Off to the Races … and a Photo Finish

The 2015 UK General Election

And they’re off! With Britain going to the polls for general elections on May 7, 2015, no party is poised to win an outright majority in parliament (requiring 326 seats) and the race for Westminster is simply too close to call. With the two leading contenders – the incumbent Conservatives and its rival the Labour Party – neck and neck as they round the electoral corner, a hung parliament looks to be a near-certainty with an equally strong chance that new elections will be called within a year. There are two likely paths for this scenario.  First, the Conservatives out-perform their current polling trends, win 290 to 300 seats, form a minority government that will likely last until they are unable to pass the 2016 budget (end of October), and call snap elections.  The second path would see a Labour minority government that has the support of the Scottish National Party (SNP) on an issue-by-issue basis. This course will also likely end in early elections as complications surrounding the budget also occur, particularly regarding the future funding and placement of Britain’s nuclear deterrence program (currently in Scotland) and the West Lothian question (SNP MPs vote on all laws but English MPs do not vote on Scottish budget issues).    

As it stands, Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party maintains a narrow lead, polling at around 34 percent (and expected to win 280 seats), while Ed Miliband’s Labour Party is just behind with 33 percent (and a projected 270 seats).  The Tories’ current junior coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats (LibDems) led by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, is struggling to make pace with only 8 percent (27 seats). Meanwhile, Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is jockeying for third with around 13 percent of public support – although it is only projected to claim 2 seats. But the Scottish National Party (SNP), led by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, is shaping up to be this election’s dark horse, with projections suggesting they will take 47 seats (and possibly as many as 55). Bringing up the rear are regional favorites, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) from Northern Ireland and the Welsh national Plaid Cymru Party, alongside the Green Party, which are slated to win 8, 4, and 1 seats respectively. 

The lackluster performance of Britain’s two major political parties underscores their dramatic decline in popularity and public confidence, as well as the deepening political fragmentation of the British electorate. Increasingly, British voters are gravitating toward nationalist and issue-specific movements, such as the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), at the expense of the outgoing parliament’s three largest parties.  There are a number of factors and hot-button issues accelerating this trend.

Foremost among them are Britain’s relationship with the EU and immigration policies. Several months ago it seemed that the rise of UKIP and the country’s deepening anti-EU and anti-immigrant sentiment would play heavily into this election. After UKIP comfortably defeated both Labour and the Conservatives in the May 2014 European Parliamentary elections (with 26.6% of the vote) and claimed its first two seats in parliament in local by-elections (after two Tory MPs defected to UKIP), this seemed to hold true. While recent data suggests that the British public is mainly concerned with economic issues, these developments propelled Prime Minister Cameron to highlight early on in his campaign the Conservatives’ promise to hold a referendum on whether the UK should remain within a “reformed” EU before the end of 2017 if  he is re-elected. Labour has made no such referendum promise. Against this backdrop, the upcoming elections have been perceived as a pseudo-plebiscite on the UK’s future membership in the EU. 

But while anti-immigrant and anti-EU sentiment are powerful forces in this election, in reality the race appears to be a referendum on Britain’s current and future economic policies.  Prime Minister Cameron and the Conservatives have pointed to the success of their economic policies and steady leadership amid fraught economic times.  And the Conservatives have much to tout: GDP grew by 2.4 percent over the last year; national output has surpassed pre-crisis levels for the first time; and unemployment has stabilized at 5.6 percent.  Although the UK’s budget deficit remains quite high at 5.7 percent, these figures would be the envy of most European countries. However, in the wake of the recently televised debates between party leaders it has become evident that this vote is actually on the continuation of austerity policies, with SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon leading the charge to create a leftist, anti-austerity coalition (consisting of Labour-SNP-Greens) to combat stagnant real wages (which remain depressed compared to pre-crisis levels) and the reduction in public services (such as education and healthcare subsidies) experienced under Tory rule.

Although the Labour Party would have traditionally been the beneficiary of this austerity backlash, it has struggled to balance its desire to end painful spending costs with a need to be perceived as a fiscally responsible party that has learned difficult lessons from its previous (lack of) budget management. This has been reflected in the polling figures. Further, the limited appeal of Labour’s lackluster leader, Ed Miliband, has also done little to garner enthusiasm for the party. But the real story of Labour’s electoral collapse has been the impact of the increasingly popular (in Scotland) SNP and its charismatic new leader, Nicola Sturgeon. While SNP has been around in Scotland for decades, its supporters have historically caucused with the Scottish Labour Party to ensure Conservative national defeats (e.g., in 2010 out of 59 Scottish parliamentarian seats to Westminster, 40 went to Labour, and 6 went to SNP). In 2015, it could be the exact opposite result due to political momentum gained from the September 2014 independence referendum. Some predict that SNP could gain as many as 55 seats which would ensure that Labour could not be a one-party majority government.   

