On Friday (our time) we will be witness to 650 simultaneous Northland-style first-past-the-post (FPP) elections. FPP will be the winner of the United Kingdom general election. The outcome of the overall election will be a lottery, determined largely by the distribution of votes for losing candidates in constituencies where the winning candidate does not secure a majority of the votes.
More than half of these 650 constituency elections will be a foregone conclusion, which means that votes there will be a voluntary opinion poll. These are no-contest elections; what Northland would have been, had Winston Peters not run. Most of the rest could be proper contests between two candidates, at least if people vote – as they did in Northland – as if it was a two-candidate contest. Some of the remaining constituencies will be genuine three-candidate contests.
In this FPP system the typical result is one party gaining an overall majority of seats while gaining about 37% of the overall national vote. (In 2005 Labour gained a comfortable overall majority with 35% of the vote, and about 21% of the eligible franchise.) So don’t be surprised if the Tories get returned with an overall majority of MPs this time; they are polling 36%. They surprised before in 1970 and 1992.
Interestingly, the UK has had a few episodes in its post-war history of minority government despite the single-party bias of FPP. In 1964 Labour formed a minority government, eventually calling another election in 1966. These three years were glory years for Britain, at least if its music is anything to go by.
On my OE I arrived, aged 20, at Southampton in May 1974. That February there had been an election in which Labour got four more MPs than the Tories, and formed what was effectively a caretaker government. In the ensuing October election, Labour gained a majority of 3 seats, and a margin of 42 over the Tory Conservatives. In 1977 that majority was whittled away through by-elections, resulting in the Lib-Lab pact, a governing arrangement between Labour and the Liberals that presaged modern governing arrangements in New Zealand.
That 1977 Lib-Lab government was one of the best in the UK’s post-war history, sullied however by Dennis Healey’s foray into monetarism. Further, in 1979 Labour’s real achievements in getting through the serious economic and financial crises that it inherited were not recognised. For the incumbent pragmatist government, the 1979 election in the UK was much like the 1984 election in New Zealand.
Since 1979, the United Kingdom has featured a long sequence of right-wing governments, with only Gordon Brown’s 2007-10 administration breaking that mould. In 2015 I am not sure whether a Miliband-Balls Labour government would qualify as left of centre. My feeling is that such a government could be too much like the unlovely French ‘Socialist’ Hollande-Valls regime. Further, Ed Miliband does remind me of David Cunliffe, who did not really have the common touch required of a leader of the left. Actually I think the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon looks more Prime Ministerial.
The saving grace of a Labour-led government next weekend would be the almost certain necessity of a substantial SNP (Scottish National Party) contribution. They – and the Greens who may lose their one MP – seem to be the only parties offering left-wing fiscal policies. This puts Labour in a difficult position, given that the SNP look likely to displace most of Scotland’s remaining Labour MPs. Miliband continues to deny that he will need the support of SNP to form a government.
What will happen if Labour, SNP and the surviving Lib-Dems gain just enough seats to build a three-way coalition? If so, it is likely that the Tories could also form a less squabblesome government with either of these. The Tories could then make some interesting concessions possibly forming a fiscally left administration not unlike that of Shinzō Abe in Japan. Alex Salmond possibly is the Winston Peters of the UK; might he become Chancellor of the Exchequer as Peters became Treasurer (and a good one) in 1996?
It’s an intriguing time in British politics; in the land whose flag we fly as part of our own but whose electoral system we have largely disowned. Yet we are strangely uninterested in the politics of the land of (most of) our ancestors and of our identity.