Analysis of the recent elections in Britain
by Englishlefty, Sun May 06, 2007 at 06:32:47 AM EDT
On May 3 local elections were held in most parts of England outside London, as were elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. In the run-up to the elections it had been clear that Labour would do poorly across the board, yet Labour's acceptance of this appears to have changed the expectations game, placing the burden on the Conservatives, the Scottish Nationalist Party and Plaid Cymru.
The situation now is not absolutely settled, as there have been problems with weirdly high numbers of spoiled ballots in some Scottish constituencies (possibly due to the complicated ballot paper's needed for Holyrood's mixture of proportional representation and first-past-the-post voting). Nevertheless, at present, we can make these deductions:
The big victors here are obviously the SNP. Although Labour lost ground, their totals went down by only a few percentage points overall in the constituency elections and barely at all in the regional lists. Much of the ground which the SNP made up appears to have been due to the disintegration of the SSP (Scottish Socialist Party) following the libel action which its former leader Tommy Sheridan (now leader of Solidarity) brought against the News of the World last year. Nevertheless, SSP voters might be expected to split fairly evenly between Labour and the SNP and Scotland and Wales are supposed to be Labour strongholds.
Neither the Lib Dems nor the Conservatives performed particularly impressively, although neither expected to as the former is rarely competitive outside the Highlands and Islands and the latter is only a player in the wealthier southern constituencies.
The most likely result here is a coalition government led by the SNP. The Liberal Democrats, who were previously in coalition with Labour, have said that they will not do so now, whilst a Con-Lab coalition is unthinkable both because of the attitudes of their national parties and because Scottish Labour is well to the left of the leaders of British Labour. The Lib Dems and Greens are both in talks with the SNP over a potential coalition, which would give them 65 seats, a majority of one. The sticking point will be the referendum on independence which the SNP promised to hold in 2010, a policy to which the Lib Dems are opposed.
In this atmosphere, independent MP Margo MacDonald is likely to play an important role. A former member of the left wing of the SNP, she claims not to be planning to join any coalitions, yet here support could yet prove crucial for maintaining or sinking governments this parliament.
Whether the SNP gains are indicative of a fundamental restructuring in Scottish politics is unclear. We must wait for the next UK General Election to see how they perform before an assessment of this can be made, but personally I suspect that with Labour out of power north of the border and a first-past-the-post system, they'll overcome their problems with unpopularity and any nationalist gains in seats at the next election will be minimal.
In Wales there appears to have been much less movement than in Scotland. Nevertheless, Labour did not hold a majority prior to the election and their losses mean that they will definitely be looking for a coalition. Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives gained at their expense. Labour still got more votes than any of its rivals, yet this is hardly surprising since South Wales contains some of the safest Labour seats in the country.
The question of what happens next is difficult to answer, as many options remain on the table. The most likely solution is a repeat of the previous Lib-Lab coalition, yet certain members of the party have voiced opposition. Alternatively, Labour could attempt to form a coalition with Plaid Cymru, yet given that party's previous refusal to join a "failing Labour government" this would likely require a number of political concessions on Labour's part. Finally, a rainbow coalition could be formed to keep Labour out of power, but given that Plaid Cymru leans to the left it seems unlikely that a coalition between them and the Conservatives would be anything but fractious and short lived, whilst if Labour were kept in opposition it would present them with the opportunity to castigate the government for any failings on its part.
Although a couple of councils are yet to declare, the overall picture seems clear. The Conservatives appear to have won around 50.5% of all available English council seats and to have gained 40% of the total votes. Labour appears to have obtained only 27% of the votes and in terms of actual seats to have been beaten by the Lib Dems, although they did beat them both in terms of total votes (if only by a single percentage point) and in terms of councils controlled. The Conservatives appear to have had some success in the north and have gained control of 38 new councils.
Nevertheless, the Conservatives were not successful everywhere, failing, for example, to take Bury. Moreover local council elections would appear to favour them slightly and without any elections in the London area a number of strong Labour areas are excluded. The Conservative performance certainly looks strong enough to deny Labour a majority and most likely to be the largest party in the next parliament, but when one factors in Labour's strengths and Conservative weaknesses in Wales and Scotland (as well as the electoral map's lean towards Labour) a hung parliament seems the most likely outcome at the next General Election.
Depending, of course, on who Labour's next leader is and how the party deals with this. Blair had already stated before the election that he would be stepping down on May 10th. The succession seems almost certain to pass to Gordon Brown, yet that is unlikely to be the end of the story. Later in the week, I'll diary the possible paths Labour's recent history, its internal politics could take over the next few months and what this could mean for its prospects at the next election.