I admit I am far from an expert on the United Kingdom’s political system. However, there are similarities between the US’s and UK’s systems. The UK uses single member districts just as the US does to elect the House of Commons. Further, the system is designed in such a way to electorally make it virtually impossible for more than the major three parties; Tories (Conservatives), Labour (Labor) and Liberal-Democrats from dominating Parliament. There are differences galore however. First-off, the House of Lords (higher chamber) is nominated, not elected, unlike the US Senate. Second, the UK uses a Parliamentary form of governance in which the powers of the executive and the legislature are fused together. The Queen really is a figurehead.
Just as there are local elections in localities across the US the same recently occurred in the UK. Also, because the UK belongs to the European Union, they elect delegates to be appointed to the European Parliament. These elections, occurring last week, have the potential to remake the UK electoral map. The United Kingdom Independence Party’s stunning success in local and European Parliament elections have turned heads and pose a significant threat to the current Conservative-Liberal Democratic governing coalition as well as Labor’s electoral fortunes moving forward.
So what is the United Kingdom Independence Party? Essentially, UKIP is a populist, right-wing party that opposes the EU and wants to limit if not end immigration into the UK. Indeed, their manifesto blames the lack of jobs for native residents, increased crime and pressure on services delivery and destruction of green space on the massive number of new immigrants entering the country. The party also echoes many facets of the Conservative majority; low taxes (though Conservatives increased the income tax on top earners), more police on the streets and decentralizing power so the local level makes more decisions (you can read their entire EU manifesto above with the link and their local manifesto here).
UKIP translating this success to victory in Parliamentary elections next May will not be easy. It should be noted another difference between the US and UK is the governing coalition can call an election at any time within five years of the formation of their government. If they do not elections occur automatically in five years. This gives the governing party a built-in electoral advantage beyond the electoral system itself. Elections next year would seem to benefit UKIP. Voters are worried and anxious about the economy, taxes and European bailouts that saddle their country with international financial obligations. But this assumes that the voters who gave the UKIP such success at the local level will vote the same way next year for Parliament. Moreover, they are fully on board with everything the party stands for.
Apparently not so much. According to public opinion polls, UKIP is hovering around 10-15% of the vote. One poll showed them jumping to 17% after last week. Labor and Conservatives both hover above 30% by varying margins while the Liberal-Democrats hover below UKIP’s totals. For Conservatives this means they likely will need to gain seats to offset the losses their coalition partner suffers next May.
The Guardian has suggested that local elections are now a four party affair. This looks true. But Parliamentary elections are another can of worms. UKIP’s success in local elections was scattered across the country and in many places where Labor dominates Parliamentary elections. See map here for an example. If one assumes that the Liberal-Democrats are irrelevant next May there are lessons to be learned for both Labor and Conservatives.
In regards to both, UKIP can win in both labor and conservative dominated areas. UKIP has proven the ability to capitalize on the economic and social concerns of blue-collar males. Conservatives have increasingly turned to courting socially progressive urbanities and Labor has paid little attention to blue-collar individuals since Blair left in 2007. Labor’s strength is becoming increasingly consolidated in Northern and rural England, Scotland and urban London. Conservative strength is still based in the London suburbs and Southern England but it is bleeding away slowly.
Comparing the 2001, 2005 and 2010 election results maps one can see this in detail. In 2001, Labor dominated elections by crushing the Conservatives in London and dominating Scotland. In 2005, Conservatives made some gains in London and Scotland but in truth seat movement was minimal and Labor maintained dominance. The results of the 2010 election and Conservative resurgence could be summed up by two factors; Blair’s removal as leader of the Labor Party in 2007 and boundary changes in 2006 that benefited the Conservative party. From the 2010 map one can see a startling difference in Conservative support in almost every party of England. Yet in Scotland, Liberal-Democrats and Labor still dominated.
UKIP’s success should be more concerning for the Tories in that they took far more traditionally conservative support than Labor. Conservative support also dropped sharply in urban London from 2010, allowing Labor to take a slew of Tory councils. Tories need to be aware that their support in urban London is likely to dry up in 2015. This means making up the difference somewhere else. But where will it come from? Anthony Scholefield and Gerald Frost pointed out in their 2011 study Too Nice to Be Tories, “The Conservative Party has been steadily losing one region of the United Kingdom after another in the last 40 years. It used to be able to depend on nine to twelve Unionist votes from Northern Ireland for its parliamentary majority; it gets none now. It won half the Scottish seats in 1955; the last three general elections each returned one Scottish Tory to Parliament. It wins eight seats out of 40 in Wales. And from the 158 MPs elected from the North of England, the Tories got 53.”
None of this is apparent from the maps above because it occurred largely before 2001. But UKIP’s eating into Conservative support in suburban and rural England should deeply concern the party. Without this support Conservatives would be a minority based in their Southern England redoubt. UKIP also has proven the ability to eat into the Lib-Dems margins and possibly make them irrelevant next May.
Cameron and Conservatives have some weapons to deal with their electoral predicament. The first is promoting an economic rebound that convinces enough swing voters that Conservatives deserve a majority outright (hey, Conservatives in Canada did it). Second, and this one seems the most likely, is forge an electoral deal with UKIP in which Conservatives agree not to run candidates for certain seats in return for UKIP doing the same in other seats. The most likely scenario this would pan out as would be Conservatives not fielding candidates in London and UKIP not fielding candidates in traditionally Conservative Northern England seats. Conservatives would dominate England and UKIP would gain seats that could have gone Labor if the right-wing vote was split. So far, Cameron has opposed such a deal.
Lastly, Cameron can hope that the Scottish referendum on Independence gains traction and wins. This would devastate Labor and the Lib Dems as Labor would lose 41 seats, the Lib-Dems 11 and the Tories a mere 1 seat. So far, opponents of Independence appear to have the upper hand.
Conservatives and Labor both have reasons to worry heading into 2015. UKIP has the potential to damage both parties electoral prospects and make the Lib-Dems largely irrelevant. If it is not clear to both parties already it should be soon; if Conservatives and Labor want to keep the UK a three party state they will have to work hard to convince all voters why UKIP is wrong. So far, no party has done a convincing job since the election results last week.