Britain's Next Move: The U.K. faces its closest election in a generation

These are anxious days at Buckingham Palace, where Queen Elizabeth II is usually content to rule but not to govern. The distinction, in fact, between the formal head of state (the Queen), and the head of government (the prime minister), is the foundational principle of Britain’s parliamentary democracy and largely accounts for why Britain’s monarchy survives in a democratic age.

Yet certain powers are still reserved for the Queen alone, at least officially. Among the most important of these “royal prerogatives” is the formal power to appoint the prime minister. Most of the time it’s a straightforward, perfunctory exercise. As a parliamentary democracy, the British executive (the prime minister and his colleagues, such as the foreign and treasury secretaries) is formed by members of the political party that enjoys a majority in the House of Commons, the lower house of Britain’s parliament. Come general election time, British voters, who have a distaste for coalition governments, usually give one of the major parties a clear majority in the House of Commons. From there the Queen’s job is clear: she simply sends for the leader of the winning party and asks him or her to form a government: Presto chango, the U.K. has a head of government and the head of state goes back to unveiling plaques and watching the racing news.


What is likely troubling the Queen as the May 6th general election approaches, is the fact that it may not be obvious which leader she should call on the morning of May 7th, a situation she has not faced since 1974. Opinion polls reveal that the British electorate is uncharacteristically undecided and that a “hung parliament,” a kind of electoral stalemate in which no one political party has a Commons majority, is a real possibility. The stakes are indeed high: This is the first general election since Gordon Brown took over the job of prime minister from Tony Blair and the first serious threat to the governing Labour party since it came to power in a 1997 landslide. The election also comes in the latter half of the worst recession in a generation and in the midst of one the biggest political scandals in parliamentary history. In other words, the Queen’s potential constitutional headache is just one factor in what is turning out to be the most exciting British election in decades.

Decisively Indecisive

Current polls indicate a lead for the Conservatives, but not enough to guarantee a majority. What happens if no one political party commands a Commons majority? Whom does the Queen invite to become prime minister? The answer is not obvious. What we do know is that much political jockeying would occur, as the major political parties would each attempt to form a working majority through coalition building. In Britain, two political parties dominate: Labour, led by the incumbent prime minister, Gordon Brown, and the Conservatives, or Tories, led by David Cameron. A third party, the centrist Liberal Democrats, led by Nick Clegg, rounds out the list of major political players, but has always been the uneasy third wheel of Britain’s political machine.

According to most pundits, there is no small degree of animosity between Gordon Brown and David Cameron, though the two share at least a common dislike of Nick Clegg. In the event of a hung parliament, however, they will need to get over their dislike quickly: Mr. Clegg will likely lead the third largest party in the Commons and will be the key to building a working majority. A coalition government is one scenario in the event of a hung parliament. Yet Mr. Clegg has come very close to ruling out a coalition with Labour and his price for a coalition with the Tories would be a reform of Britain’s voting system that the Tories deem unacceptable. Another scenario involves a minority government, in which the party with the most seats, but not necessarily a majority, would govern until it is defeated on a major parliamentary vote. This would then precipitate a second general election within the year.

The conservatives, of course, may yet win an outright majority, but the odds are long. Consider the plain electoral math: 650 seats will be contested on May 6th, meaning that 326 seats are needed for an overall majority. To achieve that, the Conservatives must win 116 new seats. Yet Labour will lose its current overall majority if it loses more than 24 of its current seats. Any result in between will mean a hung parliament. In other words, a swing in voter preference from 2005 of just two percent against Labour will mean that they lose their overall majority, but the Conservatives need a swing of 7 percent in their favor to win a majority. That kind of favorable swing, however, has only occurred one time in modern British history. “I am asking you, the British people, for a clear and straightforward mandate,” Gordon Brown said when he announced this year’s election. Whatever happens, it is very unlikely that he will get exactly that.

The Economy

“It’s the economy, stupid.” James Carville’s famous maxim from the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign applies nearly universally in politics and Britain is no exception. Yet this year the economy hangs over British politics like this week’s volcanic plum and is, for politicians, just as menacing. While Britain has thus far avoided the big unemployment numbers that keep President Obama up late, the Labour government has done so only by borrowing money at an unprecedented rate. The British government will borrow £167 billion in 2010. That may not sound like much to American ears, accustomed as they are to talk of trillions, but the current British budget deficit represents about 12 percent of the United Kingdom’s gross domestic product, enough to unsettle the most Keynesian central banker. One inventive ITV News reporter calculated that the government’s borrowing amounts to £5,295 per second.

