How people elect parliaments
The UK House of Commons will be dissolved for a general election on 8 June. But the sudden move means that the boundaries for the nation’s electoral constituencies will be a decade or more old.
Prime Minister Theresa May will need to seek parliamentary approval for her election call, with a two-thirds majority needed to override the legislated fixed 5-year term.
But Labour and the Liberal Democrats have already confirmed that they will support the motion, probably to be voted on on Wednesday. Refusing to go to the people is hardly a politically courageous option.
While there are calls to preserve the integrity of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the government’s case will be that the Brexit events since the last election in 2015 are exactly the kind of major development that justifies an exception. Repeated declarations that the government had no intention of going to the polls early have been discarded with little embarrassment.
The constituencies in which the new 650 members of the House will be elected, however, are becoming noticeably out-of-date.
The British Parliament last refreshed the electoral boundaries for Scotland in 2004. Those in Wales were revised in 2006, England in 2007 and Northern Ireland in 2008.
The so-called Sixth Periodic Review of the constituency boundaries, originally meant to bring changes in 2013, has been delayed until 2018. Provisional boundary changes have already been published late in 2016, but will not be implemented for the coming election.
The Scottish will this year again use the same constituency boundaries they used in the elections of 2005, 2010 and 2015. The other three parts of the Kingdom will again use boundaries first in place in 2010.
The incumbent Conservative government’s policy of shrinking the size of the House from 650 seats to 600 has also not been legislated for in time for this snap election.
The change to a smaller House would have most noticeably reduced seat numbers in Scotland and Wales, and therefore most significantly impacted the opposition Labour Party and the Scottish National Party.
Some opinion polls indicate that the Conservatives are sitting at a comfortable 42%-44%, among their best performance in years. Less favourable polls have them at a lower 39% – still up on their last election result.
The Labour Party’s public support is volatile, and polling on their standing is diverse. The worst assessment has them at a dire 23%, and even their best poll estimates are at around 29% public support.
Minor parties UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the Liberal Democrats are polling at up to 14% and around 8% respectively.
Britain’s plurality voting system should yield a large Commons majority for the Conservatives if those poll numbers hold.
But the polling may prove fickle, with anxiety about the nation’s identity and economic future at unusually high levels.
The 2016 Brexit decision, and the complex negotiations required to implement it, hangs over the whole of British political life, and will dominate the sudden election in June.
The Conservatives seek a renewed majority to allow them to argue that their plans to manage the nation’s departure from the European Union have public endorsement.
The Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party (SNP) will present themselves to the electorate as opponents of the Brexit process.
The Liberal Democrats, in particular, may argue that Brexit can be delayed, or even stopped, by a vote for them. Despite their miserable performance in the 2015 election and poor polling position recently, the ‘LibDems’ will be the only unambiguously anti-Brexit national party.
Labour is in an invidious political position. Divided on Brexit, the Opposition party will struggle to present a clear stance on the paramount issue facing the nation. Moreover their Leader Jeremy Corbyn, despite an enthusiastic following among the party’s rejuvenated membership base, lacks wholehearted support among the parliamentary team.
Labour will try to keep attention on other issues, such as Conservative policies on health care.
The UKIP party achieved its paramount goal last year with the success of the Brexit referendum. Whilst polling historically well, it is not clear what their staunch anti-EU policy stance adds to the plans of the Conservatives, who have driven the nation toward a ‘hard Brexit’ position.
In Scotland the SNP is riding high, and may well repeat the near clean sweep of seats they achieved in 2015, again courtesy of the distortionary effect of plurality voting.
An alliance of electoral reformers, Making Votes Matter, had begun 2017 with an enthusiastic campaign to replace plurality voting, in the face of certain rejection by the governing Conservatives.
The campaign knows that unless the Labour Party endorses electoral reform, and at some future point forms a minority government requiring cross-bench support, the reforms will not be possible.
Whilst the distortion to voter representation caused by plurality voting will attract critical attention during the coming election campaign, the 2017 election does not seem to present particularly favourable prospects for advancing the electoral reform cause.
The UK election will also come just three days prior to the first round of the French parliamentary election.
If, as widely expected, Italy calls an early election in the second half of 2017, it will see all of the EU’s four largest nations elect their parliaments in the same year – indeed within six months of each other.