British elections and the role of third parties

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.

UK results

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.


  1. gshelley says

    I think the LibDem collapse had two. main factors -- Many people felt betrayed by specific policies, such as the reversal on tuition fees, so wouldn’t vote for them, but also, they didn’t do enough to convince people that they had held back the Conservatives and would so so again. If people were seeing a vote for them as essentially being a vote for the Conservatives, there is a greatly reduced incentive to do so

  2. says

    Mano --

    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.

    The two groups of people who most often advocate for proportional representation are:

    (1) people who are sick and tired of a current majority government, and

    (2) the party that just lost the election.

    Proportional representation, multistage elections (eliminating last place candidates and voting again) and multioption voting (first choice, second choice, etc.) are definitely better than “first past the post”, but the latter is capable of both bad and good results. Yes, it’s depressing that the conservatives get a “majority” with only 37% of the vote, but then so did the NDP in Alberta with only 48%. A Conservative and Wildrose coalition would have spelt doom for the province; the Conservatives would likely have backed the NDP or at least agreed not to back a non-confidence vote for a year.

    The best part about proportional representation is that it nearly always means minority governments and coalitions. The largest party can’t dominate, so it has to listen to the opposing parties instead of lobbyists and other unelected offerers of bribes. Unfortunately, that also means extremists can get into government with pockets of support. Having even just a handful of seats in a parliament can heavily swing policy.

    The thing I don’t like about the Canadian (and other) parliamentary system is how quickly elections can happen. We had two in less than a year (1979-1980) after a non-confidence vote against Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservative government (back when conservative meant a sane and sober person and not a wingnut). The only change I would make to the Canadian system is a minimum of eighteen months between elections.

    At least it’s not as bad as the US. A two party system is no different than a one party system. The US government may have three bodies, but there’s always an easily bribed and influenced majority in each one.

  3. says

    The referendum vote under Alex Salmond was closer than expected, and two factors which contributed to it being a narrow loss were (a) personal animus against Alex Salmond fueled by the U.K. main stream media, (b) the “vow” promise by the former prime minister Gordon Brown of greater devolved powers including greater fiscal autonomy. Events since the referendum have highlighted that the “vow” was not worth the air expelled by gasbag Brown, and the powers to be devolved were woefully short of either home rule or full fiscal autonomy. Additionally the narrative since the SNP’s success in the devolved parliament (Holyrood) has finally got through to traditional Labour supporters that “their” party has since the days of Tony Blair moved steadily away from it’s socialist roots, and it is now little more than another centrist party beholden to banks, and corporations. As the current leader of the SNP has stated, this landslide is not an endorsement of the party’s aim of full independence, not a call for another referendum, it is a recognition by a number of No supporters that the party which best represents their aspirations of social justice is the SNP. It will remain to be seen if the Unionist parties can regain any of these losses in the short to long term, Scots voters have long memories, and once having moved their votes in this manner, it may prove difficult to win them back without a great deal of change in the other parties make-up. A further thought -- now that Cameron has been returned there is likely to be a U.K. wide referendum on European Union membership, if (as is likely) England votes to leave the Union while Scotland favours remaining in the Union, then a second independence referndum WILL follow, and that could well have a totally different outcome.

  4. fentex says

    The Lib-Dems deserved to be annihilated because they did betray their constituents last election by sacrificing principle for illusory power. their entire campaign was about honesty and keeping pledges while pledging not to increase education costs when the very first thing they did was vote to raise education costs in return for a position in government.

    Good riddance to them.

    I don’t think the Conservative being voted in is a turn to the right, I think NOT voting for UKIP illustrates that.

    I think it was a simple gathering around a known quantity to maintain a steady keel at work.

    A Labour coalition with an incompetent like Milliband in charge would have been chaotic and I believe the thing the UK electors reacted against.

    And Milliband is incompetent -- he hammered that point home to anyone paying attention after demanding in a speech that he be judged on his own abilities and not the propaganda of opponents, then a month later at his parties conference chose to speak without prompter or notes, expressly to assert his abilities and competencies (which apparently don’t include delegation, cooperation or risk mitigation) and completely forgot to speak of his parties economic manifesto and policies! The CORE issues of any political party!

    I am not surprised that electorate chose the devil they know.

  5. krambc says

    Post-election analyses follow certain narrative tropes but the results tell more about electoral dysfunction than voters’ choice on policy or campaigns or leaders.

    The first-past-the-post [fptp] plurality voting system gives Cameron 100% of the power with 51% of the seats on just 37% of the votes.

    Distorted representation is anti-democratic no matter your views of the parties:
    UKIP voters got 1 seat with 3.8 million votes ; Greens got 1 seat with 1.1 million.

    Regional parties get over-represented; most famously SNP has learned lessons from Canada’s Bloc Quebecois: just 1.5 million votes reaped 57 seats all in Scotland.

    Same for the smaller regional parties; in Wales, Plaid Cymru gets 3 seats with a paltry 180K votes and N. Ireland’s DUP gets 8 seats on just 185k votes]

    But the Lib-Dems get 8 seats off 2.5 million votes.

