Tomorrow, voters in the United Kingdom will go to the polls to choose the direction of their next government. For the last several months they have been bombarded with political advertisements and 24/7 electoral news coverage, not to mention a vast array of signs, flags, and posters. For party leaders this is the culmination of years of rhetoric and political posturing. To connect with voters, leaders have done everything from kissing lambs and baking pies to meeting with comedians and literally putting political promises in stone. They will entertain many if not all ways to win power through the United Kingdom’s parliamentary process. In order to fully comprehend the circumstances of the election, one must first look at the way in which a party can come to power in the current political climate.
There are only two parties that have any real chance of leading a government in the aftermath of the election: the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, also known as the Tories. However, the United Kingdom’s parliament has a multi-party system. In fact, 92 seats in Parliament are currently held by politicians who are not Labour or Conservative. In the event that neither major party gains a majority of seats, a situation known as a hung parliament results. Parties would have to form coalitions in order to elect a prime minister and form a government. After the last election, for the first time since World War II, a coalition government was formed as a result of a hung parliament. The Conservatives formed a coalition with the Liberal Democratic Party (a moderate party that is the next largest after Labour and Conservative). This was able to give them a majority of seats in parliament and empowered them to form a government. It’s been five years since the building of that coalition, and it seems likely that Great Britain is headed for another hung parliament. Here’s a look at the two major parties, their political positions, obstacles, and paths to victory.
Current Seats: 302 out of 650
Projected Seats: 281
National Polling Average: 34 percent
Leader: David Cameron—Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Cameron won this position after his party won the 2010 general election by forming a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats.
Political Positions: Cameron has attacked the previous government frequently, attributing many of the shortcomings of his government to the situation left by Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labour government. Throughout the campaign, Cameron has stressed his role as a job creator. He often touts the statistic that he has created “1,000 jobs a day” since becoming Prime Minister. However, his opponents argue that this statistic is inflated by a significant spike in what are known as zero-hours contracts. A zero-hours contract does not ensure the availability of work for employees, but if work is available they are given an hourly wage for however many hours the employer needs. It is very difficult to make a living on a zero-hours contract. Cameron, however, remains confident in his ability as a job creator. Cameron promises to extend £2000 insurance breaks to small businesses in order to make hiring new employees less costly. He actually goes as far as to say that if he is able to serve for the next five years as Prime Minister, he will get Britain to a level of full employment.
On immigration the Prime Minister maintains that migration is good for Britain, but that it must be limited. In the last election, he stated that he would cap immigration to tens of thousands annually. It is currently approaching 300,000 immigrants annually. While he publicly wishes to allow immigration with only some limitations, the currently high immigration is harming his image and giving Labour fuel for attack in a particularly anti-immigration political environment.
Finally, Cameron emphasizes his role as a debt reducer. While he missed his goal of eliminating the deficit, he has had success with reducing government debt during his time as prime minister. Government debt ballooned from 42.8 percent of GDP before the Great Recession to 82.6 percent in 2011. However, debt has largely plateaued since then and is projected to decrease going forward.
Coalition Options: In the event that the Conservatives are not able to gain a majority of seats in parliament they will have to court the support of smaller parties in order to build a majority coalition. In the last election they were able to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. If they are able to foster that coalition again they will likely be able to win control of the government for the second election in a row. This building of this coalition is dependent on winning a plurality of seats, as Nick Clegg has claimed that the Lib Dems would work with the largest party. The Tories could otherwise attempt to build an alliance with the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. The results of the election are so in doubt that the seats of those minor parties could be the difference between victory and defeat.
Additional Challenges: The Tories will have to fight the rise of the UKIP if the two parties do not form an alliance. UKIP draws from the working middle class demographic by focusing on the impact that immigration has on workers. They seek to limit immigration significantly. A recent poll average from the Telegraph had UKIP support at around 14 percent , though statistician Nate Silver has predicted that they will gain only one seat. The Tories will also have to face the possibility that Labour wins a plurality in parliament and the Liberal Democrats choose to build a coalition with them instead. With the polls so close, these threats have the potential to cost the Conservatives the election.
Current Seats: 256 of 650
Projected Seats: 267
National Polling Average: 33 percent
Leader: Ed Miliband—Head of the Opposition. Ascended to this position after former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown was defeated in the 2010 general election.
Political Positions: Miliband has attacked the Tory government, claiming that they only promote economic growth for a select few wealthy individuals and have contributed to growing levels of economic inequality. Labour has also established an initiative to give the National Health Service, the United Kingdom’s state funded health care system, an extra £2.5 billion in funding, which would reverse the Tory policy of merely maintaining the NHS budget in real terms. Furthermore, Miliband has put forth plans that seek to stem immigration better than, Cameron who has seen a significant rise in immigration during his tenure. Labour’s positions have been criticized by some who claim that the increased spending that they’ve proposed will result in a massive debt increase.
Coalition Options: In the event that Labour doesn’t gain a majority, they will have to make a deal to form a coalition with one or several parties. It was widely speculated that they would seek a deal with the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), notable for having been in favor of Scottish secession. However, this speculation was publicly denounced by Ed Miliband when he stated outright that he would not collude with the SNP. Recently, another option was made available to them. Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Liberal Democrats has said that he would work with the party if they were to win a plurality of seats, despite their current coalition with the Conservatives.
Additional Challenges: Labour has to face the risk of the Liberal Democrats choosing to coalition with the Tories again. Another Lib Dem/Conservative coalition could mean victory for the Conservatives. However, it is by no means a forgone conclusion that Labour would collectively have a majority even if they were able to join with the Lib Dems. They also will have to compete with UKIP, as both parties draw from working class voters. With the polls as close as they are, these threats could spell a Conservative victory.
What Else is at Stake?
Beyond the partisan divide that separates those on the left from those on the right, the most tangible divergence between Labour and the Tories is their view on the United Kingdom’s position in the European Union. This issue could prove to be the most consequential one in this election. David Cameron has made a pledge that he will put the question of remaining in the European Union to a referendum in 2017. This has the potential to reduce Britain’s role as an economic player in greater Europe. In a recent poll of Britons, 51 percent of respondents would elect to leave the European Union. This would be a major blow to the Union. With Euro skeptics coming to power in France, Austria, and the Netherlands, in addition to the possibility of a Greek exit, it could to put the very existence of the European Union at risk. Miliband has claimed that as prime minister, he would not put the EU question to a referendum unless there were a transfer of power from the United Kingdom to the EU. This issue, and by extension this race, has the potential to be the incredibly consequential for the United Kingdom, for Europe, and for the world.
Image Credits: (Westminster) Andrew Dunn/Wikimedia Commons, (David Cameron) Toms Norde/Wikimedia Commons, (Ed Miliband) Ed Miliband for Leader/Wikimedia Commons