Countdown to Crisis: the looming electoral problems in the United Kingdom

by frankbeswick

In the coming general election due in May no party is likely to have a majority, but the Scots Nationalists might hold the balance of power.

The British electoral system is an antiquated mess. The first past the post voting system allowed parties with large majorities in some areas to win seats, whereas parties whose support was more widely spread suffered. So under Thatcher the Conservatives held more than 60% of the seats on at most 43 percent of the votes, while the Liberal Democrats with about fifteen percent nationwide did not have anything like fifteen per cent of the seats. Labour and Conservative both conspired to preserve an antiquated, unjust system, as both parties hoped to benefit from the injustice. But now the party system is fragmenting, and the electoral system is about to lose all credibility. Only two months to electoral crisis.

Image courtesy of David Young 11111

The System

The United Kingdom is ruled from the parliament at Westminster, which is a city within the massive city of London.This parliament makes laws that affect the whole nation and deals with specifically English matters, a source for contention, as I will show. There are national assemblies/parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that deal with issues pertaining only to their countries, but England has no parliament of its own, which means that Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish members of parliament can vote on English matters while English MPs cannot vote on the equivalent matters in those three nations. 

The first ministers of these countries run their governments, rather like state governors in the USA. But over them all the prime minister, who runs the national Westminster government, and he/she is responsible to the monarch. 

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The Parties

David Cameron, the UK's prime minister, will go down in history for a blunder of monstrous proportions that could precipitate a constitutional crisis. When he made a coalition with the reformist party, the Liberal Democrats, he refused a plebiscite on all but the simplest and most inadequate form of electoral reform, whereas the Lib Dems had asked for full proportional representation. Cameron opposed the change and the Lib Dems lost, so we kept the system as it is. First past the post is the system in which the candidate with the largest number of votes in a constituency wins, but that causes problems because in multi-party elections you can win with under fifty per cent of the votes, often significantly under. The trouble is that first past the post works if you only have two significant parties, with three it struggles, but now the party system has proliferated. We have a range of parties contesting the election with an electoral system designed for two.

How did this come about? In the thirteenth century when first past the post was instituted, there were no parties and each constituency elected an independent. But hundreds of years have elapsed,the franchise has expanded to the whole population, parties have risen and fallen, but first past the post clung on because it was in the vested interest of two parties. Thatcher clung on to it with spurious justifications. Not only did she refuse to make any change, uttering the peremptory no that was her  trademark, she even had the impertinence to tell the Europeans that they should adopt our defective British way of holding elections. 

So what's the problem? We now have the following parties all contesting the general election: 

Conservative [Tory] slightly in the lead at present, but tend to represent the rich.

Labour, slightly behind behind, but with a leader lacking credibility, especially in Labour's Scottish heartland.

Liberal Democrats, much behind. They are currently junior partners in the coalition, but have been responsible for major reforms to the tax system. But at eight per cent of the vote disaster is looming.

United Kingdom Independence Party. [UKIP] On fifteen  percent. Wants Britain out of Europe, you know blame the immigrants for your problems. 

Greens: Five percent. Great policies, but a leader not up to the job. 

Then there are the nationalists: Welsh and Scottish. The Welsh are small in number, but the Scots could win a large number of seats in Scotland at Labour's expense. They would make no coalition with the Conservatives, the Lib Dems would make no coalition with them, but there is talk of a coalition with Labour; and this is getting England incensed.

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The Problem

At the recent referendum when Scotland voted to remain with the UK the English were happy with the result, but many of us, including me, wanted England to have what the Scots had, our own parliament to make decisions on purely English matters. It is only fair, and Cameron expressed support for some devolution to England, in which purely English issues could only be voted on by English members of parliament, and there were many Conservatives who backed him. The Liberal Democrats, ever a party of constitutional reform, were in favour of a full parliament for England, the only one of the four nations not to have its own parliament. But Ed Milliband, Labour leader, objected and demurred that the issue could wait. Why this injustice? Well, Labour draws much of its electoral support from Scotland, so if  parliament lost the Scots' vote, Labour could not govern England, as English mps are predominantly Conservative. So to hold on to power in England Milliband would have to use Scots. This is displeasing to the English sense of justice, and an unjustly treated nation is smouldering with resentment.

But the issue worsens. Labour is now heading for electoral melt down in Scotland, with the nationalists poised for  big majority of the seats. This means that we could have a Labour/Scots Nationalist coalition running the country. But since devolution the Scots Nationalists in the Westminster parliament, that deals with national issues and all issues pertaining to England, have had a gentleman's agreement with parliament to abstain from voting on purely English matters. But the new leader of the Scots Nationalists. Nicola Sturgeon, is ready to obtain power by tearing up the agreement. This will mean that England is ruled by a nationalist party that is only interested in the well being of England's northern neighbour, and a Labour party that is prepared to sacrifice England's interests for power. We face the possible situation that the secretary of state for education responsible for England's schools being a nationalist who cares nothing for England's children. This is a grave injustice, and there are demands on Milliband to rule out coalition with the Nationalists. 

