2009 election preview: United Kingdom


The next UK general election must be held by June 2010, so strictly it may not take place within 2009. All UK general elections since 1979 have taken place within the April-June period, so the only two likely election date possibilities are in the spring of 2009 or the spring of 2010. There is intense speculation in the UK at the moment of the prospects of an early election in 2009. While Brown remains well behind in the polls, there is an argument that his increased popularity in recent polls gives him his only shot of securing another term in office.

Gordon Brown has had a bumpy time as Prime Minister. He led early in his term, which led to speculation in late 2007. The first half of 2008 was dominated by disastrous polls and by-elections for Labour, losing two safe seats (one to the Conservatives and one to the SNP) and performing poorly in other races.

Because of the large number of seats held by parties other than Labour and Conservative, there is a significant possibility of a hung parliament at the next election. It is estimated that a swing of between 1.6% and 6.9% would result in a hung Parliament. The Liberal Democrats hold 62 seats, the SNP holds seven with prospects of large gains, and seats are also held by Plaid Cymru in Wales and all 18 seats in Northern Ireland are held by local parties. Collectively a party can win a substantial lead in seats without winning a majority.

Furthermore, electoral geography substantially favours Labour. It is estimated that the Conservatives would need to win by at least 6% in order to be the largest party in Parliament.

Opinion polls have favoured the Conservatives since October 2007, when polls turned against Brown. Conservative leads became solid in early 2008, with Labour failing to poll over 30% in any poll from May to September. The Glenrothes by-election in November happened as Labour gained ground in the middle of the global financial crisis.

The latest polls still put Labour well behind the Conservatives, but within range of winning a minority government at an early election.

Prospects for minor parties vary. The Liberal Democrats polled 22% in 2005, their best result since polling over 20% in the 1980s as the SDP-Liberal Alliance. However, nearly all opinion polls in the last two years have put the LibDems in the high teens, well below the heights of 2005. This does not necessarily mean that the Liberal Democrats will lose ground at the next election, but their rise appears to have been blunted by the resurgence of a credible Opposition.

The Scottish National Party currently hold seven seats in Westminster, six won in 2005 and a seventh won at the Glasgow East by-election. The SNP won office with a massive swing at the Scottish election in 2007. Despite falling short at the Glenrothes by-election, it appears that the SNP are on track to win a substantial number of Scottish seats, making them a player in their own right in Westminster, akin to the Bloc Quebecois rising in Canadian federal politics.

Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, have made nowhere near as much gains as the SNP, but could be expected to pick up extra seats at the expense of Labour in the next election.

Considering the positions of the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists, an interesting scenario that is entirely plausible is that we could see a similar situation in the UK as we currently are seeing in Canada, with a strong left-of-centre minor party and left-of-centre separatist party controlling the balance of power. It will be fascinating to see the consequences in the UK if the LibDems and the SNP are finally given a taste of power.

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  1. What do you think are the chances of some kind of elected House of Lords being in place in the next couple of years? There’s been a few votes in Parliament for having either a majority of the House elected or all of them but that was shot down in the Lords, unsurprisingly.

    The Government introduced a white paper on the issue sometime this year but it seems to have faded away in light of the economic crisis.

  2. I think the most likely outcome will be that it will happen if the Liberal Democrats take the balance of power, but it definitely is heading in that direction. Like the republican debate in Australia, reform of the House of Lords is inevitable, but at the moment it isn’t a central pressing problem so isn’t being prioritised by any party.

  3. And there’s a decent chance of them getting the balance of power. Interesting times ahead for the whole world.


  4. Also, the LibDems have a platform of supporting PR in the House of Commons. Sure, the NDP had the same and failed to push it through when they were in the balance of power, but Labour did support PR before winning in 1997 but sort of let it fall off the table (a commission supported an MMP system with preference voting).

    There’s a great website run by the Electoral Reform Society at http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk

    Also remember that new legislatures established by Labour in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Greater London all use some form of PR.

  5. Interesting scenario Ben.

    SNP are shaping up to have the balance of power along with the Lib Dems at Westminster. Both would aim to implement PR (as already happens in Scotland) and the Lib Dems are a Federalist party, meaning that the price of support for, say, Cameron’s Tories, would be implementation of both of these policies. This would radically alter the structure of UK politics (and with Scotland retaining most of its revenues, including oil, radically alter its finances too).

    But Cameron has sworn himself the implacable enemy of constitutional change. His choice would then be – go into power and ‘oversee’ change; or remain in oblivion. That’s a no-brainer – he’ll take power then try and wreck the process, and risk being brought down somewhere along the way.

  6. I’m not sure it will be such a huge issue. After all, apart from the SNP, federalism isn’t a central issue for any of the three major unionist parties.

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