British politics

The year is 2017, and Britain is in the midst of political uncertainty following the 2017 general election. The Conservative Party, led by Theresa May, chose to call this election earlier than it needed to be, because they were banking on increasing their majority and tightening their grasp on unanswered power. Fair enough, except it didn't quite work out that way, and instead they lost seats, lost their majority and are now in a worse position than before.

I've heard it said that the British voters "can't make up their mind", as though having a single party in overwhelming control is the desired situation, without any need for negotiation, compromise or discussion. May herself described the alternative to single-party rule (the alternative which she has now forced the country into) as a "coalition of chaos". Cooperation is bad, unchecked power is good, apparently.

So how did it get to this state? For some context, let's rewind a few years to when the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats formed their unusual coalition.

Coalition 2010 - 2015

The Conservative Party (the blue team) and the Liberal Democrats (the yellow team) did not have a popular time of it as a coalition, and it seems that neither side were happy at this unusual experiment of working together. Traditionally the only parties with any say were the blue team and the Labour Party (the red team) forming a single-party government, so for the yellows it was a major breakthrough to get some decision-making power. This was their chance.

Because this was unusual in Britain to have two parties cooperating, instead of just barking and shouting "rarr rarr" at each other in parliament, many voters didn't know what to expect. After all, their party was in government, so why shouldn't it be able to get everything it wanted? Well, apart from the fact that no party can (or even intends to) deliver everything it promised during the election campaign, this was a new situation where there had to be some give and take, some compromise. So on some issues the Conservatives tried to implement something (such as Theresa May's first "Snoopers' Charter") but were prevented from doing so by their coalition partners. And likewise on some other issues (such as Nick Clegg's promise to limit student fee rises), they were prevented by their coalition partners.

Some might say that this is the very essence of political debate and negotiation, some might say that it's a frustrating way to stifle action. But for sure voters on both sides couldn't see why their party couldn't just do stuff.

General Election 2015

So after what many people saw as an unusual and disappointing experiment, the voters went to the polls to exercise their frustration. And the Liberal Democrats suffered badly in the election, going from 57 seats (and being a partner in government) to just 8 seats (and practical irrelevance). For some reason, the Conservatives did not get quite so punished, even though they too had failed to enact everything they had promised. Part of this could be put down to the public perception of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who was widely criticised for appearing unelectable. So if a coalition was not desirable, then it's back to the binary politics of red vs blue, and perhaps blue was perceived to be less bad than red.

For those unfamiliar with the system, each region (of which there are 650) elects one representative, who usually belongs to one party. The winner of each region is the candidate who gets the highest number of votes, and whoever gets the second highest number of votes wins nothing. The winning candidate gets a seat in the House, and the party with the most seats gets the chance to form a government. Ideally (and traditionally) the winning party gain more than half of the total seats, so that they can propose and vote for bills without having to persuade other parties to agree with them.

The seats gained in this 2015 election can be summarized like the table below (source).

Conservatives11.3 million330
Labour9.35 million232
Scottish National1.45 million56
Liberal Democrats2.42 million8
DUP184 thousand8
Sinn Féin176 thousand4
Plaid Cymru182 thousand3
SDLP100 thousand3
Ulster Unionist115 thousand2
UKIP3.88 million1
Green1.16 million1

Now, given that at the end of the day, it is only the number of seats which is important, it's easy to see that the relationship between the number of votes and the wielded power is a very long way from being straightforward.

Just look at UKIP's 3.88 million votes compared to the Scottish National Party's 1.45 million votes. In a proportional system, UKIP would wield far more influence than the SNP, because many more people voted for them. But under the British system UKIP gained just one voice in the House compared to the SNP's 56 voices.

Whether the House would be a saner place with a greatly increased UKIP representation is another question, of course, but one can see that on the one hand those votes are being translated into House representation and on the other hand those votes are not.

It's a similar problem for the Green Party, who gained over a million votes but only one seat, compared to the DUP in Northern Ireland who only gained 184 thousand votes (less than a sixth of the Green voters), but won 8 seats to become the joint fourth largest party.

What's apparent here is that spreading even a large number of votes thinly over the whole country (as UKIP and the Greens did) doesn't translate to power. But concentrating on local issues to represent a small subregion (such as Scotland or Northern Ireland) wins seats, and therefore bargaining power, even when a much smaller number of people is represented. As The Independent put it, "You only need to look at Scotland, where the SNP got 50 per cent of the vote but 95 per cent of the seats".

