After the pleasant surprise of the Alberta provincial elections in Canada that showed a swing to the left, the opposite happened in the UK in elections yesterday, with the Conservative Party surprising the pollsters by gaining an outright majority in the British parliament, winning 331 out of 650 seats, a gain of 28. The Labour Party lost 25 seats to end up with 232 and its leader Edward Miliband has resigned as party leader.
I will leave it to those who know more about British politics to explain why this happened but there were some other features that struck me. One is the sweeping win by the Scottish Nationalist Party that won 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland, a gain of 50 seats, making them the third largest party in Parliament. This was just a year after the referendum for independence championed by that party failed by a surprisingly large margin. The party’s former leader Alex Salmond resigned after that loss and the new leader Nicola Sturgeon has given fresh impetus to the independence movement. It will be interesting to see if another referendum takes place in a year or two.
The other big news is the crushing of the Liberal Democrats who lost 49 seats and ended up with just eight. Its leader Nick Clegg has resigned too. This illustrates the danger of a third party going into coalition with a major party (as the Liberal Democrats did with the Conservatives after the last election) in exchange for leadership positions in the government. They may think that they are influencing the other party to adopt policies that are more to the liking of their supporters but they end up being seen as unprincipled and voters wonder why they should vote for them.
This happened to the leftist parties in Sri Lanka a few decades ago. After coming in third repeatedly, they seemed to decide that their only hope for getting government power was to form a coalition with a nationalist chauvinist party that made some vague progressive pronouncements. While they obtained some cabinet posts, they ended up abandoning their earlier principled stands and future elections saw them getting crushed too. There may be a general lesson in there somewhere. Has a third party ever become a majority party by adopting this coalition strategy?
The third result of note is that of the UK Independence Party or UKIP, the right wing populist party that got a lot of publicity so that even I knew the name of its leader Nigel Farage. They seem to me to be the British equivalent of the Tea Party in the US. They got just one seat, down from two in the previous parliament and Farage has resigned as party leader after not being elected to parliament. This was even though the party got an impressive 12.6% of the total national vote, a gain of nearly 10% from the last election, and came in third after the Conservatives (36.9%) and Labour (30.4%) and ahead of the Liberal Democrats (7.9%). They wound up coming in second in many constituencies. This kind of mismatch between the number of seats and the voting totals is a common feature of the first-past-the-post parliamentary system that had led to calls for proportional representation.
Labour and Liberal Democrats have some hard thinking to do. Do they continue to try to be more conservative or do they try to make the distinctions between them and the Conservatives sharper? The danger is that they may try to court UKIP voters by adopting some of their xenophobic attitudes.