Leon Neal / Reuters Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron gives a speech at an election rally at The Corsham School in Chippenham, south west England, March 30, 2015.

House of Uncommons

The Unpredictable British General Election

Two weeks ago, a group of election experts met for a seminar at the London School of Economics to forecast the result of the upcoming British general election. No matter which model they used, or how they set about crunching the numbers, they all reached the same conclusion: On May 7, no single party would win enough seats to command a majority in the House of Commons. A similar survey of over 500 academics, journalists, and pollsters in early March came up with the same finding. Corresponding predictions are coming out of the betting markets: The Irish bookmaker Paddy Power currently has odds of 1/7 (or, 87.5 percent) for a hung parliament. A wager of 10 pounds (almost $15) would pay a scant 11.43 pounds (around $17). Both Labour and the Conservative parties are pretending that they are confident that they will win outright—but that is a claim few truly believe.

A hung parliament, of course, would not be without precedent. No single party won a majority of seats in the 2010 election, either. In 2010, however, that outcome came as a surprise to many. The civil service had done some private war-gaming of possible outcomes before the last election, and there was occasional academic discussion of the subject, but the norm of one party government at Westminster was so strong that many people discounted any evidence to the contrary.

Things are different this time around: Most have realized early on that no party is likely to win an outright majority. Since the beginning of 2015, it has been impossible to avoid conversations about various post-election scenarios, and there have been dozens of academic and quasi-academic seminars on the subject. There is noticeably more discussion of the conditions that parties would make in the event that they have to do a deal—what are their red lines, who will deal with whom—and we must at least assume that, despite their public protestations, the political parties are better prepared as well. The most striking thing about the two major parties in 2010 was just how unprepared they were when they entered negotiations. That will not be true this time.

More importantly, though, it looks possible that a two-party deal will not be enough to produce a majority in this election. In 2010, the largest party, the Conservatives, and the third-largest party, the Liberal Democrats, produced a clear majority in the House of Commons, forming a coalition that, despite many difficulties, has lasted for five years. Unless the Conservatives and Labour come together (which is about as likely as the Republicans and Democrats joining forces), a two-party deal might not be enough to form a government this time. Making forecasts more difficult, there are also almost no clear predictions on which party will win the largest number of parliamentary seats or votes. Of the 12 forecasting models discussed at the LSE forecasting event, six put Labour ahead, six the Conservatives, and several that put the two parties just a handful of seats apart. With the difference between the various possible outcomes depending on a handful of votes in a handful of seats, this election has become a game of chance.

No one knows, of course, if these forecasts will be correct. It is possible that there will be a big shift during the campaign, which has only just formally started (even if it has, in practice, been going on for months). Several forecasting models take campaign effects into account already, so any shifts would have to occur on an unprecedented scale to make a difference. Maybe all of the polls—of which there have been more than ever before—are methodologically flawed, although many have proved very accurate thus far. A change in these predictions is always possible, but at the moment, everyone is bracing themselves for the most unpredictable election in living memory.

These predicted outcomes are the logical continuation of 50 years’ worth of trends within British politics, which have led to the increasing fragmentation of the British party system. In the 1955 general election, the two largest parties garnered 97 percent of the vote. By 2010, that share had fallen to 65 percent. British voters identify less with parties, are more willing to switch, and more willing to shop around. Parties can no longer take large blocks of the electorate for granted.

There are other specific changes this time as well. The first is the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote, which under the party’s various guises—Liberals, Liberal–SDP Alliance, and Liberal Democrats—had previously been the main recipient of votes from those who chose not to pick Labour or Conservative. From just six seats in 1955, they reached a peak of 62 in 2005. But after entering into a coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, the party’s support plummeted and has not recovered since, as many of its former voters felt the party had betrayed its principles. At certain periods during the 2010 election campaign, the Liberal Democrats had been in first place in the polls, but now they find themselves routinely in fourth place, and have even occasionally slipped into fifth. In the 2015 election, the Liberal Democrats’ strategy hinges upon using the incumbency advantage they have in a handful of seats, hoping desperately that local candidates can cling to their positions while the party gives up on much of the rest of the country. British electoral law requires candidates to pay a deposit of almost $750 to stand, and only candidates that receive five percent of votes get their money back. In 2010, the Liberal Democrats accomplished this in every seat they campaigned for, something neither Labour nor the Conservatives managed. This time, such investments will prove costly.

