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Four key developments to watch in the British election

- May 6, 2015

The following is a guest post by political scientist Tim Haughton of the University of Birmingham in Britain. See here for more coverage of the 2015 British elections.

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Election nights in Britain are usually dramatic occasions, as pundits and politicians seek to make sense of the steady stream of results. There are, I’d suggest, four things to watch closely.

Scotland

While Nicola Sturgeon was keen to downplay expectations, opinion polls last weekend suggested her Scottish National Party (SNP) could win all of the 59 seats in Scotland. Although ultimately the SNP will probably fall short of a clean sweep, the election is likely to underscore the different dynamics of party politics north and south of the Scottish border.

Since the 1970s, there has been what Nicolas Allen described as an ‘uncoupling’ of Scottish voting patterns from those in the rest of Britain. The Conservative support base in Scotland was eroded during the Thatcher and Major years (1979-1997) to the point where their opponents liked to joke that there were more pandas in Scotland (two in the Edinburgh zoo) than Conservative MPs.

The real shift in voting patterns, however, has been the rise of the SNP at the expense of Labour. Scotland used to be one of the bedrocks of the Labour Party’s support, but in this election, even seats that used to be regarded as rock solid are in danger.

The SNP’s rise owes much to a combination of an anti-austerity left-leaning policy pitch that appeals to traditional Labour voters, the consequences of devolution and the SNP’s competence in running the Scottish parliament, allied to the personal appeal of Sturgeon who has been the clear star of the campaign.

But the attraction of the SNP also lies in the legacy of September’s independence referendum. Although Scots voted no (55 percent voted against), the campaign energized the population with nearly 85 percent of the electorate turning out to vote, and acted as a recruiting sergeant for the SNP.

Sturgeon has been at pains to stress that whatever the result, there will not be another independence referendum following this election. Nonetheless, if Scotland votes overwhelmingly for the nationalists and a government is formed without the SNP or at the very least fails to respond to the overwhelming message of the Scottish electorate, the disconnect between Scotland and the rest of Britain is likely to grow.

Turnout and disillusionment

The British election system is based on 650 constituencies in which the candidate with the largest number of votes wins the seat irrespective if he/she garners a majority of the votes cast or not. (There is no run-off). (See this recent post for more details on Britain’s electoral rules.)

In the past it was easy just to talk about national swings from Labour to Conservative or vice versa. These two parties used to win the overwhelming of seats. In 1951, for instance, no fewer than 97 percent of the electorate voted for one of the two major parties. By the time of the last election in 2010, however, it had slumped to 65 percent. The erosion of the dominance of the two main parties was highlighted in the elections to the European Parliament last year when the insurgent United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) won more votes than Labour and the Conservatives.

The success of the SNP, UKIP and Plaid Cymru, the Party of Wales, and the surge in membership for the Greens (who now have a quarter of the number of members as the Conservatives) highlights a growing disillusionment with the existing major parties. Such a phenomenon isn’t unique to Britain. Across Europe, from Athens to Zagreb and London to Ljubljana, established parties have been losing their grip on electorates.

But will voters in Britain unenthused by the main parties still cast their ballots for Labour and the Conservatives, chose to support the Greens or UKIP at this election, or just decide to stay at home? Turnout has been absent from most discussion of the election, but it could prove crucial in a number of seats. Moreover, even with an apparently larger palate of options on offer, if the actual turnout figures do not show a significantly higher number in this tightly contested election (turnout is typically higher in elections seen as close) than the post-war nadir of 59 percent in 2001, it may suggest that the disenchantment of voters and disconnect with politicians is much deeper than previously thought.

All politics is local: This time maybe even more so

The 2015 election has been the most polled election in British history. The avalanche of polls in the past few weeks – indeed the past few months – all seem to point to no party having an overall majority. Sophisticated modelling by political scientists and polling agencies indicate Labour and Conservative will each win 30-35 percent of the vote and 260-280 seats in the House of Commons, both falling short of the 326 needed for a majority.

These models and predictions, however, have to contend with some intangibles and complications. Many on the left fear a reappearance of the ‘shy Tories’ who kept their preferences to themselves in the 1992 pre-election polling, but turned out on polling day to support the Conservatives. In truth, the ‘shy’ voters in 2015 may be those who will cast their ballots for UKIP knowing that the party’s anti-immigration message is disliked by what the party’s leader Nigel Farage likes to label the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’.

Secondly, although there have been some attempts to produce polling in individual constituencies, thanks to the increasingly multi-party nature of British politics, it makes less sense to talk of a national political picture. Local factors are likely to matter more in this election. The fact that the electorate will in many cases be simultaneously given ballot papers for local council elections and in some cases parish and mayoral elections as well will probably serve to emphasize further the local dimension of the vote.

The local factor may be especially significant in the case of the Liberal Democrats, traditionally the third party of British politics that won 57 seats in 2010 and then went into coalition government with the Conservatives. As part of the coalition agreement, the party reneged on its flagship promise to abolish university tuition fees. The party had performed well in 2010 in constituencies with a large student population, but these seats look vulnerable in this election, including the constituency of the Liberal Democratic leader, Nick Clegg in Sheffield Hallam. Across the country, Liberal Democrats look set to lose many seats, but we may see an incumbency effect where popular local MPs are able to stem the tide.

Coalitions and boundaries  

Media coverage of the election has increasingly turned from policy differences to coalition configurations and post-election deals. Although both Labour leader Ed Miliband and Conservative leader David Cameron insist their parties can and will win a majority, it would be a major surprise if one of the two of them were able to form a majority government. A handful of seats short of a majority might mean deals could be struck with some of the minor parties in Northern Ireland such as the Democratic Unionist Party or the SDLP. The price for any deal is likely to be increased funding for Northern Ireland.

Although their part in the austerity measures introduced since 2010 and the broken promises on university tuition fees means they are likely to have considerably fewer seats, the Liberal Democrats are the most likely coalition partner for both Labour and the Conservatives. Ironically it could be the party that sees the largest drop in votes and seats that could emerge as the real king-maker. Both Labour and Conservatives may secretly hope the Liberal Democrats do not perform quite as badly as the polls suggest.

If David Cameron’s Conservatives are 15 to 20 seats short of a majority, the prime minister may rue one coalition spat now largely forgotten. After the Conservatives refused to support the Liberal Democrat plans for reform of Britain’s unelected chamber, the House of Lords in 2012, Nick Clegg’s party responded by blocking Conservative plans to reduce the number of MPs and a planned re-drawing of the parliamentary constituencies. Given that seats that return Conservative MPs tend to have a larger electorate than those that vote Labour – meaning the Conservatives would have been the relative beneficiaries of any boundary re-organization – that decision may well end up being the decisive factor that deprives Cameron of a majority in the House of Commons and ends his tenure in Downing Street.