09 May 2015

On the surprise UK general election result

So the results are in and a surprise small Conservative majority appears to be the situation. An inquiry is being planned into why the result was so different to the pre-election opinion polls, and why no-one saw it coming. Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage have all stepped down as leaders of their respective parties. Russell Brand has admitted that maybe he didn't have all or indeed any of the answers. Here's a few thoughts on the implications of the result.

This was a proportional representation election carried out under a first past the post system. Or to put it another way, the electorate is hugely fragmented and every party is either over-represented or under-represented substantially. This means, as many people have pointed out, that the electoral system that Westminster has clung to is not fit for purpose. Held up by its supporters in the two main parties (who naturally have the most glaring vested interest in advancing their own party's cause) as providing clear majorities for the largest party, I'd argue that despite yesterday's result first past the post has now handed the UK two elections in a row without a workable long-term majority.

The argument is therefore even clearer than before in favour of meaningful electoral reform in the UK to bring in a system of proportional representation. (Even Nigel Farage says so). The risible 2011 referendum on Alternative Vote was never going to deliver proper reform, which is exactly why the Conservatives forced it on their hapless Liberal Democrat coalition partners. Here's what the 2015 election result would have looked like under PR, and what's striking from these projections is that not just some but all of the main parties are receiving representation that is substantially out of whack. This is grossly unfair to voters. Both the Conservatives and Labour are gifted more seats than their support merits, although this effect is far more pronounced for the Conservatives, who received 36.9 percent of the vote but garnered 50.9 percent of the seats in the Commons. The SNP are also substantially over-represented due to their sweeping of the Scottish electorates. Both UKIP and the Greens return only one member, which means that their combined voices of five million British voters are represented by a mere two MPs. It's like the rotten boroughs of old.

The Conservatives, against all predictions, gained seats in 2015 - but this doesn't mean they have a sweeping mandate for continued reform. Their share of the vote increased by half a point over their 2010 result to a total of 36.9 percent - but that is a long way from 50 percent. The hard right will want to use the next parliamentary term to press on with hard-line policies in case they are not returned to office in 2020 (assuming the Conservatives retain the support of a majority of the House for that long). But given the thinness of Conservative support across the UK it would be foolish to adopt a hard-right strategy.

In one sense, Rupert Murdoch was right. Despite being a cartoonishly evil meddling tycoon puppet-master of the far right, Murdoch's tweet that the nearly four million voters who cast their ballots for the anti-Europe, anti-immigration, thinly-veiled racism of UKIP need to be heeded is, sadly, correct. The party has a mere one MP (Douglas Carswell in Clacton) but if the UKIP vote is combined with that of the Conservatives that is an enormous right-of-centre voting bloc. (Some left-of-centre voters do cast their votes for Farage's UKIIP, however). Over the next few years the UK may see a situation akin to the 1993-96 term in New Zealand before the first MMP election, during which members elected under first past the post decided to jump ship to parties that were closer to their own reactionary political views. The pressure will be immense for far-right Conservative backbenchers to defect to UKIP and soak up the love from those four million largely unrepresented voters. The Conservative majority may not last.

With this in mind, David Cameron should consider the New Zealand approach to coalition-building and provide himself a little security by - against all predictions - retaining the coalition with the Lib Dems. The Conservatives might not need those eight extra votes now, but at some point in the next few years they are likely to. And gifting a minor portfolio to the Lib Dems (or, with a spot of wishful thinking, a referendum on proper proportional representation) would be an ideal insurance policy, allowing the public opposition to the Conservative government to be diluted into a broader anti-Coalition sentiment.

Labour, unsurprisingly, elected the wrong leader - and perhaps even the wrong Miliband. The party seems to have been in denial about what was needed to win a popular vote. The polls suggesting a dead heat between the Conservatives and Labour may not have been 'wrong'; as in New Zealand in 1993, there may have been a concerted shift in public opinion right at the last minute, as voters questioned whether they felt Ed Miliband could actually pull off the job of being Prime Minister. And the Crosby Textor approach of polling for weak spots (i.e. the supposed dangers of a Labour-SNP coalition) and then relentlessly targeting them seems to have worked a treat in the electorate battles that mattered.

The SNP now have an African National Congress-like vicehold grip on the Scottish seats at Westminster. The question remains is how it will respond to the challenge of almost unfettered authority for the voices of Scottish voters in a Westminster system dominated by an English Conservative party government. By 2020 we may well be asking: will David Cameron be the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom?

In a related problem, a new colonialism is operating in the UK. There is only one Scottish Conservative MP in the government caucus - one MP speaking for 5.3 million Scots. Also, the UK is now governed by a party with huge ties to provincial England but almost none to inner-city Britain, where some of the biggest problems the nation faces are playing out.

After all that drama, don't worry if the election result gets you down: the Guardian has concocted a wonderfully desperate list of nine things to be cheerful about, including the fact that Nigel Farage didn't manage to win Thanet South (and was photographed next to delighted comedian Al Murray when the result was announced), and the silver lining that the utter plonker George Galloway isn't an MP anymore.
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