An Uncertain Race: Why the UK General Election Matters to the EU and the U.S.     Print Email

The 2010 British parliamentary election matters because:

  • Of its potential repercussions for Europe and for transatlantic relations, notably on Afghanistan;
  • The next government will face great challenges, not only to rebuild the economy but also trust in the political class after the shocking scandals that affected all parties.

Early in April, Gordon Brown, the leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, announced that the general parliamentary election would take place on May 6. The campaign has already shaped up to be very intriguing. It features, for the first time ever, three televised debates between the three main party leaders, Brown, David Cameron of the Conservative Party and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats – the first debate on April 15 focused on domestic policy, the second one on April 22 will discuss foreign affairs, and the final one a week later will concentrate on the economy.

It also promises to be the most uncertain and competitive election since 1992. Although the Conservative party remains, according to polls, favored to win the most seats, the overall result could still be a hung parliament – a rare occurrence in UK politics whereby no party wins an overall majority. It will provide a stern test to whichever party leads the UK, not only in terms of recovering from the financial crisis, but also in terms of rebuilding trust in the political class after the string of recent scandals. Finally, even though the campaign will center heavily on the economy and domestic matters, this election could have important international repercussions. The three main parties present marked differences when it comes to European integration, relations with the United States, and the War in Afghanistan.

An election that for many months seemed like a foregone conclusion – a Conservative triumph – is now anything but. With the Conservative lead in the polls narrowing, the three possible results of the election – a Labour majority, a Conservative majority, or a hung parliament – all appear plausible at this stage. Indeed Labour, despite its many challenges, could feasibly pull an upset and win a fourth term in office. Brown can certainly bank on the extraordinary stability of British politics since 1979. In that period, only once did the electorate kick a party out of power, when Tony Blair and Labour ended 18 years of uninterrupted conservative rule. Brown will call on voters to trust his experience amidst this context of economic turmoil, in line with his warning in 2008 that “this is no time for a novice.” He will hope, finally, for a repeat of the 1992 elections. Back then, John Major and the Conservatives scored a surprising victory, despite trailing consistently in the polls. Pollsters later explained this outcome by referring to the “shy Tory” syndrome, voters who were embarrassed to publicly admit their support for the Conservative government but who backed it anyway in the privacy of the booth.

The “shy Labour” syndrome could certainly play a factor in 2010, but it remains unlikely that it would be sizeable enough to guarantee a Labour victory and the preservation of their overall majority in Parliament. After all, the Conservative Party has remained ahead in the polls since late 2007. Cameron will be able to count on the relative unpopularity of Brown, the weariness of the electorate with a Labour party that has been in power for thirteen years, and his straightforward slogan of “Vote for Change.” That current lead, however, may not prove enough in the end. Conservatives may very well win the most seats, but they will need to comprehensively outperform their opponents if they are to capture the minimum of an extra 116 seats required to gain a majority in Parliament (so to increase their tally to 326 seats out of a total of 650).

All signs at this early stage of the campaign, therefore, point to a hung parliament as the most likely outcome of the election. This becomes even more apparent when considering the uniform national swings required for each possible outcome -- with a swing from Party A to Party B defined as the average of the percentage point fall in Party A’s share of the vote and the percentage point rise in Party B’s:

  • Any swing to Labour = increased Labour majority in Parliament.
  • Swing of up to 1.6% to Conservatives = reduced Labour majority.
  • 1.6-4.3% swing to Conservatives = hung parliament, with Labour capturing most seats.
  • 4.3-6.9% swing to Conservatives = hung parliament, with Conservatives capturing most seats.
  • More than 6.9% swing to Conservatives = Conservative majority in Parliament.

Whereas a national swing of at least 1.6% to the Conservative party is very feasible, the same cannot be said of the larger than 6.9% swing required for a Conservative majority. Since World War Two, only one election has produced a national swing larger than 6.9%, and that was the 1997 landslide that brought Labour to power. The Conservative Party, for its part, has not benefited from such a swing since 1931. Moreover, a hung parliament may perhaps prove to be the most accurate reflection of the current mood of the electorate in the UK. In the wake of the economic crisis and the many scandals that tainted politicians from all sides, especially the embarrassing revelations last year over parliamentary expenses, the voters may be inclined to send a clear warning of their profound dissatisfaction to the major political parties.

