On Elections

How people elect parliaments

UK Election 2017 – WTF just happened?

England is the Mother of Parliaments, according to John Bright (1852). But the results of the June 8 UK election will instead read the Riot Act (1714) to those who thought they understood the Westminster system of government.

Her Majesty’s Business must be carried on. Today Prime Minister Therese May will seek the Queen’s approval to continue as the leader of the British government.

Prime Minister May had publically declared in April that 330 seats in the House of Commons were not sufficient to allow for effective government.

But political reality prevails over campaign slogans. May will tell the Queen this afternoon that 319 seats is enough. (update: now 318)

On the election result numbers, May should be able to confidently claim that no motion of no-confidence against her government moved in the House would succeed. On that basis, the Queen should renew her commission.

Despite the provisions of the Fixed Term Parliament Act – which should have bound the UK government to serving a five-year term and not seeking the advantage of an early election – May bolted for that very advantage in her decision on April 18 to call the poll.

The other parties in Parliament – not wanting to look cowardly – gave her the votes for the statutory exception she needed to hold the election.

But instead of the 100+ seat gain May hoped for, the British electorate has gutted her government.

Labour has won a few dozen seats across England, and also in Scotland. Significant Tory gains in Scotland have been more than offset by greater loses elsewhere.

Irish politics has defied expectations, with the UUP unionists and left-wing SDLP parties eliminated in favour of the DUP unionists and the nationalists Sinn Féin. Five Irish parties in the Commons have shrunk to two. Irish independent Sylvia, Lady Hermon is left as the Commons’ sole non-party MP.

Political outcomes in Wales seem Strong and Stable by comparison to other parts of the nation, with only modest changes. Nationalists Plaid Cymru picked up a seat.

What seems to be the most significant political event of the 2017 elections is that young people have turned out to vote in record numbers. Reliable data is still not published, but media reports say that 72% of registered voters aged 18-24 have turned out to vote.

If that’s true, these young voters have obliterated their recent turnout rates, which stood at 43% in 2015 and in the 30%s in prior elections.

With the total national turnout rate estimated at 69%, if the youth turnout is indeed 72%, it has exceeded the national average for the first time ever.

(Update: the “72%” figure is looking very questionable. One polling agency is said to be preparing a poll-based estimate for release in the days ahead. Only a careful scrutiny of data on the profile of voters marked off as actually voting will settle the question.)

Political pundits estimate that two-thirds of young people support the Labour Party or other left-of-centre parties. Their support will therefore have created today’s electoral debacle for the Conservative government.

In the aftermath, Prime Minister May has won 319 seats in the House of Commons – just a few seats below the majority mark of 325. (Update: The Conservative Party’s final seat tally is 318; in a final humiliation, the wealthy inner-London constituency of Kensington was lost to Labour by a mere 20 votes after recounts.)

Since the Speaker of the House and the Sinn Féin members from Northern Ireland (now increased in number from 4 to 7) do not vote, the majority for winning votes in the Commons is 322.

Each or any of the Scottish Nationalist Party (35 seats), the Liberal Democrats (12 seats) and the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland (DUP) (10 seats) can therefore give the Tory government the gift of a majority in votes in the new parliament.

On a bad day even the Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru (4 seats) could help the government win a vote.

But May will probably prefer to deal only with the Ulster unionists.

She – and her party – may not enjoy doing so. DUP Leader in Northern Ireland Arlene Foster (who will not herself be one of the 10 Commons delegates) is a serious professional. Foster has only recently survived a bitter local political scrap over energy policy and government performance, and is experienced in the ‘hung parliament’ realities of a divided assembly.

The institutional rules of the Northern Ireland Assembly force the largest unionist party (DUP) and the largest nationalist party (Sinn Féin) to compromise over policy and executive power before forming a government. It’s a hot crucible of politics, and Foster has (so far) survived its tests.

When Foster’s partner in government Martin McGuiness pulled the trigger on ending the joint government in January this year, Foster was forced to a hard-fought early Assembly election.

Weeks later, after McGuiness had died – triggering many and complex emotional reactions across Ireland – Foster conducted herself with dignity in turning up to his funeral in Londonderry. For her trouble, and despite intense partisan conflicts, she got a rare standing ovation from a nationalist crowd in a Catholic church.

The DUP is very socially conservative, and media reports indicate that issues such as same-sex marriage may be breaking points.

[+] Foster is not without her own controversies and political opponents in Northern Ireland; at present Sinn Féin refuses to work with her. The commissioning of a government for Northern Ireland is currently in abeyance because the DUP and Sinn Féin cannot agree on terms for a new joint government. The dispute was put on hold awaiting the outcome of the national election.

Meanwhile, just to complicate matters, south of the border in Eire the governing conservative Fine Gael party has just chosen as their new leader – and therefore as the incoming Irish Prime Minister – Leo Varadkar, who is a proponent of Thatcherite fiscal austerity, the son of an Indian immigrant, and also gay.

If Conservative Prime Minister May finds Foster’s DUP an awkward partner in securing a Commons majority, she can always turn to the Liberal Democrats – who her party left for dead after the 2015 election – or the Scottish National Party and its leader Nicola Sturgeon, arguably her fiercest critics in the national debates in the last few years.

Even the crucial 13 members of the new Scottish Conservative Party delegation may have novel ideas about how national policies should be decided. (Update 10 June: there are signs of some form of split already.)

May seems to be short of easy parliamentary options.

But May has no real choice but to try to govern. The ‘rainbow alliance’ of Labour and 4-5 other parties cannot seriously amount to an alternative British government. The Conservatives must face the difficult prospect of making political compromise work. It is not their favourite style of politics.

The Conservatives must also face the severe challenge – for which they are themselves responsible – of Brexit negotiations with EU allies, starting in just a few days. They can no longer assume loyal support from their national parliament for a ‘hard Brexit’ option.

The job of Chief Government Whip may now be less attractive than usual, and whoever is given the task of conducting the review of the Conservative Party election campaign will need to be firm of purpose.

Commentators are already speculating that a new Tory Prime Minister – appointed sooner or later – will seek another early election in 12-18 months.

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