The government’s growing debt, coupled with sluggish economic growth of 1.25 percent, means that no party is promising the kind of popular and extravagant social spending to which British voters are usually treated at election time. Everybody says there must be cuts, but the party’s manifestos (their statements of what they hope to do should they win power, akin to a party platform in the U.S., but with teeth) are short on details. Predictably, the Labour party has proposed a tax increase. Equally predictably, the Tories have said cutting government waste is the key. In between these two political giants stands the average frame of the Liberal Democrats, who have a reputation for speaking economic truths. They claim, again predictably, that neither the Tories nor Labour are telling the truth. The Lib Dems are probably right, but not likely to win, though they have already scored one victory, in the first prime ministerial candidates’ debate in British history.

The Debates

One of the least attractive aspects of this election is the extent to which the country’s politicians and media are aping the personality-driven, 24–hour media circus that is the modern American presidential election. Consider the first of their kind prime-time debates among the leaders of the three major parties, which featured American style “spin rooms” and the use of phrases like “game changing” and “style over substance.”

It’s not yet clear whether the first debate was, in fact, a game changer, but it was indeed history making. Every poll of debate watchers named Nick Clegg the winner, with David Cameron and Gordon Brown a distant second and third respectively. Clegg proved popular, it seems, precisely because he is neither Brown nor Cameron, both of whom have suffered from media over-exposure and the skepticism of a weary electorate. Because he was relatively unknown, Clegg offered a fresh, distinct voice amid the political caterwauling, the personification of change in what is nothing if not a change election. Whether Clegg’s win will translate into votes for Lib Dem candidates is unclear, though recent post-debate polling shows much movement in their direction. In any case, there are two more debates to go. Three weeks is a long time in politics and a virtual eternity in an election that is only four weeks long. Much could change.

A Marginal Strategy

The names Brown, Cameron and Clegg, of course, will not appear on most ballots. Voters will cast their votes on May 6 in their local constituencies, for local candidates for parliament. A good number of constituencies, or electoral districts, already have “big majorities,” meaning that they lean heavily toward one party. Just as George Bush didn’t spend much time campaigning in Massachusetts and Barack Obama was an infrequent visitor to Montana, the political parties here will devote their resources only to “marginal constituencies,” the British equivalents of swing states. Most British elections in recent years have been determined by the results in a handful of these marginal seats.

Just as there were more swing states in the U.S. in 2008, there are more marginal constituencies in Britain in 2010 because the electorate here is similarly hungry for change. Conservatives will need to win a lot of those seats if they have any hope of winning a majority. That means that the Tories must poll well in places like the north of England, where they have struggled in recent years; in fact, the Tories don’t have a single member of parliament in places like central Manchester or Liverpool. For Labour to cling to power, it will need to hold onto historically Tory seats that it picked up in the Labour landslide of 1997. Yet a number of those constituencies, like some in the West Midlands, have not fared well in the Labour years and their unemployment rates remain higher than the U.K. average. As for the Lib Dems, Nick Clegg’s performance in the first debate went a long way toward demonstrating that a Lib Dem vote is not a mere protest vote. Most voters, however, remain unconvinced. In Scotland and Wales, meanwhile, the national parties make most seats four-way races.

Burn, Baby, Burn

Not since 1834, when the crowds gathered on the Thames to cheer as the houses of parliament accidentally burned to the ground, has Britain’s national assembly been held in less esteem. The major reason is the so-called parliamentary expenses scandal, an outrage big enough to warrant its own logo on the news channels. In short, investigations in 2008-2009 revealed that members of parliament had written off their extravagant personal spending as official expenses and had been accordingly reimbursed from the public coffers. Every political party was implicated, as it was revealed that members of parliament had received payments for everything from moat maintenance and other repairs on unoccupied second homes, to dry cleaning and porn movie rentals.

The public is still so disgusted that David Cameron took the opportunity of the first debate to publicly apologize and every party has now endorsed a new power of impeachment and recall for voters. It has not been pretty. How it will affect the outcome of the election is still an open question, but the scandal has already added thousands of voices to the chorus calling “to throw the bums out.” Incumbency is so unpopular that some MPs claim that every seat with an incumbent is now a marginal.

What will happen on May 6th? It’s anybody’s guess. A floundering economy, an angry electorate, a newly viable third party and the reality of the electoral math may yet stretch Britain’s political system to the breaking point. Yet British politics, like its famously unwritten constitution, is known for its elasticity, precisely because it is an amalgam of law, custom and a bit of mystery. “It has always been a puzzle and it always will be,” a wise observer once remarked.  She would know. The author of that pithy maxim is none other than Queen Elizabeth II.

Listen to Matt Malone, S.J., discuss the 2010 British election.

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