A Guide To The 2019 UK Election
Americans are in the middle of an era of politics that is arguably the wildest, zaniest, most absurd, uncivil, and whatever other titles you want for it in its history; with our global image taking a major hit and respect for our institutions seemingly getting lower and lower among the American electorate – not to mention even amongst the politicians themselves. So it must give us a bit of a sigh of relief when news comes from across the pond that the United Kingdom is also having its own problems of late regarding their institutions and global image, as embarrassing events for them pile up one after the other. “Well then, it seems that we’re not the only ones making fools out of ourselves!”
But I’d wager most, even a significant chunk of the politically engaged, don’t fully understand what exactly has been going on over at the kingdom of Queen Elizabeth II. We know a little of the major details – the country has voted to leave the European Union but can’t seem to pull the trigger, recent election results over there have put pollsters in a bad light, a wave of populism has helped far right and left rise to the national conversation, and the current Prime Minister is referred to as the European Donald Trump. Of course the reality is a lot of these things have more context and nuance to them, so as an observer of UK politics who considers their elections my personal favorite to watch unfold, I’ll try and help out my fellow rebel countrymen who might be curious about the upcoming race there to understand it all.
– UK Politics 101
Let me try and explain the basics first. The United Kingdom is ruled by a lifetime Monarch, an old outdated concept of power, but one that has survived in modern times there thanks in large part to the current ruler in Queen Elizabeth II. A woman who has ruled the longest of any English monarch in history going back to the days of Alfred the Great, and who has made it her lifegoal to modernize the crown and keep it going even as it continues to lose power. The monarch can only do so much in advising, warning, and very rarely getting limitedly involved in the state of affairs. Those are largely decided by the Parliament of the country, which has two houses – the House of Lords and the House of Commons.
The House of Lords isn’t of any concern to us in understanding this upcoming election. Lords are given membership there through peerage whether they are born into the highest classes of the country or they have achieved enough as countrymen to be given the title – many former House of Commons members and past Prime Ministers have gone on to be promoted to this house of the Parliament. Consider it like their Senate save for (Thanks to progressive reforms as time has gone by) having much less power to keep the other house in check, and with Supreme Court like methods of getting in. Its in this house the Queen has her speeches to Parliament (Sort of their State of the Unions).
The House of Commons though is what its all about when it comes to power. The monarch herself isn’t even allowed to step foot here. After centuries of reforms and revolutions, this house which was originally meant for elected “commoners” to be able to participate in setting the laws of the country, has basically become the major and more important part of the reigns of governing the UK. Currently 650 seats are available here for named constituents (They don’t number them like we do our congressional districts) that makeup the entire country from England to Wales to Scotland and even seats for the ever growing isolated Northern Ireland. The party that can form a majority, an unchallenged plurality, or head a coalition with another party (or parties), gets to head the government while all other parties play the role of the amassed loyal opposition (They even get to form minority cabinets known as “shadow” positions).
The party that heads the government gets to have its party leader as Prime Minister. It started out as a smaller role, but through time the position has almost effectively become the UK’s position for a would be President. Prime Ministers have now become figures that are the face of their eras, debated about by historians in regard to legacies, and their popularity and unpopularity can make or break a party’s chances in the next election. Pretty much just like Presidents with us.
The political parties of the United Kingdom include the Conservatives (Also known as Tories), basically the main center-right party of the country and a less socially conservative version of the Republican party. The main opposition to them on the left is Labour, a party that begun as straight out socialist but has since become more of a mainstream leftist party, but like the Democratic party its constantly going through debates among its members on how left-wing they should be. Now unlike here in the states the third parties have a bigger say and thus pluralities in the popular vote and in Prime Minister approvals are commonplace as there’s almost always no math to a majority in raw votes. Those third parties include the Liberal-Democrats (A more capitalist friendly version of Labour), the Greens, the Brexit and UKIP parties (Basically more fringe right-center parties obsessed with completing Brexit), and nationalist parties in the regions outside of England in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Not to mention other isolated smaller parties like the center right DUP in Northern Ireland.
