After the Election: what now for the United Kingdom?

by frankbeswick

The United Kingdom is facing a challenging few years in which its existence as a political entity is at risk.

The recent general election has produced a Conservative majority government, but it does not command much affection, except from the minority who voted for it. The kingdom, already divided into four nations, seems to be dividing politically into nations with widely differing political philosophies; and the Liberal Democrats, who as members of the previous coalition government kept the excesses of the Conservative party under control, have been politically slaughtered at the polls, depriving the nation of their well-reasoned approach to politics. In the meantime various forms of nationalism are growing in strength, each with a vision of doing without their neighbours to go it alone into a wonderful tomorrow. All is not well.

Image courtesy of David Woolfenden

The Current State of Affairs

Friday May 8th, and the nation was awakening to a dream for some and a nightmare for others.Only two parties had done well in Thursday's general election. The Conservatives, who had been been the largest party in the previous coalition government, had enough seats to form a majority government without coalition. Lucky for them, as the only party in mainland Britain who would govern with them, the Liberal Democrats, had been massacred at the polls and reduced from fifty six seats to eight, losing many senior figures. The Scottish Nationalists were triumphant, as their election campaign, which focused not on independence, which Scots mainly do not want, but on an end to austerity economics, had captured fifty six out of fifty nine Scots seats. 

Labour, however, had had its worst election result for years. Part of the problem was that the Scots Nationalists had suggested that they might back Labour in a coalition, but English voters rightly feared that the resulting coalition would contain a nationalist party that has neither interest in England nor liking for the English and so were deterred from supporting Labour, even though the Labour leader had rejected coalition with the Scots Nationalists.But the moribund Labour party in Scotland, which had previously dominated the politics of the country, was destroyed at the polls by the more vigorous and more left wing Scots Nationalists, so Labour was squeezed in England and Scotland.

The United Kingdom Independence Party managed one seat, despite having fifteen percent of the votes. Likewise the Greens picked up one, while Northern Irish parties, which differ from those in Britain, divided up almost as usual between nationalists and unionists.  The Welsh Nationalists are unchanged in seat numbers.

But three party leaders have resigned: Ed Milliband of Labour, Nigel Farage of the United Kingdom Independence Party, and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, whose mistakes of political judgment were responsible for the party's woes, even though as deputy prime minister he was excellent. 

The Problems Facing the Country

The electoral system is cracking apart under pressures from the modern age and desperately needs reform, but the dominant party is prospering from a corrupt electoral system and constantly bleats excuses to maintain the status quo.

Here is the problem. The system is called first past the post. Suppose that seven parties stand in a constituency, and the one with the most votes receives twenty per cent. He/she wins. This means that the majority in a constituency do not elect the member of parliament that they want. The system arose in the middle ages, when electorates were small and  there were no political parties. It is now being used in a situation for which it was not designed. The argument is that it was designed to provide strong governments, but in fact it was not designed for anything at all other than to send members to parliament. 

Furthermore, it is producing statistical anomalies. Parties with small proportions of the national vote, but with strong representation in a local area can achieve a significant number of seats, whereas parties with greater numbers that are more widely spread across the country can achieve very little. United Kingdom Independence Party [UKIP] received fifteen  per cent of the vote gained one seat, the Liberal Democrats, whose vote merited fifty one seats, gained eight. The Greens were also under-represented, whereas the Scots Nationalists, who only stand in Scotland, were well-represented. This is probably inevitable with a national party, but it shows the defects of the electoral system.

Labour is as responsible as the Conservatives for refusal to change the electoral system, as when Blair took office in1997 he reneged on an offer to change it when he saw that there was no electoral advantage to him, so short term political benefit was preferred to the establishment of a representative electoral system. But there has been a price. There is a growing crisis of legitimacy, as people realize that the government has not a genuine mandate from the British people. How this will work out is unpredictable.

Problems of Representation

Not only does the electoral system need reforming, but the constitution needs reform. Currently, there are four nations, three of which enjoy their own parliaments: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They are a step down from the national parliament in Westminster. But England has no parliament of its own, its affairs being governed by the national parliament. Many English think this unacceptable , as it is, and as the Conservatives favour votes for English laws, some progress may be made, but not enough, and many Scots Nationalists object to the English enjoying the rights to self-determination that the Scots enjoy. They want to have a say in English affairs through the national parliament. Quite unfair!

