The UK goes to polls today, facing a fractured and uncertain outcome that will be familiar to observers of recent Indian elections. Rather than a national verdict, the results will be determined by voting in separate regional contests. Polls suggest that a majority for either the Conservative party or Labour is unlikely.
The average estimate of vote shares across Britain is 34 per cent for the Conservative party and 33 per cent for the Labour party. The other one-third is divided between minor and nationalist parties — the Liberal Democrats are currently projected to have 9 per cent support, the UK Independence Party (Ukip), 15 per cent, and the Green party, 5 per cent.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to the UK system of government comes from the dramatic rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP). Despite its defeat in the 2014 referendum on independence, support for the SNP has continued to grow. Recent polling has put SNP support in Scotland at over 50 per cent. If this estimate is accurate, it could sweep most of the 59 seats in a country that has been a solid base for
Labour representation in the House of Commons since the 1980s. As in India, the main parties have struggled to compete with regional parties that can make a stronger claim to put local interests first.
In Wales, there is a weaker nationalist challenge, with Plaid Cymru expected to win three seats out of 40. But again, the dynamics of electoral politics require the main parties to adapt their policies and appeal to the specific demands of a devolved Welsh system of government.
In Northern Ireland, which returns 18 out of the 650 MPs elected to the House of Commons, none of the main parties has any substantial presence, and the party system reflects the historical divide between Protestant unionist parties and Catholic republican parties. The main republican party, Sinn Fein, is expected to win five constituencies but does not take up its seats in the House of Commons because of its refusal to take an oath of allegiance to the queen and support for a united Ireland. This means the likely number of seats required for a majority government stands at 323.
England returns the vast majority of constituencies (533) and is the key battleground where the balance of power between Labour and Conservative parties will be resolved. Yet, here again, there are regional differences that change the dynamic of electoral competition.
Labour appears to be performing strongly in London and the urban constituencies of the Midlands and the north. The Conservatives appear to have consolidated rural support and their heartland in the south. Yet, their success depends on how much of an inroad the Liberal Democrats make into the Conservative vote in the southwest, and the Ukip in a band of constituencies up the east coast, where concern about the impact of immigration is a significant political factor.
This complex geography of electoral competition provokes issues that resonate in the Indian context. How does the constitution reflect an electoral politics that is increasingly diverse and where the main parties struggle to represent communities across the nation? What happens when a majoritarian electoral system fails to deliver a clear outcome? How will political parties adapt to circumstances where minority government and coalitions become more likely?
The Westminster system of government is coming under increasing strain. Devolution to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales has provided greater autonomy but increasing dislocation across the UK, and failed to address the place of England in the constitutional settlement. The institution of the House of Lords is an anachronism in a diverse and pluralistic polity.
The first-past-the-post electoral system is no longer providing the robust and stable government that its advocates suggest is its strength. Rather, tactical voting and a focus on a few key marginal constituencies are likely to lead to increasingly unrepresentative outcomes. Under the previous coalition government, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was passed to try and ensure some stability in government duration. But this addresses the symptoms, not the underlying causes, of minority government.
The British public still views coalition government unfavourably, with only 29 per cent saying they would prefer it to a single-party government. The Conservative and Labour parties have both claimed that they are fighting for an outright majority and discussion of the possible negotiations that might take place if they fail in this has been marginalised. This will have to change if, as expected, there is no majority winner. As in India, both the electorate and political parties will have to learn to judge expectations and accountability in the light of more diffuse electoral outcomes.
The result of the election is important for the UK and internationally. The Conservative party seeks to continue the programme of government retrenchment and has promised a referendum on membership of the EU in 2017. Labour seeks to maintain higher levels of public spending at the cost of slower tackling of government debt and emphasises the place of the UK in the EU. Yet neither the Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, nor the Labour leader, Ed Milliband, has managed to build up significant momentum during the campaign.
There is an outside chance that Cameron’s Conservatives may emerge as the dominant party. A campaign focused on the promise of stability and continuity may persuade undecided voters and those wavering between the Ukip and the Conservatives. The Conservative party has the enthusiastic support of newspaper proprietors and has spent more on the campaign, which has seen hostile coverage of Milliband. There is residual mistrust of the Labour party’s economic competence after the financial crisis of 2008. Yet, the increasingly pluralistic and divided electoral map of the UK suggests a clear majority is unlikely to occur, with government formation dependent on support from one or more of the minor parties.
The writer teaches at the University of Sheffield, UK