Rules for calling an election have changed through time. In the old days, even the death of a monarch could trigger one, and up until recently a Prime Minister could simply snap their fingers and call for one. The limits of one Parliament’s length in power has gone down little by little as time has gone by, with a fixed term of about five years between Parliaments being the maximum today. However, a Prime Minister these days can ask for an early election before the term is up by winning a two-thirds vote in the commons or if the commons votes “No confidence” in the government.
The path to winning 326 seats (A majority in the commons), is for Conservatives to do well down south and all across England, Labour to do well up north and in London while keeping a tight grip on Wales, and both parties have to figure their way around Liberal Democrats posing risks in England and the current domination of the Scottish Nationalists in Scotland. Marginals (What they call their version of swing or battleground seats) will decide the race and typically swing towards one of the two major parties.
Obviously there’s more complexities I can detail, but I think I ran down all the basics one needs to know. Now to rundown and explain everything one needs to know to understand THIS election.
– The Next Election
In 2010, after thirteen years in power, Labour lost their majority in the House of Commons after the great recession, an expenses scandal, the lingering unpopularity of their decisions in Iraq, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s unpopularity all led to them losing power to a coalition of the plurality Conservatives led by incoming Prime Minister David Cameron and the Liberal-Democrat party that formed a majority together. After five years of polarizing debates on the economy and fiscal plans the Conservatives effectively won re-election in the midst of a recovering economy in 2015, and this time got a majority outright by themselves as their coalition partners saw a near extinction level event dropping from 57 seats to 8 seats in just one electoral cycle.
However in the aftermath of 2015, populist waves began to form as Labour chose an open socialist to be their leader and after coming close to winning an independence referendum the Scottish Nationalists took over Scotland’s seats in the commons. Then in 2016, in a surprise result the voters by a close margin chose to leave the European Union. This pushed an increasingly unpopular Cameron to resign as Prime Minister and his colleague Theresa May took over promising to deal with the Brexit mess, and thus came in with sky high approvals not seen in two decades back when former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s popularity was at its peak.
To sort out the debate as to whether to leave the EU with trade, economic, or movement of people deals in place or just leave all together and leave the country to completely fend for itself, May called for an early election in 2017. She started out the campaign incredibly popular and with her party amassing leads that teased a historic landslide. However, as the campaign went along her popularity began to dip and the party’s lead with it. On election day, the Tories underperformed, lost their majority, and barely held on to power in a much closer election than many expected.
The loss of a majority, the gamble in calling an early election that blew up in her face, a civil war within her party, and her growing unpopularity led to May calling it quits earlier this year after she could not deliver Brexit. In her place as the new Prime Minister is Boris Johnson, a controversial and yet politically successful Brexiter that has dealt with the same personal issues of marriage and fidelity, and comments about opponents that President Trump has gotten himself into. His vow to make Brexit happen didn’t start out well as he lost vote after vote in the commons and alienated members of his party to defect. Now realizing he’ll have to get a majority to finally get Brexit done, he’s laid the path down for the first election in December since 1923.
Much has been said about Johnson being a UK version of Trump, but I honestly think those comparisons can be unfair in certain areas. While Johnson has had personal issues and alienated people from his party like Trump has, he’s also a proven winner who managed to be Mayor of Labour inclined London for two terms and has held a marginal seat of his own. Also, whereas the conventional wisdom about him in the U.S matches up with Trump’s image polling, Johnson is actually slightly popular as he continues to enjoy the honeymoon of that fresh PM smell and his rivals, the other party leaders, poll worse than he does on leadership ratings. Johnson, like May, could see this campaign tear him apart, but for now he’s looking more like an eventual winner than not in the public’s mind regardless what the bubble of the punditry might think.
