Monday, May 3, 2010

The Daily Strike-5/3/10-Rule Britannia!

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. Since not much happened in politics since I wrote this morning, I thought I'd change gears and give my thoughts on the General Election in Great Britain, which will take place this Thursday.

ACROSS THE POND: We thought our elections were interesting, but the one about to take place across the Atlantic Ocean looks like it will be a barn-burner.

First, the basics. Britain is a constitutional monarchy, with most government powers vested in the House of Commons, which has 650 seats. Voters will elect individual members in their constituencies (equivalent to our Congressional districts). If one party gains a majority, it will form a government. The executive powers of government are vested in Ministers, which are usually Members of Parliament (MPs) of the ruling party. The parties that do not finish first make up the opposition.

Currently, the ruling center-left Labor party controls 356 seats, the Conservative Party (the Tories) control 198 seats, and the left-leaning, libertarian-ish Liberal Democrats control 62 seats. The last election was held in 2005.

Labor has been in control of government since 1997, so it would seem only natural that voters would be ready for a change. Polls over the past few years have showed Conservatives generally ahead of their Labor counterparts. A few weeks ago, it looked likely that Conservatives would win perhaps a small majority in the next parliament.

But recently, the Liberal Democrats, led by Nick Clegg, have surged in the polls. They now come in a close second to the Tories in most polls, ahead of the Labor party. Clegg was boosted by a strong performance in American-style national debates, and by his outsider status. Much like the U.S., Britain seems somewhat fed up with the two major parties.

The current Prime Minister Gordon Brown further jeopardized Labor's status with an enormous gaffe last week, when he was caught calling a supporter "a bigoted woman" on a hot mic. Brown has never faced election as a party leader (Tony Blair was still in office in 2005) and he is anything but a charismatic politician. He has tried to gain traction by portraying his opponents, especially Conservative Party leader David Cameron, as risky bets during tough economic times, and ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The complicated thing about this election is that, much like the U.S., the national popular vote is not entirely indicative of the next parliament. Results in individual constituencies can vary greatly from the national result, meaning that conceivably a party could gain a majority in parliament while not getting the most votes. Unlike the U.S., however, voters generally vote for individual candidates based on their party affiliation. It seems like there is much less "personality driven" voting in Great Britain. That usually means that the advantages of incumbency (constituent services etc.) are not as prevalent.

So what will happen on Thursday? Nobody really knows. Nate Silver, using some complicated formula that I won't even begin to understand, projects that the Conservatives will win 299, 27 short of a majority. He projects the Labor Party winning 199 seats, and the Liberal Democrats winning 120. This seems to represent the consensus of most analysts that the Conservatives will win a plurality of seats, but will come up just short of a majority. If no party gains a majority, there will be a "hung parliament."

British tradition dictates that no matter who has a plurality of votes in a hung parliament, the current ruling party (Labor, in this case), has the first opportunity to try and form a majority. Labor would have to convince pretty much every Liberal Democrat, most likely, to merge and create a coalition government. I don't see this happening. There is a good deal of animosity between the two parties. Labor also would not want the Liberal Democrats to have a role in government, because they fear that Liberal Democratic ministers may undermine the broader Labor agenda. Both parties fear that if the Liberal Democrats join the government, they will push for institutional reforms that would make it easier for third parties to gain greater representation in parliament (like proportional representation).

Could Conservatives team up with Liberal Democrats to form a government? Also unlikely, since the two parties' agendas are so diametrically opposed. Most likely, therefore, is that the Conservatives will form a "minority government." A minority government is highly unstable, because a majority of the parliament could both block legislation and vote to dissolve the parliament. Perhaps the conservatives would be content with a minority government for a short time to highlight differences between the parties, so that they could then hold new elections promptly, and try again to achieve a majority.

Pretty complicated stuff, but fear not. I will do my best to explain it further if any of you all have questions.

What does this all mean for the United States? The Liberal Democrats are thought of as the least pro-U.S. of the major parties. They favor a full and complete withdrawal from Iraq and would want the European Union to be Britain's primary diplomatic arena. The Conservatives are much more pro-U.S., and are steadfastly skeptical of the European Union.

I will keep you posted with what happens in Britain. Cheerio!

Yes, that was extremely corny.

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