Monday, May 3, 2010

Three Days Left Before the British Elections

Summary: A recap of the UK campaign and predictions for the new Parliament.

What a wild ride the British election has been.

Before the year began, it was widely expected that the Conservative Party would win the elections, making their leader - David Cameron - the next Prime Minister.

By March, however, the Conservative victory was considerably less certain. It seemed entirely possible that the Labour Party - the current governing party - could retain power or cling on to enough seats for a hung Parliament.

Then Prime Minister Gordon Brown - the leader of the Labour Party - asked the Queen to dissolve Parliament and hold a general election on May 6 (the usual way elections work there). That gave the parties and politicians about a month to campaign.

Nobody could have predicted what happened next.

The ultimate game changer came the night of the first ever leaders debate between Cameron, Brown, and Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats (a sort of moderate libertarian party).

According to polls released the next day, Clegg won the debate - in fact, he dominated compared to the leaders of what he called “the old parties” - and support for the Lib Dems actually surpassed support for Labour for the first time since the inception of the third party.

So for the past few weeks, the consensus prediction has been a hung Parliament.

Before I go any further, let me explain a few terms in British politics.

• Government = majority party (the leader becomes Prime Minister and forms a cabinet which controls the administrative business of the country)

• Opposition = minority parties

• Hung Parliament = no clear majority, either the party with a plurality forms a minority government or two parties can form a coalition (last hung Parliament was in 1974, the last coalition government - I believe - was about 150 years ago).

• Tories = nickname for the Conservatives

• Marginal constituencies = swing districts (for example, a “Labour marginal” refers to a swing seat currently held by the Labour Party).

• Colors = Labour is red, Conservative is blue, Lib Dem is yellow

There have since been two more debates, and not a whole lot has changed. Brown has still struggled to connect with voters, Clegg has continually pushed the “old parties” line, and Cameron has failed to inspire his base, instead opting to appear like a reasonable choice to undecided voters.

To Brown’s credit, he did better in the debates than people give him credit for. He stuck to the talking points, sounded authoritative, and won on the one-liners (which is huge in debates).

To Cameron’s credit, the Tories are doing better in the polls today than they were two weeks ago, and people are finally beginning to think there could be a Conservative government again.

Finally, to Clegg’s credit, he’s doing everything right. He’s even convincing Labour supporters in some Tory marginals to choose the Lib Dems because they’re more likely to win there.

So what will the results of Thursday’s election be?

Because the make-up of Parliament is decided with single-member districts and first-past-the-post elections, the Liberal Democrats won’t actually do as well as the polls suggest. Simply put, the marginals aren’t there for them.

They will, however, increase the number of seats they hold by quite a bit. Currently they hold 62 seats. That could almost double.

The Tories, meanwhile, are expected to pick up about 90 to 110 seats, bringing their total to something between 295 and 320. Labour will probably lose quite a few, possibly more than 130 seats.

First, Ladbrokes has a very cool interactive map with rolling predictions. They’re currently predicting a hung Parliament, with the Tories short of a majority by 10 to 15 seats.

If I was a betting man, however, I’d rely more on the predictions made by They’ve been following the race more closely than I have (and probably closer than most Brits have) and they’ve developed a prediction model that finds the Tories could be short of a majority by more than 25 seats. They also find that Labour will be worse off than Ladbrokes does, and believe the Lib Dems will pick up 58 seats, rather than 20.

While these are by no means conservative estimates for the Conservatives (pun intended) FiveThirtyEight has an amazing track record when predicting election outcomes.

So what happens next?

I see two possible outcomes of this election. They both involve a hung Parliament.

1) The Conservative Party forms a minority Government. This is the view many in the UK are taking at the moment. If this happens, then Cameron will be on very shaky ground as Prime Minister. He will have a tougher time with Parliament, his own party, and the British people than President Obama is having with all the American equivalents.

2) The Labour Party forms a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. Frankly, while these two parties don’t get along, they’re far more ideologically similar than either is with the Tories. Power sharing won’t be easy, but they may find it necessary. They may also want to court the Scottish Nationalist Party and Plaid Cymru (Welsh nationalists) for the coalition.

Either way, it’s been a fun and exciting election to observe, and I can’t wait for Thursday. Next week we’ll recap what happened and discuss what we’ll likely see in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, you might be wondering what party you’d support if you were British. The Daily Telegraph has a good online quiz to help you figure that out. Take a look!