that seems hopeless, there is always hope,” Brown told his audience. “The Labor movement was built on hope.”

Yet hope is much needed by both the main parties in the upcoming UK elections. Brown’s speech left the party faithful somewhat bemused because Labor expected to keep its parliamentary seats in Nottingham, the historic city in England’s East Midlands. It was in Brown’s native Scotland that his party faced its greatest danger. Opinion polls showed the Scottish National Party, the SNP, taking all but four of the 41 seats in Labor’s traditional stronghold—including the constituency Brown himself had represented at Westminster from the early 1980s until his retirement last year. 

The loss would cancel out the slight gains Labor was expected to make against Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives, leading pollsters to predict that the two main political parties would end up close to neck-and-neck. Furthermore, projections showed the Liberal Democrats losing up to half their current parliamentary strength, thus making a resumption of the current coalition with the Conservatives numerically impossible. 

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All of which explains why the May 7th election is enveloped in a fog of unpredictability like no other in recent British political history. The era in which “95 percent of the electorate votes for the two main parties, and 80 percent of the country turns out to vote” is long gone, says Joe Twyman, head of political and social research at the polling group YouGov, “but over the last parliament the change has been most pronounced.” 

And Philip Cowley, professor of politics at the University of Nottingham, describes the coming election as “the first in living memory where we expect the outcome to be as messy as it might be,” with the distinct possibility that “a combination of the first- and third-placed parties will not be able to form a coalition.”

Cowley’s point is that with contending candidates from eight parties—Conservatives, Labor, Liberal Democrats, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the SNP, the Greens, the Welsh party Plaid Cymru, and the Northern Ireland party Democratic Unionist—plus some fringe groups such as the anti-feminist Men and Boys Party, which pushes male rights, a fragmented result was inevitable, and a one-party absolute majority remained virtually out of the question. 

It’s a scenario in which the SNP, having lost the September referendum for Scottish independence, could become pivotal to what happens at Westminster. The party’s popularity has zoomed since the defeat, and pollsters predict that it could siphon off a combined 46 seats from Labor and the Liberal Democrats in Scotland to become indispensable to any coalition.

Some argue that the opinion polls don’t take into account the silent majority—the one that, for example, upset confident predictions that Scotland would choose independence. Also, says Richard Rose, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, in Scotland, the polls are “meaningless” in a close-run election because “seats in the House of Commons are awarded at the constituency level, not the national level.” It’s also worth remembering that Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system is stacked against smaller parties, and that the number of seats a party wins doesn’t reflect the global total of the votes it receives.

 

The elephants in the room this year are Nigel Farage’s UKIP on the right, and the Greens. UKIP has emerged as a national political force threatening both the Conservatives and Labor with its xenophobe campaign against immigrants from the rest of Europe and its opposition to British membership of the European Union as the mainspring of its support. In November 2014, UKIP shook the Conservatives by gaining a second House of Commons seat formerly held by a Tory. This one was in the cathedral town of Rochester. Cameron had made retaining it a personal challenge and campaigned there five times. Even so, there is some question how many seats UKIP could gain in the election, given the electoral system’s bias against small parties.

The phrase “hung parliament” is increasingly heard in political discussions, referring to a situation in which neither side wins an overall majority and whoever ends up trying to form a government has to rely on a formal or informal agreement of support from another party to govern. Depending on the circumstances, the ensuing negotiations could be lengthy and constitutionally challenging because, as Catherine Haddon, a fellow of the Institute for Government in London, told the Financial Times, “Most of the time it will be clear which party has lost the election even if it is not clear which has won.” Which is why one scholar suggests that a multi-party system calls for a redefinition of winning and losing. In the old system, “winning used to mean that you thumped the opposition,” she says. “But now the largest party may not be the one to provide the prime minister.”

None of which stopped the experts from focusing on possible combinations of seats that would produce a majority government after election day. According to the Guardian newspaper, a coalition consisting of Ed Miliband’s Labor and the SNP would have 322 seats—close, but still needing the support of a third party, possibly what will be left of the shrinking Liberal Democrats or the rising Greens. 

A political alliance of Cameron’s Conservatives, the SNP, and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats would have 347 seats, and therefore a secure parliamentary base. But Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP’s post-referendum leader, has ruled out a coalition with the Conservatives, while at the same time leaving the way open for a possible pairing with Labor.

There could be reservations on the Labor side, though, particularly because the SNP has raised questions about Britain’s nuclear policy. The Scottish party is unilateralist and opposed to nuclear weapons: Would the Labor Party risk alienating Britain’s relations with the United States and its other Western allies by agreeing to a change in the country’s nuclear defense policy as a price for the SNP’s political support? 

When Cameron was asked if he might negotiate with UKIP to form a government, he snapped indignantly, “We are the Conservative Party, we don’t do pacts and deals. We’ll be fighting all out for a win in the next election.” Given that he had already been forced to negotiate with his current coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, in 2010, the comment was little more than an outburst of frustration at the new and, to many, unwelcome reality in British politics that Farage’s party represents.

 

For years, politicians in the UK viewed with condescension the complex and often lengthy horse-trading between multiple parties that went into forming a government after elections in countries like Italy and Denmark. In the latter, no single party has won a parliament majority since 1919. But now, despite his bluster, Cameron is likely to have to jump through the same hoops if he wants to remain in power, and no one appreciates the irony more than the Europeans. “The increase in the number of parties [in England] reflects current changes in a society that is becoming more complex (in other words, more European) and finds it hard to identify with the rigid mechanisms of the past,” wrote political commentator Antonio Armellini in the Italian newspaper
Corriere della Sera. But the British are averse to change, he goes on to say, and it is too early to say whether, and in what way, the political system will change to adapt to these new priorities. 