So how bad is it? Well a system in which the number of seats corresponds as closely as possible to the number of votes (reflecting the voters' wishes proportionally) is called proportional representation. And you can measure the disparity between a set of results and this ideal using the "Gallagher index". Wikipedia lists the index for this election as 15.0, which is higher than some other countries (although much lower than Australia). In comparison the 2010 election had a very similar index of 15.6.

And what might be the answer? Electoral reform has been proposed for decades, but usually the two main parties strike the proposals down because they benefit quite nicely from the current system thank you very much. The smaller parties would gain much more say, but of course they're small parties and so can't change the electoral system.

This is where many saw the coalition as a big opportunity. The Liberal Democrats had been a perpetual third party and had been campaigning for years for some kind of proportional representation, so it seemed to many that a coalition would finally give the possibility of some kind of electoral reform which would then in turn lead to further positive changes as the other parties gained in voice. Even if the Liberal Democrats had to bargain away other negotiating positions, if they could somehow insist on some electoral reform then that could bring real, long-lasting change. Change that could then lead to more change way beyond this one parliamentary session.

Unfortunately no such electoral reform took place, and with the end of the coalition it seems that the opportunity was lost.

So after the 2015 Election, the Conservatives won, being the party with the most seats. They also had a majority, having more than half of the seats in the House. And this, despite only gaining 37% of the counted votes. Which means of course that over 60% of voters voted against the Conservatives.

If you consider that the election turnout was around 66%, that means less than a quarter of the country voted for the Conservatives.

Nevertheless, with a Conservative majority and no longer a coalition, Theresa May was able to push through her Snoopers' Charter unopposed.

2016 EU Referendum

2016 brought yet another chance for the UK to have their say, and "Brexit" (or should that be "Ukexit"?) was an extremely controversial topic. But just as the voters were not used to having a coalition, they were also not used to having referendums. In fact the only reason there was a referendum at all was that the Prime Minster, David Cameron, wanted there to be a "Remain" vote so that the squabbling could finally stop. And we all know how that turned out for him...

So despite the fact that David Cameron wanted (perhaps needed) a vote for remaining in the EU, and despite the fact that any decision would be based on a large number of wildly speculated outcomes and the unknowable results of future negotiations, he decided to call a simple yes/no referendum where the majority vote wins. Perhaps somewhat risky.

When the board of a business takes a simple decision, they can decide to require a simple majority vote to pass it. But when the same board has a more dramatic decision on the table, perhaps the motion would require a two-thirds majority to pass. Such a threshold is not unthinkable for such a momentous, costly and long-lasting decision such as this one. Or alternatively one might imagine that a majority of the people eligible to vote would be required, rather than just a majority of the people who voted.

But no, a simple majority was declared, just one more vote on this side or that side would be enough to decide whether to leave or remain. It seems that David Cameron must have been fairly certain that the remain vote would crack the 50% barrier.

And yet of course, the results came through with a very slender majority voting to leave the EU - 51.9% against 48.1%. Since then there has been much talk about "respecting the will of the voters", but that's really not a decisive result by any means. That's the kind of rounding error you get based on the weather on polling day, or on the newspaper headlines that day, that's effectively a 50-50 split with a bit of random noise on top.

Of course, not 100% of the electorate voted, in fact the turnout was around 65%. Which turns the result from being a "vote to leave" into being a "three-way split" - one third said leave, one third said remain, and one third said nothing. Does that sound like a mandate to leave, or a resounding "we don't know"?

It was also interesting to see, literally hours after the result was announced, the "victors" of the leave campaign. Instead of celebrating, they looked panicked, and ran for cover, backtracking on all the concrete promises they had made about how many millions would be given to the NHS every day. Two of the most prominent campaigners for leaving, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, immediately scurried to the corners leaving others to pick up the mess that they had whipped up with their absurd claims. Could it perhaps even be, that they didn't expect to win at all, and didn't even want to win? That they were only politically posturing and grandstanding making preparations for their own leadership campaigns to right the wrongs of their unfair loss?

But I digress. Unless we have yet another referendum, which nobody seems to want, everyone is left speculating whether all those leave voters would still vote to leave now that it's become clearer what might be involved, or what they were actually voting for when they voted to leave. And if what Britain now appears to be heading towards is actually what they wanted or whether they just wanted to exert some kind of anti-establishment protest vote.

So after these two major voting exercises, in a country where most people find voting once every five years a bit of a waste of time because theirs is a "safe seat" anyway, it came as a bit of a surprise when the country got yet another chance to vote already in 2017...