If the election does produce a hung parliament, the first since 1974 and only the second since 1929, it would also create uncertainty about the next government. Depending on whether Labour or the Conservative party win the most seats, and how close each party is to 326, the UK could end up with either a minority government that could establish loose agreements with smaller parties, or with a more formal coalition government. In either case, this might allow the Liberal Democrats and Nick Clegg – who should gain around 60 seats give or take – to play the role of kingmaker, although so far they have kept their cards very close to their chests.

Furthermore, uncertainty over the outcome of election and the type of government that might emerge – straight majority government, minority government or coalition – raises important questions about the future of the UK’s foreign policy, especially considering the not insignificant differences between the three main parties. Presumably, a Labour win would at least mean some relative degree of continuity. In regards to Europe, Brown promises continued engagement in his party’s manifesto. Deriding the Conservatives by claiming that “sullen resistance and disengagement achieve nothing,” the Prime Minister expresses pride that the UK “is once again a leading player in Europe” and that he will seek to “lead the agenda for an outward-facing European Union that delivers jobs, prosperity and global influence.” That commitment, however, would still not extend to the eurozone. While Brown supports the common currency in principle if the five economic tests are met, he has given no inclination that there are any imminent plans to adopt the euro for the UK. In other matters, the Labour leader remains committed to the war in Afghanistan, to replacing Trident in order to maintain an independent nuclear arsenal, and to strong transatlantic relations, even though his interactions with President Obama have not been particularly warm.

A Conservative government would not deviate sharply from Labour on the latter issues. They are equally committed to the war in Afghanistan and to replacing Trident. Although Cameron has suggested that the UK wanted a solid but not slavish relationship with the United States – in part a political tool to criticize the Bush-Blair ties – he will try to cultivate a close partnership with Obama, in deference to the traditionally Atlanticist leanings of his party. That may not prove so easy, however, if an article of the New Statesman is to be believed. After meeting Blair, Brown and Cameron in the summer 2008, Obama supposedly gave the following verdict: Blair was “sizzle and substance”; Brown was “substance”; and Cameron was merely “sizzle.”

Naturally, a Conservative government would sharply deviate from its Labour predecessor when it comes to the European Union. As leader of a largely Euro-skeptic party, Cameron has already taken steps that signal a strong opposition to further integration. In 2006, soon after becoming the leader of his party, he announced that the UK Conservative Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) would withdraw from the European People’s Party group because it supported a federalist approach to the EU. After the 2009 European elections, the Conservative MEPs joined other right-wing and Euro-skeptic parties to form the European Conservatives and Reformists group, a group that rapidly came under strong criticism for including a Latvian MEP who celebrated the Nazis and condemned homosexuality.

The recently published Conservative manifesto details more of the same when it comes to its attitude towards the EU. It re-iterates the party’s opposition to federalism, a pledge never to adopt the euro, and a promise never to ratify a European Treaty without a referendum, as happened with Lisbon. Moreover, a Conservative government would introduce a sovereignty bill to make sure ultimate power resides in Parliament, and not in the EU, and would seek to negotiate “guarantees” on the Charter of Fundamental Rights on criminal justice, and on social and employment legislation. Based on this plan, there are strong concerns in Brussels that in case of a Conservative victory, the EU could face a pretty obstructionist policy from the UK.

Finally, a coalition government would definitely face some key challenges in foreign policy because it would have to somehow include the ideas of the Liberal Democrats, despite their sharp disagreements on key issues with both Labour and the Conservatives. Of the three parties, the Liberal Democrats are clearly the most Europhile, highlighted by Nick Clegg’s near decade working in Brussels. In 1994, he took a position at the European Commission, before joining Trade Commissioner Leon Brittan’s private office, and eventually became a MEP from 1999 to 2004. His party remains strongly committed to EU membership, and wants to encourage greater European security and defense cooperation, a fact that may not sit well with either Labour or the Conservatives.

The differences go beyond simply European affairs. The Liberal Democrats were strongly opposed to the war in Iraq, support negotiations with moderate Taliban in order to end the war in Afghanistan, and seek cheaper alternatives to Trident. In regards to transatlantic relations, they also appear to be the most critical of the United States, as highlighted by a recent speech by Clegg: “That is why, in the same way we must rebalance an economy that is over-reliant on bankers, we must rebalance a foreign policy that is over-reliant on the White House. It is time to repatriate British foreign policy by standing tall in our European backyard and pursuing a policy of partnership – not followership – with our friends in the U.S.”

That stance positions the Liberal Democrats in a place where no British government -- Conservative or Labour -- has ever gone since the Suez Crisis in 1956.