    Sidenote to #2 left0ver1under regarding elections happening ‘too quickly’ ; the only outstanding demand of the Chartist movement (1838) is the annual Parliament as a mechanism to limit corruption:

  6. AMartin says

    Voters are strange sometimes. If the lib dems were being punished for propping up the tories then why did they lose their seats mostly to a conservative swing?. Also Labour was punished in Scotland for supporting austerity but punished in England for being allegedly too profligate when in power.

  7. Nick Gotts says

    I agree with almost everything stephenyeats says, the exception being that on balance I think it’s unlikely England (or the UK as a whole) will vote to leave the EU. Very few of the Tories’ big business backers want that, and ultimately they call the tune. The party leadership will in fact find this referendum they’ve promised a curse, as most of their activists, and many of their MPs and voters, do want to leave (not out of any rational calculation -- pure xenophobia). However, if there is a vote to leave, and if (as is almost certain) Scots vote to stay, that will indeed prompt another referendum on Scottish independence -- which, OTOH, probably won’t happen in the next few years without some such big event -- but see below. As to why the SNP won such a landslide months after losing the last referendum, while the referendum vote went against independence (more narrowly than years of opinion polls would have predicted, as stephenyeats says), most of the passion was on the “Yes” side, and the SNP got a huge increase in membership as a result (so did the much smaller, pro-independence Scottish Green Party, which I joined just after the referendum and campaigned for in the election). Meanwhile, Labour made the huge strategic error of running a joint campaign with the widely-hated Tories against independence: the “Yes” vote was highest in their previous working-class strongholds. So in Scotland the Britain-wide collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote was accompanied by a collapse in the Labour vote -- and the new SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, is much more popular than Alex Salmond.

    As to why the UK-wide vote went against Labour, I doubt Ed Miliband personally was the key factor. The polls in the run-up showed Labour and Tories neck-and-neck, but there were a large proportion of undecided voters, and it was probably these who voted predominantly Tory. Labour was in charge during the 2008 crash, and have not re-established voter trust; nor did they present a coherent alternative to “austerity” -- basically, they campaigned on “austerity lite”, and indeed “racism lite” -- one of the points on the leaflet they delivered to me was a promise to stop new arrivals in the country claiming welfare benefits for 2 years. Commentators have been claiming their failure showed they had gone “too far left”, and indeed it seems likely they will swing further right, but this is a hopeless strategy, simply moving the battle further onto their opponents’ ground. That a coherent anti-austerity message could have worked is suggested by the SNP’s triumph in Scotland: while politically they are a mixed bag, their campaign foregrounded their opposition to austerity, and to the renewal of the UK’s nuclear weapons (which are based in Scotland).

    The net result -- apart from the vile prospect of another 5 years of Tory destruction of the welfare state and the NHS -- is a greater political gap between England and Scotland than at any time in living memory, possibly since the union of 1707 itself. More than half of those who voted in England voted for the Tories or UKIP; more than half in Scotland for a party well to the left of Labour (not a difficult feat, admittedly). So although I don’t expect another independence referendum in the near future -- absent a UK decision to leave the EU -- in the medium term (10-15 years), it looks pretty likely. The SNP will have to screw up pretty badly to lose its dominance over that period -- and even if it does, in most cases would have the option of blaming everything on Westminster.

  8. Nick Gotts says

    Incidentally, Nigel Farage’s resignation from UKIP leadership is just a stunt: he has pointedly “not ruled out” standing for re-election in September. UKIP have no-one else with any degree of public recognition or political nous. The 2017 referendum on the EU will be a golden opportunity for him and UKIP -- unless the Tories, contrary to my confident prediction, wind up calling for a vote to leave. Unless they do, UKIP will be the only party of any significance doing so. Farage won’t want to miss that.

  9. AndrewD says

    @ Nick Gotts 8
    If past experience is a guide, UKIP will implode in Farage’s abscence(a common event in small parties anyway). It was rescued by Farage last time and I think he expects the same this time and he rides back as the Savior. Locally all the non labour parties ran an appalling campaign(if you can call it that!) It may be that they wrote Leicester off but we didnt see any UKIP or Lib Dem signs and a few TUSC* signs whilst out doorknocking/leafleting.
    I admit that our Labour candidates in Leicester were defending large majoritys

    *TUSC= Trade union and socialist coalition

  10. Nick Gotts says

    If the lib dems were being punished for propping up the tories then why did they lose their seats mostly to a conservative swing? -- AMartin@6

    Actually, I don’t think they did, although I haven’t looked at the figures constituency by constituency. Britain-wide, the Conservative Party’s share of the vote barely shifted -- I think it was 0.6% higher than in 2010. The Britain-wide Labour vote rose rather more -- and it fell heavily in Scotland. I suspect that a considerable number of anti-Tory-and-anti-Labour voters switched from the LibDems to UKIP or the Greens, and this gave the Tories formerly LibDem seats without needing much of a direct transfer of votes.

  11. Nick Gotts says


    I think you’re over-estimating the significance of the event: all the UKIP leadership (such as it is) will know it’s just a stunt, and that none of them would stand a chance running against Farage even if they wanted to. Basically, he’s taking a long summer break, at a time when there’s nothing much to be done anyway.

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