2017 General Election

So just like the Brexit referendum, this 2017 general election didn't need to happen but the Conservative leader decided to call it anyway. Except now the leader was Theresa May (yes, the Snoopers' Charter Theresa May). And she also had rather definite expectations of the outcome, and also it didn't quite go as she had hoped.

As before, here are the results (source).

Conservatives13.7 million318
Labour12.9 million262
Scottish National978 thousand35
Liberal Democrats2.37 million12
DUP292 thousand10
Sinn Féin239 thousand7
Plaid Cymru164 thousand4
Green525 thousand1
UKIP594 thousand0

So the Conservatives, instead of extending their existing majority, are now 7 votes short of a majority and suddenly, desperately reliant on help from the DUP. Which is a little odd that the DUP's 292,000 voters now suddenly have a very strong political hand. As noted by the BBC, the Democratic Unionist Party is a party "that 99.4% of the public didn't vote for".

Labour are naturally delighted that they have gained seats, but their delirious grins made it appear that they had won, when obviously they had lost. They just hadn't lost by as much as they had feared. And Jeremy Corbyn's claim that he could form a minority goverment is just a little laughable given that even if the Labour seats are added to the SNP's seats, and the Liberal Democrats' seats, and Plaid Cymru's seats, and the Greens' single seat, they still wouldn't have as many seats as the Conservatives on their own. They'd have more votes of course (even just Labour and the Liberal Democrats have millions more votes together than the Conservatives and the DUP), and a selection of positions reflecting more of the British people's will, but as we've seen that's not important here, it's only seats which count.

The SNP went from holding an incredible 56 of the 59 Scottish seats, to holding only 35. And perhaps surprisingly they lost 12 of those seats to the Conservatives. On the other hand it was fairly expected that the UKIP vote would collapse, given that their main cause was fighting for Brexit, and the Conservatives are running with that baton now.

And the Conservatives? Of course it was disastrous for them in terms of seats, but in terms of votes they actually became more popular! They went from 11.3 million to 13.6 million, a substantial increase. And from 36.9% of the votes up to 42.4%. So by vote measures they actually gained a stronger mandate from the people, but in the House they now have to rely on other parties and their favours.

The huge disparities are still there, for example UKIP even after their collapse got more votes than the DUP and Sinn Féin put together, but get precisely zero seats instead of seventeen. And the Greens got around half the votes that the SNP got, but only got one seat while the SNP got thirty-five. But overall there was a shift from the smaller parties to the biggest two, and that led to the Gallagher index being only 6.5, dramatically lower. So does that mean the result was more proportional or just more binary?

And what next?

The Conservatives appear to be pinning their hopes on the DUP, and seem fiercely determined to go for a hard Brexit, gambling on the possibility of no deal at all. Parliamentary behaviour seems destined to remain childish, petty and tribal. Sensible cooperation, negotiation and compromise between adults seems a more remote possibility than ever, and all of this chaos, the panic, the indecision, and the rushing, is all due to risk-taking and arrogance for the benefit of party (and personal) politics rather than anything for the good of the country.

The referendum was called as a power play, which backfired. The triggering of Article 50 which set the clock ticking for the Brexit negotiations was brought about by hasty political manoeuvering. The general election was a cynical power-grabbing ploy trying to exploit an apparently weak and unpopular opposition, and this too backfired. And now the Brexit negotiations are looming, and our representatives have proven themselves to be fundamentally incapable of negotiating. Or communicating effectively, or making decisions that don't shoot oneself in the foot.

Managing the exit from the EU is just one of the challenges which will need to be dealt with, although one which will be especially important to Ireland, London, and Britons living in Europe. There's also the funding of the Health Service, the housing shortage, paying pensions for the ageing population, tackling inequality, unemployment, struggling to prevent the country spiralling into a paranoid surveillance state (ok, maybe not bother with that last one). Managing all these issues will require sense, and tact. But unfortunately at the moment, only the loonies (and the bucketheads) are making sense.

The one good bit of news (at least, good for the continued existence of the United Kingdom), is that with all the current chaos, the suggestions for a second Scottish referendum to leave the UK (and thereby stay in the EU) have been at least temporarily put on hold. If that had happened, and if Northern Ireland (and Gibraltar and the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man and basically everwhere apart from England and Wales) had seen the possibility of leaving the UK to retain EU membership and avoid costly barriers and costly trading conditions, well then that avalanche of disintegration could have become something to worry about indeed.

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