A campaigner from the British Medical Association wears a mask of Nigel Farage.

A campaigner from the British Medical Association wears a mask of Nigel Farage, Leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) outside the Houses of Parliament in central London April 2, 2015.

Another development is the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Formed in 1993, the UKIP played only a bit part in British politics until recently, performing relatively well in European elections, yet fading away in general elections. Since 2010, however, the party has broadened its appeal by managing to link the subject of Europe, its raison d’etre, to voters’ concerns about more mainstream issues such as immigration and health. Membership in the European Union, the party argues, prevents the United Kingdom from controlling immigration, which in turn puts a burden onto the health service and schools. It talks (without irony) about being a People’s Army, an insurgency, fighting against the “Westminster establishment.” The party began to poll very well in local elections, and even managed to win last year’s European elections, a first for any political party outside Labour or the Conservatives for 100 years. The commentariat had suggested that the UKIP would again fade away as the election approached, but despite a slight dip in the party’s popularity ratings in recent months, it continues to poll at 10 percent or more and most forecasts now predict that the party will place third in the popular vote. Britain’s electoral system does not reward parties without geographically concentrated support, which will prevent the UKIP from winning many seats (although any seats that it does win will be serious achievements), but much more important will be its ability to siphon support away from other parties, and thus play a large role in determining which of the other parties win seats. Ironically, having a party like the UKIP, a radical right, anti-immigration party, makes the British political system much more European, although few within the party like to hear that assessment.

Until about six months ago, it seemed as if the rise of the UKIP would be the most interesting development of the last few years. That is, until the Scottish referendum in September 2014. Although the pro-independence movement lost by a margin of ten percentage points, it created a surge of support for the Scottish National Party. SNP membership now exceeds 100,000, making the party the third largest within in the United Kingdom despite only appealing for the votes of eight percent of the population. And whereas the electoral system will prevent the UKIP breaking through, it will do wonders for the SNP. Polling 45 percent in a referendum may not be enough to win, but the British electoral system rewards a party polling the same percentage with big gains. The most recent Scottish prediction has the SNP winning 47 of the 59 Scottish seats, up from only six seats in 2010, almost all at the expense of Labour. Should anything like this occur, gains by the SNP will have enormous long-term consequences for questions about the British state, and will amount to the most significant change in the British party system than any event since the formation of the Labour Party in 1900.

The enormous consequences of this year’s elections, along with the air of uncertainty about its outcomes, has led to discussions at Westminster about which parties might join together, what they would demand, and what problems this could cause. Prospective deals are rarely symmetrical, however: Labour has more potential partners than the Conservative party (the SNP, for example, would not make a deal with the Conservatives), but there are still multiple ways for either party to end up at 10 Downing Street.

Observers could be forgiven for viewing these developments as uninteresting. After all, a multi-party system with two larger parties and a range of smaller parties requiring post-election deals to form governments is the norm in much of Western Europe. The United Kingdom, however, used to be the model two-party system yielding a stable single-party government. Even with the experience of the last five years of coalition governance to provide precedent, the evolution is hard for some to understand. Predictions become more difficult to make, and for politicians, elections become much harder to navigate. But for observers, this uncertainly is also more fun. And, since most of these various post-election deals are agreements in which a combination of parties somehow come together to stumble over the finishing line without generating a particularly large majority, the next few years could well consist of almost constant deal-making, negotiation, and compromise. In other words, the fun will not stop in May.

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