Furthermore, there is the problem of the relationship with the European Union that must be dealt with. There has been growing pressure from UKIP for Britain to leave the EU, and they are using the social pressures caused by immigration to fuel their demand. The Conservatives object to the rights for workers that the EU imposes on the UK, which ther regard as unnecessary red tape, and wish to return Britain to a state in which workers' rights are minimized. Hence they are attempting to renegotiate the terms of the UK's membership. They want to re-establish controls on immigration and the right of European migrants to claim benefits, and are putting their re-negotiation to a referendum in 2017. Too further their ambitions for a capitalist utopia they are busily abolishing the bill of rights, in favour of a British bill, which would end the rights of European courts to overrule British courts. However, the issue will impact  on pro-EU Scotland, which will demand another independence referendum if the UK withdraws from the EU. Joined up thinking is needed, Prime Minister Cameron, please!

But the representation problems worsen with the fact that the four nations each seem to be more and more voting for different parties. Scotland is quite left wing and is dominated by nationalists. Welsh nationalism is weak, and Wales is still dominated by the Labour Party; England votes Conservative, mainly in the South, though the North is more Labour; and Northen Irish politics is still shaped by the Republican-unionist opposition. 

The Future

Serious attention needs to be paid to the constitutional issues in the UK, and the party with the greatest interest in these issues and the most ideas has been marginalized and reduced to a rump. For now. There is a serious need for a major constitutional convention that will take as much time as needs to come up with the right answer. All four countries need to take a full part in it, and the smaller political entities, the Isle of Man and the Channel Isles, which are linked to the UK through the crown but are not part of the UK, should be participants on an equal basis.The Irish should be welcome as observers,in keeping with the new spirit of peace between the two isles. 

A change in the political culture is needed. Let's face it the party which I support, the Liberal Democrats, are seriously damaged, though we will claw our way back and have gained five thousand new members since the election, people who appreciated our role in holding back the Conservatives' extremism while we were in coalition. But it will be a long road, but the salvation of political liberalism and the belief that justice and freedom are not opposed to each other are too important for us to give up on. So the burden will fall on the Labour Party. But this party needs to get its act together, as it has a longstanding reputation for spending money that it does not have when in government. It is also quite nervous of Britain's plutocratic elite, and seems fearful of annoying them, so it taxes, but does nothing to change the power structure in economic relations. Thus many people of left wing persuasion are led to lose confidence in Labour and seek other parties. Labour is also prone to political correctness, which a growing number of Britons want to be rid of. 

The Greens' manifesto had wonderful ideas, but they had not costed any of them. This attractive political movement needs to grow up and get real before it can translate its wonderful vision into action.

What the country needs is a great deal of political thought and a deeper level of political education. This must be down to the press, whose responsibility to educate its readers must be taken seriously. True writers will always challenge status and power and will work for an enlightened readership. It is what I want to do on Wizzley.

Updated: 05/12/2015, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 05/12/2015

The metaphor of a giant deck of cards is very apt, and so far I am unaware of anyone who has used it before you. So thanks for your contribution to British political language!

CruiseReady on 05/11/2015

WOW! What a mess you all have on your hands in the UK. It's difficult for an American to understand, but your article does help. Seems like its a giant deck of cards that's reshuffled completely with each new election, and perhaps some cards fall away and get lost.
You point out that lack of education of the part of the electorate is a problem there, and we see that here, too, in a big way.

frankbeswick on 05/11/2015

Thanks Mira. I am concerned over the quality of political debate in the country, and that's reflected in the poor quality media coverage.

Only two days ago I spoke to a woman who said that she blamed the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives, as that meant that we could not deliver our promises, but without coalition we would not have been able to deliver any promises. As it is we were the smaller party in the coalition and managed to deliver some major promises. One vitally important one was raising the level at which people begin paying tax. This reform has helped hundreds of thousands of ordinary people keep more of their earnings.

frankbeswick on 05/11/2015

Than you for your comment. I don't do many political articles and was nervous about their quality.

Mira on 05/11/2015

I watched this news on BBC and CNN but didn't get much out of their analyses. I found your article much more informative, and am glad I took the time to read it (and you the time to write it). Great piece.

jptanabe on 05/11/2015

Thank you for an excellent analysis of the current political situation in the UK! As someone born and raised in Scotland but living in the US it's often confusing if not downright impossible to keep track of what's really happening.

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