When it comes to general elections, people tend to turn to the biggest political geek they know and ask them to explain it. For a lot of people I know, this means that they ask me. So this is a basic post on how to (or how I try to) read the election, how it works and what might happen. Though I have my own political views and preferences, I’ve left them out of this post.
If you’ve read this far, REGISTER TO VOTE. That’s a link to the official site, you have to do it before the 20th April. Even if you were registered to vote at the same address last time round, you still need to register, the process has changed. You can do it online, it takes five minutes.
Done that? No? Go back and do it, then read on. I’m serious, I’m banning you from the rest of this post unless you are registered to vote.
Part 1 – general elections for the terrified
As a newly registered UK voter, your next question is probably “who should I vote for?”. Forget everything you thought you knew about UK political parties and do the Vote for Policies quiz. This is both faster than reading all the party manifestos (which, let’s face it, you weren’t going to do) and more helpful for you in deciding who to vote for.
Politics is not football. You do not have to vote for the same people as you always have, or that your friends and family vote for. If the “Vote for policies” quiz outcome feels very odd to you, try also the Political Compass test which will tell you where you sit on the political spectrum and which parties are closer to the way you feel about the world.
At this stage, you probably have a party in mind. It would be a good idea to spend some time reading about them, possibly even reading their manifesto. Here’s a list of links to PDF versions of the manifestos of the biggest parties.
If you’ve chosen another party, you will need to check whether they are running in your constituency because you can’t vote for them otherwise. (Or you might be in Northern Ireland, who have different parties that I know next to nothing about!) No matter what any one else tells you, it is fine to vote for a smaller party if they care about the same things you do.
The manifesto is, effectively, a promise that each party makes concerning what they will do if they are the government. Without exception, they are long, tedious documents and very few people read any of them, so feel free to skim or just read the parts that interest you. Manifestos are not legally binding contracts, especially when it comes to a coalition government (as we will see later in this post).
But politics in the UK is, fundamentally, local. You’ve most likely had a load of leaflets through your door already, and if you are anything like me, you’ve read none of them. Despite the general election being a national (UK wide) election, you are electing some one to stand up to the bit of the UK that you live in (called your constituency).
To find details of your constituency, look for the place you live on Wikipedia, and the constituency page is linked to from that page. You need the “UK Parliament” constituency – usually in a box on the right-hand side of Wikipedia pages. The constituency page will tell you a little bit about the constituency, who was elected there the last few times, and who is standing for election there this year. Another useful resource is electionleaflets.org , which indexes leaflets used by local candidates and can be a useful way of finding out where they stand on particular local issues without going through the bin.
Having done all this, all you have to do is stroll up to your local polling station and complete a voting slip. You give your name and address, they give you a slip, you fill it in privately, put it in the sealed box and that’s you done. The location of your local polling station will be on your voting card, or if you’ve lost it – don’t worry if you have, you don’t need it to vote – you can call your local election office to find out where your polling station is. It will be near your home, rather than your place of work, and will be open from 7am-11pm.
After 11pm, all the votes are taken to a big hall somewhere in your constituency, and counted. You are allowed to go and watch this, but there’s no reason for you to do so unless you like looking at tired people shuffling paper. Some time in the early hours of the morning a result will be announced (it’ll be live on TV for those who care), and the person with the most votes is your Member of Parliament.
Part 2 – but who is going to win?
Seriously, no one. All of the indicators that politics nerds like me care about (and that I’ll tell you about later) suggest that no one party will win enough constituencies to have more seats than all the other parties put together, so no party will be able to form a majority government.
Majority governments have good points and bad points – they’re what we’ve had in the UK for most of our history, and they mean that the manifesto of the winning party is likely to be (mostly) implemented. But a majority government usually means that no other party gets a real say in how the country is governed.
There are three other kind of governments, and it is likely we will have one of these (or some combination of these) resulting from the 2015 election.
A coalition government is what we have now, where two or more parties agree on enough issues that they can form a government together. These are largely stable, and are common in Europe and elsewhere, but have been rare in UK parliamentary history.
