UK election is shaping up as a cliff-hanger INCLUDED in our Unlimited Access subscriptionContact Pat
TORONTO, ON, Apr 22, 2015/ Troy Media/ – To understand what’s happened to UK politics over the last half-century, consider these data points.
In 1964, the combined vote of the two biggest parties – Conservatives and Labour – was almost 88 per cent of the total votes cast. By 1979, it had dropped to a little less than 81 per cent, further declining to 74 per cent in 1997 and 65 per cent in 2010.
What had been a binary political world became increasingly fragmented, so much so that the 2010 election produced the first peacetime coalition since 1931. And with the clock ticking down towards this year’s May 7 ballot, the indications suggest another indecisive result.
UKIP unknown quantity in UK election
Because of its enormous financial sector, the UK took a particularly severe wallop from the financial crisis, but is now doing quite well relative to the rest of the European Union (EU). So you’d expect the coalition’s senior partner, David Cameron’s Conservatives, to be reasonably well positioned for the impending vote. After all, the collapse happened on the previous Labour government’s watch rather than on theirs, and they should be able to take some credit for the recovery. The polls, however, show them no better than neck-and-neck with Labour, and miles away from any prospect of winning a majority.
Politically, Cameron has two anchors holding him back. One is an unfriendly electoral map, with constituency boundaries that translate into the Conservatives having to work much harder than Labour. For instance, Tony Blair won 355 seats in 2005 on a smaller overall percentage of the vote than that which won Cameron 306 seats in 2010.
Cameron’s other problem is the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), an entity that draws disproportionately from the ranks of previous Conservative supporters. Although down from its polling peak of six months ago, UKIP support is still in the lower teens. And if that holds up through May 7, it’ll more than quadruple its 2010 vote share.
Conventional wisdom, not to mention Conservative hopes, had it that UKIP would essentially melt away in the heat of a general election, which could still happen. But its hitherto stubborn persistence speaks to the motivating power of fundamental issues, in this case a revolt against the irrevocable nation-changing effects of two phenomena – ceding sovereignty to the EU and unprecedented levels of immigration.
As for Labour, it remains a party somewhat at war with itself. Tony Blair’s once trendy brand may have delivered three consecutive majorities, but it’s now very much out of fashion with the party’s base. Like Canada’s federal Liberals, there’s a hankering to get back to the old fashioned religion.
Then there’s the coalition’s junior partner, the Liberal Democrats. Five years ago, they pulled 23 per cent of the vote amidst a great flurry of excitement. Now, if current polls are to be believed, they’ll be hard-pressed to do half that. It wouldn’t be the first time that a junior coalition partner paid the price for dirtying its hands with the nitty-gritty business of government.
And let’s not forget the independentist Scottish National Party (SNP). Just seven months ago, there was a great deal of ill-advised triumphalism around the result of Scotland’s independence referendum. Nationalism, so the story went, was dead and buried.
But perhaps not. Of all the party leaders, the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon has enjoyed the most spectacular campaign and her party seems poised to sweep the majority of Scotland’s 59 parliamentary seats, to the point of holding the balance of power at Westminster.
Scottish National Party a second unknown quantity in UK election
Canadians who feel a sense of déjà vu don’t know the half of it. Even at the peak of its glory, the separatist Bloc Quebecois never named the plays in Ottawa. And further, there was no Canadian equivalent of the “West Lothian” dimension, whereby English MPs have no say in the domestic government of Scotland but Scottish MPs get to vote on the domestic government of England.
Consequently, a situation where the SNP openly call the post-election shots could generate a vigorous reaction. Over a century ago, G.K. Chesterton put it this way poetically: “But we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet.” If and when they do speak, it might be in the tones of a specifically English nationalism the likes of which hasn’t been heard for a long time.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics.
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