Sunday 11 June 2017

UK Election Explained for Americans and Other Aliens

By request, I am attempting to explain the 2017 UK election to Americans and others unfamiliar with the weirdness of British politics. This is a high-speed tour of:
  • How British elections work;
  • Why this election happened in the first place;
  • Why it turned out as it did;
  • What the results mean.
The UK has an archaic, complicated and illogical system of government, so what follows has been drastically simplified. I've tried to give a balanced view, steering clear of partisan bias, but other opinions are available.

The Palace of Westminster, home of the UK Parliament.

How It Works

The UK is governed by Parliament, which consists of the House of Commons (powerful, elected) and House of Lords (weak, unelected). Elected members of the Commons are known as Members of Parliament, or MPs. The Prime Minister leads a party, or group of parties, which has the support of a majority of MPs. The two largest parties are the Conservatives and Labour, on the right and left respectively.

Compared to the USA, checks and balances are few. The Prime Minister (PM) by definition has majority support in the legislature, and is expected to win votes in Parliament and pass new laws. If the PM can't win key votes, a new election will be called.

The size of the PM's majority makes a big difference here. There are 650 seats in the Commons, so the majority is [number of seats in the ruling party] minus 325.

Before The Storm

In the 2015 election, the Conservatives led by David Cameron won a majority of 16, barely enough to run a single-party government. Any eight Conservative MPs could stop the government's agenda in its tracks. Like any other party, it has its share of rebels and malcontents, so this was not a good state of affairs for the Prime Minister.

Cameron had promised a referendum on UK membership of the European Union. In 2016, the UK voted to leave, initiating the process known as Brexit. Cameron, who had staked his authority on remaining in the EU, resigned and was replaced by Theresa May. The new Prime Minister faced the prospect of difficult decisions around Brexit, with the aforementioned tiny majority.

Now, let us turn to the Labour Party. After their election defeat in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader by rank-and-file party members, against the wishes of the party's MPs.

Corbyn was on the very far left of the Labour Party; before becoming leader, he was best known as a peace campaigner and serial rebel against more centrist leaders such as Tony Blair. He does not have an equivalent in US politics. Compared to him, Bernie Sanders is a paragon of moderation and pragmatism.

As leader, Corbyn immediately faced vociferous criticism, some of it justified and some not. Labour was divided, and after the Brexit vote Corbyn's MPs made an unsuccessful attempt to replace him as leader. Meanwhile, Theresa May led a largely united party, and appeared to offer purposeful leadership and some much-needed stability.

By early 2017, the Conservatives had a 20-point lead in the opinion polls. If followed through in an election, this would have given them a landslide majority of more than 100. Theresa May would be a hero to her party, assured of a long spell in power, and with much more of a free hand to implement Brexit.

The temptation proved too much for May, and in late April 2017 she decided to call for an early election. Parliament agreed to hold the election, which went ahead on the 8th of June.


At first, everything seemed to go according to May's plan; but in the last couple of weeks before the election, the opinion polls began to narrow. May's lead of 20 points shrunk to single digits, in one poll as low as 3. On election day, the actual Conservative lead was 2.4%.

The reasons for this will be argued over for some time. They include:
  • Theresa May being an unbelievably stiff, robotic and uninspiring campaigner;
  • May refusing to take part in television debates with other party leaders, and avoiding media interviews or direct contact with voters wherever possible;
  • A Conservative campaign centred on May's "strong and stable leadership", in retrospect a foolish decision given her weaknesses;
  • The Conservatives' botched announcement of an unpopular policy on funding care for the elderly, which they withdrew a few days later;
  • Conservative policy otherwise centred on tax rises and spending cuts, with the stated intention of reducing the government deficit, which proved less than wildly popular;
  • Labour MPs mostly, belatedly, uniting behind Corbyn;
  • Corbyn had improved his media skills since his early days as leader, and looked calm and affable on television;
  • Corbyn's successful effort to turn out the youth vote, helped by his promise to abolish university tuition fees;
  • Corbyn going out to meet the voters in person, holding rallies attended by thousands of Labour supporters;
  • Corbyn's more unpopular ideas, such as abolishing nuclear weapons and the monarchy, were explicitly not part of Labour party policy;
  • Labour offering a generally popular range of centre-left policies, such as increased funding for the National Health Service.



Now the results are in, and no one party has a majority in the House of Commons. Out of 650 seats, the Conservatives have 318, Labour 262, and other parties 70. The magic number of seats required for a majority is 326.

The Conservatives only need eight seats to gain a nominal majority, so the obvious course is for them to do a deal with one of the smaller parties. Unfortunately for the Conservatives, most of the smaller parties hate and despise them, for reasons of history and ideology.

The one exception is the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which won 10 seats in Northern Ireland. The violent conflict in Northern Ireland was largely ended by the Good Friday agreement in 1999, but sectarian divisions remain. The DUP is a hardline party supporting continued union between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, and has past ties to terrorist groups.

By UK standards, the DUP is extremely right-wing. Its views on abortion, homosexuality and religion are far outside the British mainstream, and would fit in fairly well with the US Republican Party. Nonetheless, it's May's only option to remain in power, and it appears she and the DUP have come to terms.

(So far I've left out Scotland, which was a fascinating story in itself. The Conservatives made substantial gains at the expense of the Scottish National Party, partially offsetting their losses in England. Much of the credit goes to Ruth Davidson, who leads the Scottish branch of the Conservative party and is very much considered a rising star. She is also gay and has no liking at all for the DUP.)

This is where things now stand. May has traded a small but workable majority for a minority government. She is beholden to a small party from Northern Ireland, whom even many Conservatives regard as deranged bigots. She faces a reinvigorated Labour party; Corbyn's leadership has been vindicated and, for now at least, his party has a newfound unity of purpose.

What will happen next? I have no idea. The last few years of UK politics have taught us to expect the unexpected.

May's party is furious with her. She could face an attempt to remove her from leadership. Her alliance with the DUP may prove unstable. At best, any contentious vote in Parliament will be on a knife-edge. It's unlikely this government will serve a full five-year term; almost certainly, some event before 2022 will trigger a new election.

Meanwhile, May started the clock on Brexit before calling the election. Come what may, the UK will leave the EU in March 2019. This complex and delicate process will be implemented by an unstable, divided and distracted government which could collapse at any time.

Interesting times lie ahead.

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