A minority government is when one party has to convince at least some people from some of the other parties to vote for their ideas on each and every thing they try to do. It is at huge risk from a “confidence vote”, which is where someone from another party has suggested that the country has no confidence that government can safely govern.
A confidence and supply arrangement is when one party agrees to support another in terms of supply (voting for the budget) and confidence (voting with the other party if there is a “confidence” vote). Other than that, it is the same as a minority government, just a little bit more stable.
So having found a party you support, and read about the promises that it has made in their manifesto, there is literally no need for you to pay any attention to the rest of the campaign (seriously! although some people like that kind of thing, you are not a bad person for being bored with it) EXCEPT FOR paying attention to what parties are saying about working together. If there is a party you don’t like (for whatever reason) and a party you do like says it is willing to work with them in one of the three ways above, you might want to rethink your vote. Or you might not, again – up to you.
Here is what I can tell, so far, about what might happen after May 7th.
The polls suggest that we will have a hung parliament, where no one party has enough votes to form a majority. They suggest that the two largest parties will be Labour and the Conservatives, in terms of a share of the national vote – which – because of quirks in our UK electoral system means that Labour will have slightly more seats than the Conservatives, but not enough more to form a government.
The polls predict that the next biggest parties will be (in order of the number of seats they will hold) the Scottish National Party (SNP), UKIP, the Liberal Democrats (LDs), Plaid Cymru (PC) and the Green Party.
[if you are interested in polls and polling, two good places to start are Electoral Calculus and the UK Polling Report. Polling is a far from exact science, and it is not statistically safe to extrapolate from a single poll or even a summary of polls to an exact result. Some people think that the betting markets (the sum of all the bets that people put on the election) are also a good method of prediction, if you are interested in this start at Political Betting]
We also know what each party has said about working with other parties.
Neither Labour nor the Conservatives have said that they want to work with any other parties, both are still hoping to win an overall majority. Most of the calculations that political geeks are making are based around the practicalities of forming a majority, and the expressed preferences of the smaller parties.
The Liberal Democrats have said that they will work with either Labour or the Conservatives in a coalition. They reckon they can temper what they see as the excesses of both parties. However, the LDs are likely to lose a lot of seats this year and would be unlikely to be able to see a majority government formed by their coalition with either of the main parties. The LDs have also ruled out working with UKIP in any way, but have not expressed a preference regarding the SNP, PC, or the Greens.
The SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens have all indicated that they would support a Labour-led government on an issue-by-issue basis which may (I think) extend as far as a confidence and supply agreement. They have all ruled out working with a Conservative-led government and/or with UKIP but I’m not aware that they have ruled out working with the LDs. This is the most significant grouping, as Labour working with the SNP would work out as a parliamentary majority. Plaid Cymru and the Greens are both likely to have only a very small number of seats in the new parliament, but would still be keen to be involved.
UKIP have ruled out working with Labour in any way. Their stance towards the Conservatives keeps changing, but I could see them at least supporting a Conservative-led government on an issue-by-issue basis. But it is unlikely (on current polling) that UKIP will win a large enough number of seats to make a Conservative-led government possible.
Based on the above and on current polling, it is most likely that Labour will lead the next government with the support of the SNP and others (which could include any of the other main parties with the exception of the Conservatives and UKIP). A Conservative-led government supported by the LDs, or a Labour-led government supported by the LDs are the only other plausible outcomes (again, based on current polling). The Guardian Poll Projection is, for me, the best visual way of understanding this.
So the post-election government will involve at least two parties being able to implement at least some of their manifesto. Precisely what form a new government will take will be hammered out largely behind closed doors between the morning of the 8th May and the morning of the 18th May (when Parliament will formally re-open and the business of government will start again.)
Finally, 99% of everything you will read about the election will be biased towards one party or another. Take everything with a huge pinch of salt, do research yourself on issues that interest you (fullfact.org is a great starting place). Above all, vote out of hope and not fear, and vote for what you believe in.