Mother of all elections!

Wednesday, 13 May 2015 01:03 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Labour’s Ed Miliband and the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg resigned from their posts as party leaders following their abysmal outing at the general elections

 

If I might adapt Saddam Hussein’s celebrated phrase just before the first Gulf War, the British public last week witnessed the mother of all elections. Never in the history of British parliamentary democracy has the country seen three party leaders commit hara-kiri. Well one did not exactly finish the job off because he might well be back as the head of the UK Independence Party (UKip) after the holidays with the necessary political surgery.

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It will take somewhat longer than Lazarus took to rise since his political fortunes took what some misguided souls thought was a terminal blow. But Nigel Farage is not one to throw in the towel easily and retreat to the shrub or pub.  Though he himself lost his seat - the Conservatives having virtually thrown everything including the kitchen sink at him - and his party won only one seat, UKip made such a stunning showing south of the border that political reform to produce a much more equitable electoral system must surely become a matter of public discussion which politicians will not be able to ignore in the coming months.

While the growing ‘nuisance’ value of the UKip increasingly biting the feet of the main parties will remain a talking point in the lifetime of this Parliament, it is the fate of the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats - whose leaders Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg fell on their swords or reached for the favoured weapon of the Japanese (take your pick) - which will attract the public’s primary focus with two of the country’s three main parties left leaderless.

There were several questions thrown up by this election. The immediate issue is how wrong opinion pollsters were on this occasion including some major names among them and the media on whose behalf some of these polls were conducted. But this was not the first instance where they slipped up.

Right up to Election Day on 7 May, the polls suggested that the result would be too close to call and political commentators were churning out column after column predicting a hung parliament and its consequences.

Readers like us without the wherewithal available to these pundits in print and on the small screen, some of whom had traversed the length and breadth of the country, could only accept the prognostications of the learned and wait for next day for a photo-finish end to an election campaign that seemed dull as dishwater.

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The fact that every major poll predicted a close call and therefore a hung parliament and only the exit poll carried out on behalf of the BBC gave a result that stunned everybody must now surely lead to even more skepticism about the methodologies employed and the samples surveyed. 

Surely now, after these pollsters have proved that individually and collective they were way off the mark and their reading of the political mood did not capture the growing Scottish nationalism or the undercurrent of English nationalism awakening south of the border, they will sit down to assess whether it was a systemic failure that led to such a total error.

Whether the change in the mood in England was a result of the perceived fear that Scottish nationalists would command a greater say in the workings of the Westminster Parliament or whether it was some other consideration, such as the need for continuity in Government and the worry that a new administration might reverse what was seen as the economic gains of the last five years, is something that will be assessed over time.  

Whatever the reason or reasons may be for the opinion surveys failing to accurately detect the outcome of the elections, the public will now treat whatever the pollsters say in the future, especially with regards to national election forecasts, with a high degree of scepticism.

 



Electoral reform

Another major issue that the Conservative Government and indeed the political establishment would have to examine closely is whether the current first-past-the- post electoral system is outdated and was meant to accommodate the political structure of a two- party system.

That might have been alright for the 19th and 20th centuries when the two-party system was intended to provide majority and stable government. But that system is no longer fit for purpose and the breakdown of that arrangement has been occurring in most countries in Europe where newly emerging small political groupings are beginning to gradually put a squeeze on older and more established parties.

The unfairness of the existing electoral system in the UK was proved very clearly at this election, if proof was indeed necessary. Take a few examples. The UKip was able to muster nearly four million votes across the country but still was able to elect just one MP. The Green Party garnered over 1 million votes and again got one MP into Westminster. Collectively they received five million votes but still have only two MPs.

Whereas the Scottish SNP, which received slightly less than 1.5 million votes, will have 56 out of 59 MPs in Parliament. Again the Conservatives, with something over 11.3 million votes, win 331 seats in Parliament and Labour, with a little more than 9.3 million votes, gain 232 seats.

The whole asymmetry of the system that gives a party with less than half of the votes won jointly by the UKip and the Greens, 232 seats and the latter two parties with nearly 5 million votes a mere two seats is too obvious a travesty to reiterate.

While there are other major issues that Cameron’s Conservative Government would have to handle with some delicacy, particularly since it has a very slender majority despite its overall majority in Parliament, such as the referendum Cameron had promised on the Europe Union and the new relationship between an assertive SNP and itself, the question of political reform cannot and should not remain on the backburner for too long.     

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