Currently living in America makes it a challenge to follow the general election happening in my homeland in anything close to real-time. Apart from living in a relatively self involved continent which has its own electoral obsessions, not being able to read every paper or watch and listen to as many media outlets as possible has meant I have a time-delay on debates, policy announcements and anything interesting. This means I end up boring American friends who have no real personal investment in this election, assuming that my excitement and interest is just because I happen to come from there. Whilst this is true, this election is looking to be very different and objectively exciting (if you’re not from the UK please watch this ever so slightly patronizing guide to our electoral system by the BBC).
The overwhelming probability of this upcoming election is that no one will win an overwhelming majority. This, David Cameron and the conservative party have insinuated that this will lead to a chaotic political landscape and that this will be a bad thing. I will contest that the only way anything will ever change for the better in the UK will be a period of political chaos forcing the hand of political actors toward structural change.
If nothing especially exciting happens in the next three weeks the parliamentary dynamics of the UK are probably going to look something like this:
To do some brief electoral maths; Whilst the Conservatives would be the largest party by six seats the fact that the SNP-Plaid Cymru Westminster alliance has explicitly stated they would support a Labour government vote-by-vote brings a potential voting block of 322; 4 votes short of an overall majority which, once you take Sinn Fein’s almost certain absenteeism into account that block becomes 1 vote short. Add this to potential SDLP and the Green Party support if properly bought with the right legislation would make a potential voting majority of 326. This is as opposed to the a potential Conservative led coalition comprising the Liberal Democrats, the DUP, UKIP and the UUP, which using probable results adds up to around 317. Meaning that despite leading the largest party David Cameron is unlikely to get back into Downing Street. Whilst this isn’t uncommon in other European countries this has literally never happened in the history of British politics.
It was a desire to avoid this exact scenario that lead Nick Clegg and David Cameron to come together last time around. The prospect of a ‘constitutional crisis‘ looms in the background of this election, (for the benefit of foreigners I should point out that we don’t have one of those fancy written constitutions, we have a long series of precedent and statute, making the idea of a ‘constitution’ in British politics much more abstract and fluid than the average state) this is all made more ‘dire’ by the existence of the fixed parliament act. This act, introduced in 2011 ended 400ish years of executive privilege to call elections at will. This means that whatever combination of MPs we end up with on May 8th – barring some kind of mass resignation – will stay there, more or less, until 2020. This means that, if the result currently projected are slightly different, or the various parties decide to organise themselves into different combinations or – for some reason – no one wants to work with anyone initially; we cannot simply have another election if no one gets along, they have to get along. This will force the all to long ignored issue of Britain’s antiquated parliamentary system, meaning we will actually have to reform instead of holding an ill-informed, half-hearted referendum about one aspect of the system, we will have to reform almost everything. If you’re a reform minded Briton I recommend you hope for this result, as the last time anyone had both the mandate and the power to reform anything in the UK; Tony Blair made the house of lords less hereditary and called it a day. Sadly as a people, we don’t tend to change anything unless we absolutely have to. Incidentally, a parliamentary free for all would have the added benefit of making the Daily Telegraph reading contingent of Parliament fluster with rage as the fact that they’re the largest single party lies flaccid in the face of a progressive anti-tory coalition.
That by the way is a worst case scenario. I mentioned what I think is the best case scenario in a previous blog post; That being a progressive, Celtic orientated coalition. This could ultimately change, not simply the austerity driven policies of the last five years but the balance of power in the United Kingdom as a whole. Whilst the way we send MPs to Westminster may not change at all, autonomy to the nations and regions are exponentially more likely to increase with the SNP and Plaid Cymru selling support to a Minority Labour Government. Whatever the combination of MPs the UK wakes up with on May 8th; I believe we have in front of us, gradual move to normalizing coalition governments or a chaotic parliamentary flux that will ultimately lead to a better form of government. Either way, I recommend we all embrace the chaos; it will certainly be interesting.
Addendum: Around ten hours after writing this, Sinn Fein did something they haven’t done for about a century and decided to actively participate in this general election, bringing the number of seats needed back up to 326 and putting another party into the mix.