As for his rivals, Labour is currently dealing with their controversial leader Jeremy Corbyn. A man who has ties to terrorist and anti-Semite groups, is an open socialist that scares away moderates, and currently polls the worst any party leader has in polling history. However, for all his (many) faults he is a great campaigner and in 2017 he did come from down big margins to scaring the Tories on the night of. However, I’m not so sure he can pull it off again, and even if he does we’re still likely talking about limiting the damage in a best case scenario than outright getting power.
And there’s the Liberal Democrats who have decided to be all in on stopping Brexit regardless of the referendum’s results. This has helped them with “Remain” voters (Voters who still want to stay in the EU) and they’ve won local and European elections, and are poised to make some gains after bleeding seats before. Their leader, Jo Swinson, believes she can rally a coalition of remain candidates and perhaps even have an outside shot at becoming the first Liberal Prime Minister in a century. But I’m skeptical she can achieve too much as voters will eventually start to squeeze out the third parties and start coalescing around the two main parties. I do think they’ll make gains, but I’m very skeptical of any talk of being in a position to decide the outcome.
Finally there’s the Brexit party, which was thought to be a potential problem for the Tories in taking votes from them. Problem is, they’ve decided to stand down in various seats and their effect will be limited, and not to mention there will be parts of the country they may actually hurt Labour more than the Tories.
Polling as of this writing points to a Tory majority with forecasters debating whether it’ll be a small one or a big one. Historically, polling in the states gives us a good read on the election’s likely results. In the UK? A bit more of a mixed bag. What happened in 2016 here with Trump is much more common with our English friends, and modern UK electoral history has seen pollsters way off on the margins of the winning party or outright get the winner wrong as the table I’ve provided proves.
As you can see the modern polling has done pretty good predicting the popular vote winner and national overall winner. But when you look at the margins for error in both the popular vote and whether a party achieves a majority or minority, the room for upsets seems to be grander there than over here in the states. Because of that while any party should like being where the Tories are right now, they shouldn’t be TOO cocky going into election night. Always keep the volatility of polling over there in comparison to us in mind.
Overall, my take is that a Tory government is the likely result with Boris Johnson remaining Prime Minister, Jeremy Corbyn likely having to step down as Labour leader, and the Liberal Democrats making gains but maybe not as spectacularly as some hope. However, how big that Tory win is absolutely still up for grabs. A hung parliament (Which could provide a path for the opposition) being returned could still happen as much as could a landslide Tory majority. Keep your window of possibilities large.
– How To Follow Along On Election Night
Polls in the UK all close at 10:00PM their time, or 5:00PM EST for us. As soon as Big Ben chimes, exit polls will be released by the networks projecting the final result. In the past, exit polls generally were worse than even our own with Tories usually doing better than expected. However, in 2005 that all changed when new methods led by some of the best Psephologists in the country helped make their exit polling amongst the best in the world. Since then, exit polls have pretty much nailed the final result. Give or take a couple seats here or there.
Whereas we here in the states follow election returns from the evening to about just past Midnight, UK election results coverage are an all-night event going from 10:00PM their time to the middle of the afternoon the next day. While we have projections of results as they come in, they announce seat by seat with formal declarations of the official results in which candidates stand on a stage and deal with boos and cheers from the staff and citizens in attendance as they learn their fate. Its an incredible sight to behold that plays out much different than other results coverage in other countries.
Labour will take an early lead in seats as their strongholds report first, and then its all about how quickly the Conservatives catch up. At first seat declarations come slow, with an amusing race to see who declares first and whether they can break a new record. Then they start streaming in the hundreds and we figure out how right the exit polls are and what kind of night its shaping up to be. BBC is my go to for coverage, and I even binge their old election nights every time an election is called. However, Channel 4, ITV News, and Sky News all try their hand at covering the race as well.
- Recommended Links
To finish off this grand preview, I’ll post some recommended links down below for anyone interested in following the race as the campaign chugs along and the projections of results change.