If things had gone differently in the last three years, the Conservative party might have been on course to handily win the general election on 7 May, forming a majority government. (As I write, on 3 May, this looks pretty much impossible.) Some of their victories while in office over the past five years have made it more difficult for them to retain power.
At the last UK-wide election in 2010, no party won an overall majority of the 650 seats in the House of Commons. (The upper body in Britain, the House of Lords, is unelected.) The Conservatives, with 307 members of Parliament (MPs), and the Liberal Democrats, with 57, formed a coalition government, which many (including me) predicted would not last the whole five-year term. It did.
At the half-way point in 2013, one of the agreements between the two coalition partners unravelled, as Conservatives successfully campaigned against constitutional reforms dear to the Lib Dems.
In the initial coalition negotiations, the Liberal Democrats had demanded and been granted a referendum on Britain’s electoral system. At the moment, the candidate with the most votes in a constituency becomes the MP. This ‘first past the post’ system favours the two main parties and makes it extremely difficult for others to break into parliament.
In 1983, in an earlier incarnation known as the Alliance, the Liberal Democrats won a 25.4% share of votes cast in the election, but got only 23 seats in the Commons, while the Labour Party was only 2.2% ahead of the Alliance, at 27.6% of the vote, but landed a massive 209 seats. A quarter of the votes cast throughout the UK got the Alliance less than 4% of seats
in the mother of parliaments.
As part of their coalition agreement, the Lib Dems were allowed to hold a referendum in 2011, giving the public the option of adopting the ‘Alternative Vote’ (AV) system – which rewards third parties. In return, the Lib Dems were supposed to support the Conservatives (also known in Britain as ‘Tories’) in a review of constituency boundaries (and reduction in the number of MPs) that was expected to give the Conservatives a significant electoral advantage. Some commentators predicted that the Tories might gain 20 seats from the redrawing of electoral boundaries.
The Conservative party campaigned vigorously against AV, and helped to defeat it.
Then the Lib Dems tried to reform the House of Lords, and introduce elected peers. While the Conservative leadership supported the reform, Conservative backbenchers voted in mid-2012 with the opposition to defeat the Lib Dem reforms. The Tory leadership then refused to give more parliamentary time to keep pursuing the reform.
The Lib Dems, furious at this breach of trust, retaliated by voting with the opposition to postpone the implementation of constituency boundary changes until 2018 at the earliest.
If the boundary changes had gone through in time for this election, as originally intended, they might have enabled the Conservatives to continue in coalition government with the Lib Dems. Instead, all the polls (as of 3 May) indicate that the Conservatives have a good chance of winning the most seats in Parliament, but the combined strength of the Tories, the Lib
Dems and the right-wing Democratic Unionists in Northern Ireland will still fall short of a majority.
The next Conservative victory that has come back to make life more difficult involves Scotland.
The Scottish National Party campaigns for independence. In elections to the devolved Scottish Parliament in 2011, it won a majority of seats (after previously being a minority government) and therefore had a democratic mandate to hold a referendum on Scottish independence. The referendum (shaped in negotiations with the Conservative-Lib Dem government in London) was held in September 2014. The Conservatives, whose full name is ‘the Conservative and Unionist Party’, joined with Labour and the Lib Dems in campaigning vigorously for the ‘union’ of England, Wales and Scotland. The SNP lost by 45% to 55%.
If, instead, Scotland had voted for independence, this would have removed 58 non-Conservative MPs (and 1 Conservative MP) from the Westminster Parliament in London.
In this May 2015 election, this would have given the Conservatives a good chance of being able to re-form a winning coalition government with the Lib Dems, instead of falling well short (on the poll results as of 3 May). They would have had a similar number of MPs, but in a significantly smaller House of Commons, giving them a much better chance of forming a
The irony of the Scottish referendum result is that if the SNP had won, the collapse in the price of oil would have landed it in insuperable financial difficulties, as the SNP plan for Scotland depended heavily on tax revenues from North Sea oil. Now, having lost the referendum, the nationalists are more popular than ever in Scotland, on course to wield more influence over the British parliament than ever before (perhaps as the third-largest party).
The ‘first past the post’ system means that the SNP are likely to be over-represented in the UK Parliament, with perhaps 8% of the seats on the basis of around 4% of the votes cast across the UK. The Conservatives have been doughty defenders of first past the post. Now the system is rearing up to empower the enemies of the union, and the party most volubly committed to opposing austerity and replacing the Trident nuclear missile/submarine system.
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