This year’s election is unprecedented in British history – and it could have serious knock-on effects for the rest of the EU. By James Bartholomeusz
One of the contradictions in a semi-federal union such as ours is the arbitrary dispersal of accountability between different levels of government. In a fully federal state, last year’s European elections would have given a clear mandate for the Juncker Commission to work towards a revived and deeper Europe; the democratic will of European citizens expressed itself in support for the informal alliance between the EPP and S&D groups that now dominates Parliament. Yet now, only a year into this legislative term, the whole European project faces radical destabilisation by national elections in just one member-state, the United Kingdom.
On 7th May, the British public will go to the polls to vote in the most hotly-contested election since the Second World War. The outgoing coalition is unusual for the UK; the country’s first-past-the-post voting system artificially inflates the number of seats held by the leading party with the purpose of delivering a powerful majority government. The last general election in 2010 resulted in a hung parliament for the first time since 1974, prompting five days of feverish inter-party negotiations that resulted in a pact between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Many hoped that this would a temporary aberration for the British political system, and that there would soon be a return to the norm of decisive victories. Yet the trend has proved to be in the opposite direction – five years on, the UK is engaged in its first ever seven-party election campaign.
With regards to the European Union, the British parties can be split into three camps. The majority – Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru (the Party of Wales) – are solidly in favour of Britain’s membership of and active involvement in the EU. Whilst die-hard federalists are hard to come by in any British political movement, all of these parties (centrist or Left-leaning) see the country as a vital part of Europe and rightly benefitting from the economic prosperity and social protection that EU membership brings. Indeed, the two nationalist parties of Scotland and Wales advocate independence from Britain coextensive with membership of the European Union in those countries’ own right.
Diametrically opposed to these parties is the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), led by Nigel Farage MEP. UKIP began as a single-issue Eurosceptic campaign, but has since blossomed into the dominant hard-Right force in British politics, arriving in first place in the 2014 European elections. UKIP is calling for a referendum on Britain’s EU membership as soon as possible – ideally before the end of the year – an issue that divides the pro-European parties. The standard line of opposition (consistently voiced by the Labour leader Ed Miliband) is that it would be both destabilising and unrepresentative to discuss Britain’s EU membership at a time when Europe is still is a state of flux and reformation in the wake of the crisis. However, UKIP enjoys a good deal of support for its play to direct democracy, meaning that a referendum may be difficult to deflect whatever the outcome of the election.
Caught haplessly between these two is the ruling Conservative Party. Prime Minister David Cameron’s five years on the European Council have been characterised more by deferral and evasion than real constructive engagement, repeatedly compromising his standing with other leaders for the sake of courting the Eurosceptic lobby back home. Whilst supporting calls for a referendum, the Conservative leadership maintains that it wishes to remain within a ‘reformed’ EU – with as yet very little definition of what might constitute sufficient ‘reform’ – but Tory backbenchers continue to grumble. Cameron has already isolated some sections of his party with his comparatively liberal approach, most notably managing to legalise same-sex marriage in the teeth of opposition from conservative and religious groups, and his failure to take a more robustly Eurosceptic stance has left some Tories vulnerable to the siren calls of UKIP. It is another idiosyncrasy of British historical development that there is no Christian-democratic force around to make the Right-wing case for an integrated Europe.
So what could this election mean for Europe? The Conservatives have sought to frame the choice at hand as one between economic stability and the chaos resulting from a victory by the more Left-wing parties. However, in his single campaign intervention, the former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair rightly pointed out that the greatest threat to Britain’s economic stability would be even the hint that it was considering withdrawal from the EU. This instability would inevitably also extend to the rest of Europe. The prospect of one of the union’s largest economies pulling out at a stage as delicate as this in the recovery process could well rupture the EU entirely. From a European perspective, the safest election outcome would be a British government with Labour at its core, buttressed by the various other pro-European parties (and perhaps the small minority of older-generation Conservative Europhiles). The most problematic would be a Conservative government either in coalition with, or reliant upon, the support of UKIP.
The more Europe-oriented Brits are wryly remarking that, with another hung parliament on the horizon, continental politics has finally landed upon the beaches of Sussex. If things tip the wrong way in two weeks’ time, British politics may be landing on the beaches of Normandy – and not in a good way.
A brief explanation of the British electoral system
With no written constitution, the UK has a very unusual political system compared to other European countries. The upper chamber of its bicameral parliament, the House of Lords, is unelected, whilst 650 MPs are elected to the lower chamber, the House of Commons, at least every five years. If a party wishes to form a government after an election, it must command enough seats (323 or more, allowing for certain Irish-nationalist MPs abstaining in protest) to vote through a Queen’s Speech, a summary of proposed legislation for the new parliamentary term.
MPs are elected via the first-past-the-post system. Under this system, the candidate winning the highest number of votes in each constituency is elected, even if she wins only one more vote than the second-place candidate. Partly as a result of this, a large number of Commons seats are ‘safe’, meaning that they reliably deliver MPs of the same party each election.
Most British elections since the Second World War have delivered a single-party majority government. However, a hung parliament occurs if no single party wins over half the Commons seats. In these circumstances, the largest party can either form a coalition government with others (as has been the case since 2010) or a minority government with support from other parties on a case-by-case basis (as with Harold Wilson’s Labour government in mid-1974).
In-text image ‘Parliament’ courtesy of Superedd via Pixabay, released under Creative Commons.