Sunday, May 8, 2011

Parsing Out the UK Vote Results

(Sorry for my hiatus over the weekend, life gets in the way sometimes!)

So while it wasn't exactly later the other day, the results of the most recent round of voting in the UK in several constituencies including to the devolved Irish, Scottish, and Welsh Assemblies, municipal elections throughout England, and a UK-wide referendum on changing the electoral system for the country, have some heavy implications for the United Kingdom's three main parties - Labour, Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats - who, each in their own way, are facing some steep challenges in the road ahead.

Instead of going over each result, I thought I'd do it by party, to summarize easier what it means for these parties - and maybe what we can learn over here in Canada about the same issues. Let's start with the UK's most common governing party.

The Conservatives, who many are aware won the May 2010 election (though it ended in a minority parliament) in the UK under now-Prime Minister David Cameron, have the most to cheer about with this round of voting. You can say this because, overall, the expectations were very low to begin with. After all, a government committed to unpopular cuts programs and a somewhat scarred image as an elitist party of ninnies and nannies is seemingly bound to lose some steam, especially in elections where their government isn't threatened, but voters are still able to send a message. Some sources say the Conservatives expected to lose nearly 1,000 councillors in the municipal elections across England, putting into real form the party's continuously lacklustre results in opinion polls.

This, however, was not to be. In fact, the Conservatives not only outperformed those expectations of losses, they actually gained local council seats from what they had before, up 81 councillors, from 4,739 to 4,820, and up 4 in control of councils (whereby they have a majority of council seats in a region), from 153 to 157 (279 councils were contested).

Why is this even more stunning than it seems? Because the last time a governing party made net gains in local elections was when Tony Blair's Labour was in charge in 1998, and that's only because I can't find complete records; before that, it was under John Major in 1992.

In the devolved assemblies in Wales and Scotland, however, the news was last ecstatic. Though the Conservatives made gains in the Welsh Assembly, the Welsh Conservative leader Nick Bourne lost his own regional list seat, and really, they only gained the spot of Official Opposition in the Assembly thanks to the worse collapse of Plaid Cymru, Wales' nationalist party, which dropped four seats. Worse yet, Labour won what is essentially a majority, taking 30 of the Assembly's 60 seats, highlighting the party's strength in one of their traditional bases, even when in Opposition in London. Scotland for the Tories isn't worth mentioning, as it was a total write off for them, as it is on the federal level.

But in the end, the Conservatives have had the last laugh, with the push to change the electoral system in the UK soundly defeated, something that with near unanimity the Conservatives have opposed.

So, how is all this possible? Fact is, it's less to do with Cameron's appeal or the Conservative machine; it's more to do with the collapse of the next party, their coalition partners, and their perfect patsy.

The Liberal Democrats are the UK's perennial third party, what many people now expected us to be, but are currently the much smaller portion of the UK's governing coalition, with their leader Nick Clegg serving as David Cameron's deputy, and several other prominent Lib Demmers in cabinet, including Vince Cable, someone who likes to speak his mind.

They're also the round losers this year. Down in the polls, their leader facing internal discord and questions over the decisions so far made, have taken a big toll on the Lib Dems. They are down in every single vote, falling to complete irrelevancy in Wales (5 of 60 seats), Scotland (5 of 73 seats, down from 17 before), losing nearly half their councils and just under 700 councillors, mostly to the benefit of the Labour Party, and some to the Conservatives, and many to the Scottish Nationalists. In an even bigger way, the results of the AV Referendum, something that was key to their signing of the coalition deal with the Conservatives, have pretty much put the final nail in the coffin for them. There really is not much else to say.

What does it mean? It means that the Lib Dems are facing a severe backlash from the electorate, as should be expected, but is still a big concern. The question for them is whether or not they can bounce back; leader Nick Clegg has offered to "push harder" for more Lib Dem demands, however, given how much they've lost, and how the Conservatives were buoyed, they may just be seen as an ineffective junior partner in a coalition they simply don't fit well into. If they pull out of the coalition, and the Conservative government falls, it isn't likely to improve their chances; it would just be seen as an ineffective party throwing a tantrum when they didn't need to. Irrelevant, to say the least. Clegg better hold on to his head.

Finally, the Labour Party came out the middle-winner tonight, with their leader Ed Milliband, who likes to go back in time, coasting to an easy victory in local elections and in Wales, thanks to Lib Dem voters who have started to run back to Labour after the reverse happened since Tony Blair's election in 1997. However, not all is as good as it seems.

The main thorn in the side of Labour this election day has been Scotland, where they dropped several seats, including some in major strongholds, their Assembly leader resigned, and where the Scottish Nationalists, their version of the Parti Quebecois (literally), won an overall majority in Holyrood, aka the Scottish Assembly - something not seen before, and sure to spell out some concern for Labour in the future, thanks to SNP leader Alex Salmond's personal popularity (they also run seats for Westminster, a threat for Labour in London), and the fact that an independence referendum is almost sure to follow this win. Labour, as Scotland's main, I suppose, "federalist" party, tried but failed to make political hay of this fact. Now they face the task of trying to ensure the Scots don't drift away from the mainland, something they didn't want to do.

However, this being said, they did win big in Wales, where Assembly leader Carwyn Jones scored a near-majority, and they scored big in the municipal elections, winning 800 extra councillors (1,592 to 2,392), and 26 extra councils (from 31 to 57), mostly on the back of a dropped Lib Dem vote. And while Milliband himself backed the wrong horse in the AV referendum, it isn't expected to make any waves, given that the majority of Labour's members were against reform anyways.

Overall, it's a middle-of-the-road result that, while not making Milliband out to be the Prime-Minister-in-waiting, settles enough questions over whether Labour has any life left in it. Clearly, this is enough to keep them going - for now.

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