But UKIP are on fifteen per cent of the vote and could cause quite a few electoral upsets; the Greens are rising, though their leader does not have much credibility after a poor showing in an interview; and the result of the election has become totally unpredictable.We could have a situation where no member of parliament is elected with more than fifty per cent of the vote, and then the whole credibility of parliament  will be in question. With a parliament of dubious credibility and coalition in which one party is only interested in Scotland's concerns, there is a recipe for unrest. 


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What Sort of Politics

The nation is in a situation where there is a clash between philosophical and tribal politics. Several parties have broad governing philosophies. The Conservatives are supporters of the free market, though they vary between moderate to hard right. Labour is a socialist/social democrat party that has a taste for state control but has lost its nerve and now concentrates on moderating capitalism. The Liberal Democrats, who tend to attract many bright people,  are what they say, committed to the philosophy of liberalism. But they are not riding high in the polls and are struggling to hold on to seats. The Greens vary between liberal leaning who are closer to the Lib Dems, and left leaning, who are closer to the harder kinds of socialism. 

But while each of these is committed to a philosophy the nationalists and UKIP tap a different vein of political spirit. What we have is tribal politics. The Scots and Welsh nationalists are a retreat from a wider nation into the original tribes, or what they think were the original tribes, as Britain was far more complicated in the past, fragmented into different nations. UKIP is not an English nationalist party, as it aims to represent Britain, but Scots and Welsh show little interest, so it seems to be degenerating into English nationalism. Scots nationalism, though, has an authoritarian streak drawn from socialism, as its policies are consistently left. 

UKIP would take the UK out of Europe, retreating into a "happy" isolation from our nearest neighbours, where we can keep out immigrants and live happily ever after. 

The people of the UK must decided whether they want a philosophical style of politics, and decided which philosophy they want, or whether they want to retreat into tribal style isolation.


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We cannot know the result of the election in May, but there are strong demands  that Labour rules out an England-and-Wales betraying deal with the Scottish nationalists. There has even been  a suggestion that to avoid this situation there be a national government composed of Conservatives and Labour, traditional foes whose remit would be to organize a  constitutional convention to sort out the anachronistic constitution of Britain once and for all. It would be only in office long enough to implement this convention and an agreed agenda. It is uncertain how this would be taken by the parties.

However, there are pitfalls for the Scottish Nationalists. Presume that they enter coalition with Labour and later get their wish to separate. They would be leaving a neighbour whose people have built up a head of resentment against nationalist interference in English affairs. An angry resentful England may not be disposed to be nice to its northern neighbour. At a time when the nationalist promise of a future floating on oil wealth is evaporating, as the North Sea wells close down, this may prove a disaster to Scotland.There may be secessionist tendencies in Orkney and Shetland, both of which archipelagos voted against independence with great  majorities, and they might claim much of the remaining oil, which is in their territory. I suspect that after losing the referendum  the Scots Nationalists would like the rest of the UK to expel them. But there is an old Jewish proverb, "Be careful what you wish for. You might get it."

Updated: 03/09/2015, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 03/12/2015

Thanks. In Britain there is a wider sense of Britishness, but there are some nationalists who only think of their own little nation and have no concern for others in the union.

WriterArtist on 03/12/2015

@frankbeswick - For the past elections barring the present elected government, the elections gave rise to a coalition government. In India, this could not function adequately because the regional parties blackmailed and threatened to exit for any trivial matter.

Such government could not take decisions because of lack of support from the members of other parties. In absence of a clear direction, there were hardly any reforms. This coalition party had many internal quarrels and all the time they were busy solving internal issues. India is a country with diverse culture and there are many groups who think only about their state in contrast to the country as a whole.

frankbeswick on 03/09/2015

Thanks, the pair of you. I was not aware of these problems in your countries. I believe in coalition government, and we have one in the UK at the moment. But I insist that the only parties who should be eligible for a role in the government of a multi-nation union of smaller countries, which is what the UK is, are parties which believe in the union and care for all its peoples. This is why I repudiate coalition with any nationalist party, as they are only concerned for their sectional interest and not for the people as a whole.

By the way, honesty makes me reveal that I am a member of the Liberal Democrat party. We have nothing at all in common with any nationalists. We are an internationalist, pro-European party.

Sheri_Oz on 03/09/2015

Israel has the same problem as well. We inherited a party-system that just doesn't work anymore, yet the elected officials are reluctant to change the electoral system because it will mean they will have to work harder to get elected.

WriterArtist on 03/09/2015

India is infected with the same problems. With many regional parties fighting for the election, a clear verdict and a majority win becomes difficult. The electoral system needs to be refined, in the absence of an open and focused agenda, the politicians as always polarizing nation and votes.

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