Wednesday, May 6, 2015

On the British general election

Tomorrow there is going to be a general election in the United Kingdom.  I am almost as big of a British politics junky as I am an American politics one.

This year the outcome is going to be very interesting.  There has been some very good analysis on regarding it from a couple of British political scientists.  It looks like the Conservative party is going to get the most seats with around 280 or so, and Labour will get about 265-270.  British parliamentary elections are generally harder to predict than an American presidential election.  Instead of figuring out which way 50 states are going to vote, you've got to predict 650 individual constituencies and there is usually a dearth constituency level polling data to work with.  History is often a good guide but not always.

Also in Britain third parties have far more influence than in the US.  Though again it often shakes itself out at the constituency level.  So while national polling in the UK may show that the truly loathsome right-wing UK Independence Party may be in third place nationally, the bigots who support them are spread fairly evenly across the country so it looks they will only get one or two seats in the next Parliament.  On the other hand the Liberal Democrats who in the old Parliament had 52 seats and were coalition partners with the Conservatives are now polling in fourth place they are still going to come out of tomorrow's voting with around 25 seats because there are parts of the country (the largely rural constituencies along the edges of the country) where they have always had strong support.

All of this brings us around to the Scottish National Party.  You need 326 seats to form a majority government in the British Parliament and if the predicted numbers I cite above hold out that means neither the Tories or Labour will have that majority and they will need a coalition partner.  The LibDems are a spent force for the near future since they basically went back on everything they promised when they became the Conservatives' junior partner last time out.  But everyone agrees that the SNP is going to pretty much sweep Scotland (all but four or five seats) this time out and have about 50 seats thus putting themselves in the position of kingmaker in deciding which party will be running the UK for the next five years.

This surprising jump for the SNP, who presently have six seats, has less to do with Scottish separatism than straight right versus left politics.  Last year's defeat of the Scottish independence referendum shows that many Scots aren't that keen independence that is still the heart of the SNP platform but they are very much in favor economic equality and fairness.  Ever since Tony Blair and New Labour took control of the Labour party they are no longer the socialists or even social democrats of old.  Their policies are really only slightly to the left of the Conservatives.  But the Scottish Nationalist Party's policies are old school European left and with the state of the British economy up north ever since the Great Recession that has a lot of appeal.  In fact if the SNP had run candidates in northern England I would be surprised if they picked up seats there as well.

All of this mean's that the outcome of the election is going to be riding on who is willing to do a deal with the SNP and for how much.  If the Tories come out with the most seats, as seems likely, they get first crack at forming a government. And while I can see a certain advantage in the SNP joining up with the Conservatives, mainly to make them hold to David Cameron's promises after the independence referendum, in the end I think this unlikely.  The SNP doesn't want to be put in the position the LibDems are in now as essentially a fig leaf to cover the worst of Conservative policies with left wing respectability.  So it all comes down to doing a deal with Labour, especially as there are still plenty of old Labour types that would like their help pulling the party back left.  Where I am having a hard time deciding is if they will formally enter the government as coalition partner with seats in the Cabinet or if they will unofficially support a minority Labour government.  I am tending towards the latter because that gives them more power to withhold votes on key pieces of legislation if they don't like the way things are going and thus create a no confidence vote to force an early election.