Ballot box north-ayrshire_gov_ukOn Thursday, May 7, 2015, Britain will have a general election.

For five years we have had a coalition government with the Conservatives and centre-left Liberal Democrats. This was necessary because the Conservatives did not have enough parliamentary seats to govern on their own. Consequently, discussions took place with the most logical party that could make up the difference, as it were.

For the past several months, polls have indicated that the two major political parties — the Conservatives and Labour — are neck and neck. I look at these results daily, politics being my third passionate subject after the Church and diet. Yes, general conversation becomes difficult at times!

For my many readers overseas, this is how a UK election works. My British readers should feel free to contribute with any clarifications to the following.

Not a presidential election

In practice, this is not a presidential election. We will not be voting for a party leader but for our local Member of Parliament (MP) who will represent our constituency in the House of Commons. (We will also be voting for local councillors on the same day.)

However, as the party with the most seats will form the next government, most voters will be considering who will make the better Prime Minister: David Cameron (Conservative, second term) or Ed Miliband (Labour). One of those two will be (re)appearing on the world stage after May 7.

Therefore, in the sense where we need to consider who has the better policies for Britain, it is somewhat presidential.

Other parties

The UK also has other political parties besides the Conservatives (‘Tories’), Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

One party which is expected to attract the most votes after the Conservatives and Labour is UKIP — the United Kingdom Independence Party — led by Nigel Farage. (Photo courtesy of gewoon-niews.nl.) UKIP is likely to sap votes from the Conservatives, putting us in danger of having a Labour / Labour coalition government. UKIP, which was initially more libertarian, speaks for those who are angry with the Tories for not being conservative enough. UKIP supporters say that whilst David Cameron is Conservative, he is not a conservative.

The Liberal Democrats, led by Nick Clegg, are polling below 10% percent, so they are in a much weaker position than in 2010.

Embedded image permalinkThe SNP — Scottish Nationalist Party — has gained much traction with Scots after last year’s independence referendum. In fact, they are likely to wipe out Labour north of the border. Only Scots will be able to vote for them. (Photo courtesy of Tim Montgomerie.)

The Greens have gained more support in this election cycle, although their polling figures, like those of the Lib Dems are in single figures.

In other parts of the UK, the Welsh have the ever-popular Plaid Cymru (pron. ‘Com-ree’)  and Northern Ireland their various Unionist and Nationalist parties.

Some constituencies in Britain will also be featuring Independent candidates, representing their own views, not those of a political party.

How it works

We have a first-past-the-post system. The candidate with the most votes becomes MP for a particular constituency.

Ideally, a party leader will become PM if he/she wins 326 seats out of 650. However, as with the 2010 election, this is unlikely to happen. Hence, the very real possibility of a hung parliament or another coalition government. The Parliament.uk site explains (emphases in the original):

In the 2010 general election, however, no single party won more than half the seats in the House of Commons. The Conservative Party, led by David Cameron, won the most with 306. The Labour Party, led by Gordon Brown, came second with 258 seats. The Liberal Democrats came third with 57 seats. This election result is known as a hung parliament, where no single party is able to claim more than half the seats in the Commons.

So what happens in the case of a hung parliament? There are two main possibilities:

  • Two or more parties can agree to work together to govern the country.
  • The party with the most seats can also try to govern with a minority of seats in the Commons. If the party can’t get enough support on an important vote, however, it risks defeat, which may force a general election.

In the 2010 election, after several days of negotiations, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and David Cameron agreed their parties would work together.

By joining forces the two parties combined have a majority of seats in the House of Commons, enough to form a government. This is called a coalition government.

On May 7, previously registered British, Commonwealth (some restrictions apply) and Irish citizens will be able to go to their local polling stations to vote between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. We use paper ballots and pencils. The results, counted by hand, generally become available on Friday afternoon.

However, we also have a growing number of people who vote by postal ballot. Those voters are mailing their votes in as I write. Whilst convenient for shut-ins or businesspeople who travel a lot, they have been open to voting fraud in 2005 and 2010.

The Queen’s role

In The Independent, Philip Goldenberg explains what happens after the results are tabulated and what role the Queen — our Head of State — has in the process.

First:

Following an inconclusive general election, an incumbent Prime Minister should stay until he can give clear advice to the Queen. He is entitled to try to put together an arrangement under which he can obtain Commons approval for a legislative programme. If he concludes that he cannot do this, then he should resign and advise the Queen to send for somebody else who can [Heath March 1974; Brown 2010].

Then:

The Queen invites an individual to form a government.  The invitee can accept on the spot (and kiss hands [figuratively] on appointment), decline or [Home 1963] say that he’ll go away, try and then report back.

This is because:

a legislative programme can only be put to the House by somebody invited by the Queen to form a Government. 

However:

if the incumbent has resigned before facing Parliament, and his successor then fails and resigns (as convention dictates), then the position is reversed and he would be invited by the Queen to have his shot.

In 2010, Gordon Brown stood down in favour of David Cameron by the following Tuesday, although it was a contentious and tense few days whereby he did not wish to relinquish his position, despite the aforementioned results. The state of the economy demanded a quick resolution. As the state of the nation has improved since then, this year’s election might involve lengthy negotiations:

As in 2010, a longer period than has traditionally been allowed, with the State Opening of Parliament delayed until 27 May (which the Queen can further postpone). Unlike 2010, there is no financial crisis dictating that speed is of the essence; and the Commons is likely to be more kaleidoscopic. So expect a busy three weeks (or a bit longer) until it is apparent what will fly and what won’t get off the runway.

A note on the SNP

With regard to the SNP, whose leader is Nicola Sturgeon, The Guardian points out that if the party is involved in coalition discussions:

While Sturgeon is the SNP party leader, she is not in fact standing for a seat in Westminster. She is currently Scotland’s first minister (the prime ministerial equivalent north of the border) and sits in the Scottish parliament.

Instead, Angus Robertson, who led the party in Westminster in the last parliament, and Alex Salmond, who was Sturgeon’s predecessor as party leader and first minister (he resigned after losing the independence vote) and is standing in May for a national parliamentary seat, are likely to be key figures in the party’s negotiating team after the vote.

What might happen

The Guardian adds:

It’s very possible, for instance, that the Conservatives will have the most seats on 8 May, but will be unable to muster enough support from other parties to get over the magic 326-seat line.

That’s why many think the potential for SNP backing actually puts Miliband in a stronger position than Cameron going into the vote – regardless of what the polls say.

My opinion is that, if Labour get in, it will be a long time before we see another Conservative government. Let’s not forget they were in power between 1997 and 2010. Those conservatives out to ‘punish’ David Cameron for his centrist (and sometimes questionable) positions would do well to reconsider their ire before putting an ‘X’ on their ballots.

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