Party leaders in Britain have seen the writing on the wall and know that political alliances loom in their future. But first, there is a campaign to wage. 

Cameron has a good narrative to sell on the economy, given Britain’s continuing recovery from the 2008 financial crisis. The debt is under control. Growth at 2.5 percent is the highest in Europe (and as high as in the United States), unemployment has fallen, and so has inflation. But while his coalition’s management of the economy is a strong campaign theme, it’s also a mixed message because Cameron warns of more austerity ahead, usually coded as “sound fiscal practice,” as in: “Your jobs, homes, the schools your children go to, the hospital you go to when you’re ill, the streets we live in, the very stuff that makes life worthwhile in our country, all things depend on sound public finances. If we fail to meet the national challenge, the writing is on the wall: more borrowing—and all the extra debt interest that brings.”

Labor focuses on improving the health-care service, which has suffered as a result of government spending cuts, and on education. When it comes to universities, Labor will not only cut university fees—Miliband has promised to reduce them from 9,000 pounds a year ($13,500) to 6,000 pounds ($9,000) but also increase support grants given to college students. 

Overshadowing these domestic concerns is Britain’s future in the European Union. Cameron has made a commitment to hold a national referendum in 2017 if he wins the election and has left little space for discussion. Observers say that Euroskepticism has grown among the Tories, and the referendum result is likely to be a very close call, not to mention a destabilizing factor in the EU. 

If Miliband is the next prime minister, he has said there would be no referendum because Britain’s exit from the European Union would be “a disaster.” As Peter Mandelson, a key figure in Tony Blair’s government and now a member of the House of Lords, put it, “Europe is too important an issue to be left to the mercy of the electorate.” But even Labor has its Euroskeptics, although in a minority, and they are disappointed with Miliband’s decision. 

In a year when Britain is marking the 50th anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill, the scores of events, including a service in the Houses of Parliament, are making the electorate aware that the two main political parties have leaders who can hardly be said to have the same heroic stature. Ed Miliband has had his detractors inside Labor since having defeated his more popular brother, David, for the party leadership. According to a recent poll, 44 percent of party supporters think he would make a bad prime minister. He has been called disorganized, distant, and is said to have difficulty getting along with people. 

David Cameron has engendered only tepid approval. His greatest challenge is that he has Boris Johnson, the popular mayor of London, snapping at his heels now that Johnson is standing for election in a so-called “safe seat” the Conservatives have held for the past 17 years. Many Tories regard Johnson as potentially more effective than Cameron—including Johnson himself—and the party is notoriously unsentimental when it comes to dealing with its leadership. 

The 2015 campaign is being described as the most “Americanized” ever because to reach younger voters and win their support the parties have copied Barack Obama’s extensive use of social media in his two successful presidential campaigns. Just as they were in the US presidential elections, Twitter and Facebook have become the favorite area for trading insults and doing other mischief. 

When Cameron tweeted a very serious-looking photo of himself holding a telephone in what Downing Street said was a conversation with President Obama about Russia and Ukraine, it was immediately parodied by several celebrities, including the actor Patrick Stewart, who was shown holding a box of sanitary wipes to his ear instead of a phone. In another image, a woman appeared to be talking into a banana.

In January, Conservatives tweeted a doctored photo of Miliband with Alex Salmond, the former SNP leader who led the failed Scottish independence bid, and Gerry Adams, the leader of the Irish party Sinn Fein, who was once said to have links to Irish terrorists, with the caption “Your worst nightmare just got even worse.” Labor’s retort was, “This is another example of how the Tories intend to fight this election in the gutter.” 

Labor brands the Conservatives as out of touch with the voters and responsible for the growing income inequality, calling them “posh”—a reference to the fact that both the prime minister and his financial minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, went to Eton. Taking a page out of the Obama playbook, Labor depicts itself as “caring,” although the Tories have tried to make competence the hallmark of the election by questioning Miliband’s fitness to lead. Liam Fox, a former chairman of the Conservative Party, said in Washington recently that Miliband was “uniquely unqualified to lead the country in a way I’ve never known in my 23 years in Parliament.” 

Miliband’s wife, Justine Thornton, a lawyer, predicts that the war in the social media will get worse as polling day nears. “I think over the next couple of months it’s going to get really vicious, really personal,” she said in an interview.

But probably not as vicious as it is likely to be for one or both leaders after the election. On the Monday following the May 7th polling, the 1922 Committee, the influential group of Tory back-benchers, is scheduled to hold its election postmortem, and it will be a day of reckoning for Cameron. If he failed to secure a commanding lead over Labor, his position as party leader would be in grave peril. The 1922 Committee has already privately signaled that another coalition with the Liberal Democrats would be unacceptable, even if it resulted in a governing majority numerically, seemingly leaving Cameron with two options—a clear victory or a minority government. In the case of a defeat for Miliband, the conventional wisdom is that the Labor Party is not likely to be very forgiving either. In either situation, the appointment of a new party leader is likely to be a priority over the process of creating a government out of an indecisive result. It could be a long summer for the Brits. 

Roland Flamini is a freelance journalist and former foreign correspondent and bureau chief for Time magazine in the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere.

 

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