While it would appear that Labour’s loss of Scotland should give the Conservatives a perpetual parliamentary majority, the political decimation of the LibDems has left them with no junior partner. In 2010, the LibDems received 57 seats. Five years later, they may win only 24 seats - a more than 50 percent loss. As the most pro-European party, the LibDems’ association with the increasing Euro-skeptic Conservatives has reduced their popularity, as has their linkage to reduced government spending practices. Consequently, much of the LibDems’ political base has splintered to Labour and SNP. To draw an analogy from the last round of national elections, UKIP has now become what the LibDems were in 2010, yet critically without the ability to win seats due to Britain’s “first-past-the-post” system. Currently the LibDems are in 4th place nation-wide - after both UKIP in terms of popularity and SNP in projected seats. 

Although it is likely that the Conservatives will win the most seats on May 7th, the current coalition math is against them securing the magic 326 seats needed to form a stable government. This is why the odds-on favorite is a Labour-led coalition with Ed Miliband as the next Prime Minister. If this scenario does indeed come to pass, the question becomes what configuration and at what political price? 

Clearly, a Labour government would not seek an EU referendum, but if Labour enters a formal coalition with SNP, a so-called SNP “redline” to enter such a coalition would be the removal of Britain’s nuclear deterrent at the Scottish base of Falsane.  The SNP would also continue to seek to devolve more powers from Westminster, reigniting the debate about the future unity of the UK. As these conditions appear unacceptable to Labour, Miliband may choose to rule as a minority government and work with SNP and the Greens on an issue-by-issue basis, making government decision making painstakingly slow and tedious. Whether it is a Conservative or Labour minority government, the government will be highly unstable and will likely collapse well before the next general election in 2020.

For the Tories, an unstable government may actually prove to be the most desirable path, providing a critical (and perhaps cynical) window of opportunity to reconstitute its voter base.  If the Tories are able to rule independently beyond the Queen’s Speech on May 27th (after which, Parliament votes on the proposed legislative program for the next year) but Westminster is unable to pass a 2016 budget (slated for the end of October), Cameron would dissolve the Parliament (following an inevitable failed vote of confidence over the 2016 budget) and call for snap elections with the hopes that a reconstituted British right (hopefully eroding some of UKIP’s popularity) would deliver a more stable majority and a stronger mandate.

Long gone are the days when the world would wake up to British election results and have one majority party and a strong leader (e.g., Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair).  In many ways, the 2010 election was the harbinger of the coming, highly fragmented political reality that is the United Kingdom in 2015.  While the British government will now resemble the disunited coalition governments ruling in many European capitals, there is a much higher cost to political fragmentation in Britain: the fraying of the actual union itself. The SNP is a regional party that has put forward a bold agenda on the national political stage, but it is not designed to address the needs of the entire country. Consequently, with regional issues continuing to dominate political discourse, this election may accelerate and strengthen the very forces that threatened to tear the UK apart last September. At the precise moment when Britons are questioning the nature of their European identity and relationship with the EU, the SNP is causing serious doubts that nationwide political and economic solutions can be found. Rather than deciding the fate of the UK in Europe as had been anticipated, this race could determine the future shape of the British Union.

It is also worth noting the relative silence by all parties on foreign and security policy issues in this election. While the future of Britain’s nuclear deterrent should be a major topic of discussion (and it is in some U.S. security circles), there doesn’t seem to be much public interest in weighing the pros and cons of its location and modernization costs. When the issues of homeland security and returning foreign fighters are raised, it usually translates into a discussion of Britain’s immigration policies.  For the past two years, British leaders have been consumed by domestic issues and its international policy voice has been muted - particularly since the 2013 House of Commons vote against taking military action against the Syrian regime for its use of chemical weapons.  And in the run-up to the 2014 Scottish referendum and then moving towards the May 7th general election, the debate has been largely non-existent. Although Labour Leader Ed Miliband has recently criticized the Conservative’s overreliance on “soft power” tools such as development assistance tools in lieu of more robust policy action, this criticism misses the mark.  Labour continues to distant itself from the Blairite legacy of international intervention. The Conservatives attempted to right size a defense budget that was in serious arrears, but made some of the most significant and devastating defense cuts of any British government in recent memory. Both parties reflect the widespread public sentiment that, after a decade plus of military adventurism, there is little enthusiasm for a proactive British foreign policy and instead a desire to seek isolationist and fortress solutions as rancorous domestic politics consume public discourse. Many Americans will likely relate to this phenomena.    

Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).   

© 2015 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.