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United Kingdom

Parliamentary Elections (snap)

December 12, 2019

Background

  • Bicameral parliament in a parliamentary constitutional monarchy: House of Commons (650, directly elected) and House of Lords (currently 800, appointed), housed in Westminster.  
  • Commons elections held every 5 years since 2011 Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, but snap elections possible with 2/3 majority.
  • 650 constituencies total, 1 member of parliament per constituency; votes cast for a single candidate, 1st candidate to gain the most seats in constituency wins (“first-past-the-post” system.)
  • Prime Minister appointed by the Queen, usually from party with a majority in the Commons; PM appoints the Cabinet. If that party leader cannot form a government, another party can attempt to form a different (potentially minority) government.
  • Incumbent: Conservative party leading a minority government with 298 seats (at time of dissolution of Parliament—with 10 seats from the DUP under a confidence-and-supply agreement), Boris Johnson has been PM since July 2019.

Contenders

  • Main national parties:
    • Conservative Party: center-right to right-wing nationalist, led by Boris Johnson; has proposed high public spending for healthcare, education and law enforcement; supports tighter immigration controls; pro-Brexit under Johnson’s negotiated deal with the EU or no-deal if agreement cannot be reached; pro-NATO.
    • Labour Party: left-wing, led by Jeremy Corbyn; interventionist economic policies, supports nationalizing key industries; ambiguous on immigration policy and free movement; neutral on Brexit outcome until a Labour government can renegotiate a deal that would include EU Customs Union and Single Market access; uneasy about use of military force but remains committed to NATO (incl. 2% GDP spending on defense) and modernizing its nuclear deterrent. 
    • Liberal Democrats (LD): center, led by Jo Swinson; social liberalism; opposed to Brexit, supports revoking Article 50 altogether; supports free movement; pro-NATO, (including spending 2% GDP on defense).
    • Brexit Party (BP): right-wing to far-right, led by Nigel Farage; free-market policies with some infrastructure investments; strongly anti-immigration; wants immediate “clean break Brexit,” supports NATO and 2% defense spending.
    • Green Party: environmental, center-left party; advocates strong public investment in NHS and green transition, decarbonization; opposes Brexit, wants a second referendum to remain in EU; supports withdrawal from NATO in the long term.
  • Regional parties (for Westminster, not regional assemblies):
    • Scottish National Party (SNP): center-left, led by Nicola Sturgeon; mix of social protections and investments in businesses; seeks a 2nd referendum on Scottish independence; opposed to Brexit, supports a 2nd referendum or Article 50 revocation if no-deal is the only alternative; aims to remove Scotland from UK nuclear deterrent.
    • Democratic Unionist Party (DUP): right-wing, unionist (remain in the UK); pro-Brexit but opposed to Boris Johnson’s deal; might pull out of the confidence-and-supply agreement if the deal goes through.
    • Sinn Féin: left-wing, Irish nationalism; supports reunification with Ireland and encourages holding a border poll; MPs do not take their seats in Westminster under British leadership; opposed to Brexit but is open to Johnson’s deal as the “least worst” option.
    • Ulster Unionist Party (UUP): center-right, unionist; campaigned against Brexit and opposes Johnson’s deal; refuses electoral alliance with the DUP, accusing them of having hurt the unionist cause over Brexit and the confidence-and-supply agreement.
    • Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (Alliance): center, non-sectarian party of Northern Ireland; liberalism; supports more policies to unite society in Northern Ireland and more public investments in communities; opposed to Brexit, supports a second referendum.
    • Plaid Cymru (Plaid): Welsh nationalist party, center-left, led by Adam Price; strengthen social safety net (NHS, housing, green jobs); against Brexit, supports 2nd referendum with Remain option, and at least Customs Union and Single Market access; opposes nuclear deterrent.

Impact on U.S. Interests

  • The United Kingdom is a key economic and security partner for the U.S.; it is the largest U.S. trading partner for digitally-enabled services and UK FDI into the United States totaled $541 billion in 2017 while the U.S. exported $56 billion worth of goods to the UK in 2017.
  • The UK is an active participant in NATO missions to deter Russia (leads NATO battalion in Estonia); contributes over 1,000 troops to Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, military contributor to counter-ISIL coalition in Iraq;
  • “Special relationship” (intelligence, military, diplomatic, development assistance, cultural, economic) between U.K. and U.S. is unparalleled among major powers;
  • Joint intelligence sharing cooperation through Five Eyes intelligence alliance since 1943.
  • Brexit could have a serious impact on peace in Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement, which the U.S. helped broker in 1998.

Key Issues to Watch

  • Boris Johnson has negotiated a new withdrawal agreement with the European Union and hopes to get a majority to push it through parliament, but the deal has been criticized by many parties, including the DUP. Estimates show it would shave off around 5% of UK GDP, compared to 8 to 9% under a no-deal Brexit.
  • The EU and UK sides differ on how long a future trade agreement would take to negotiate. The United Kingdom may face another Brexit cliff at the end of the transition period in December 2020, should the next government not seek to extend this period.
  • Beyond Brexit, the election is about ending an era of budget austerity. All parties seek to increase public spending, particularly for the National Health Service (NHS), which has been central to the election debate. Labour accuses the Tories of not caring about the NHS and of wanting to “sell it off” in a future trade deal with the United States. Poor service at some hospitals may weigh on people’s decision.
  • Voter fatigue will play a role: voters have gone to the polls 3 times in 4 years (2 general elections and the EU referendum), this will be the fourth; party leaders are unpopular and 30% of voters have said they will vote not for their top choice but to ensure the party they dislike does not win. Issues of trust and truth-telling (or lack thereof) have plagued Johnson’s approval numbers; Jeremy Corbyn has been accused of anti-Semitism (and not cracking down on anti-Semitism within the party) and is unpopular due to his past association with far-left regimes and problematic organizations around the world.
  • The Conservatives have reduced the political threat from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party with their “get Brexit done” platform and have benefitted from BP pulling out of Tory-held seats, thus only contesting about half of available seats.
  • The SNP may gain more seats in Scotland, taking over Labour strongholds and potentially some Conservative seats, reinforcing SNP’s determination to hold a second independence referendum and its leverage over a potential Labour minority government.
  • Polling data has been relatively stable for weeks, suggesting that people’s views, particularly regarding Brexit and the unpopularity of Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, are set (especially for Conservatives who have had a consistent 10-point lead). However, many factors will influence the result, from weather to voter turnout and tactical voting, which is notoriously hard to build into polling models. An estimated 30% of people have declared they will try to vote tactically.
  • There seem to be three viable outcomes:
    • Clear Conservative win with a large majority (60+ seats);
    • Small Conservative win (20+ seats), which could be disruptive to Brexit related issues;
    • Hung parliament, which could lead to a Labour minority government with support from LD and SNP, focused on organizing a second Brexit referendum.

Polling

Polling numbers are given here to provide readers with rough estimates of where parties stand but there is always a margin of error. Exit polls should provide a more accurate picture of the likely election outcome once they are released, a few minutes after polls close in the United Kingdom (around 5pm Eastern Time). 
 
National Polls – from announcement of early elections in October
 

Data source: BBC Polls Tracker.
 
Regional Polls
 

Data source: Northern Ireland: LucidTalk/Sunday Times (November 2019). Scotland: YouGov/The Times (December 2019).