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What Do U.K. Voters Want And What Are The Parties Promising?

Even for a Brit, it’s not easy to decipher the key issues in the May 7 general election. There’s what politicians talk about and then what voters actually want from the next government.

Because voters don’t get to have their say very often, I’d like to start by understanding what they see as the country’s problems. To do that, I looked at the issues that were the most frequently cited when the British electorate was most recently surveyed by Ipsos MORI.

When asked in a face-to-face interview what they would say “is the most important issue facing Britain today,” 27 percent of respondents mentioned immigration, 13 percent said the economy and 11 percent said the National Health Service.

RESPONDENTS WHO SAY IT’S …
ISSUE THE MOST IMPORTANT IMPORTANT
Immigration 27% 45%
National Health Service 11 38
Economy 13 28
Unemployment 5 21
Education 4 20
Poverty 6 16
Defense 5 16
Housing 3 14
Pensions 3 13
Low pay 3 12
Crime 2 12
Aging 2 8
European Union 1 7
Taxation 1 7
Drug abuse 1 7
Inflation 1 6
Morality 1 6
Public services 1 6
Pollution/environment 1 5
Race relations 1 5

When thinking about whose policies best address those issues, voters more than ever have to look beyond their first-choice party and listen to what others are saying. That’s because there’s a 92 percent probability that on May 8, no single party in the country will be able to form a government alone. What’s more, there’s a 37 percent probability that even two parties won’t have enough seats to form a government together. (No coalition means one party would have to try to govern alone in a minority government, but it’s not clear that it could survive a vote of confidence.)

A coalition government, formal or informal, is therefore 63 percent likely, and the policies that such a government would implement between now and 2020 would depend, in part, on the exact composition of that coalition.

When it comes to who’s in and who’s out of the coalition, who wins the most seats matters more than who wins the most votes nationally.1

There are roughly half a dozen groups forecasting the U.K. election (including electionforecast.co.uk, which we’re working with), and most of them currently agree on which parties will gain the most future parliamentary representation: The Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party (SNP) are projected to together win more than 90 percent of seats. Those are the parties whose policies I’ll be focusing on below.

Immigration

Immigration wasn’t always at the forefront of political debate in the U.K. Back in 1997, when the Labour party began a 13-year reign, barely 5 percent of adults cited it as an issue when asked by Ipsos MORI. But from 2004 onward (when border controls began to be relaxed for Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and other European Union countries), there was an uptick in media headlines about immigrants from those countries. Public concern increased, too.

The U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) became relevant around the same time. Although the party was founded in 1993, it didn’t gain political influence until 2004 when it won 12 seats in the European Parliament and became the third-biggest British party in the European elections. Since then, UKIP’s push for the UK to leave the EU and to restrict immigration has left a big mark on British politics.

In a way, UKIP has framed the political debate on immigration. It’s hard to ignore a party that is now projected to command 10 percent of the vote (even if its support is spread thinner than others’). And the other parties are taking note. In December, a private Labour strategy document titled “Campaigning Against UKIP” was leaked. The document warned candidates not to overemphasize immigration when campaigning, saying that doing so would not translate to “electoral advantage.”

The overall Labour motto on immigration has been “tough and fair,” conspicuously similar to the Liberal Democrats’ claim that they want to build a “firm but fair” system. That’s not the only area of overlap among the major parties.

Both the Conservatives and the Labour party want to make deportation easier, although Labour’s focus is on criminals while the Conservatives have said that their “deport first, appeal later” policy should extend to those seeking family reunification. The Conservatives plan to prevent new immigrants from claiming benefits such as tax credits, child benefits and social housing eligibility until they have lived in the country for a minimum of four years. Labour has a similar policy — although it has set a waiting period of two years. The Liberal Democrats have outlined a policy under which only immigrants “who have worked and contributed” would be able to receive benefits — however, unlike the other parties, the Lib Dems have not specified a waiting period before newcomers could receive that support.

The Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have all emphasized the importance of new immigrants learning English even though over 85 percent of immigrants to the U.K. already speak it.

As with other issues, the SNP stands apart from the three largest parties on immigration. The party has emphasized that immigration policies from Westminster disadvantage Scotland, whose priorities lie more in attracting skilled migrants than blocking the unskilled from entering the U.K.

The economy

Recently, “the economy” has become political shorthand for “the deficit.” The U.K. government has been spending more than it receives since 2002, and the deficit will be about £90 billion this year ($135 billion). Laurence Janta-Lipinski, an associate director of political and social research at pollster YouGov, told the International Business Times in December that the deficit is “one of those terms that’s not particularly well understood, not many people know what it is, but they do know it’s bad.”

Whether or not voters understand the deficit, every party is talking about it — and each has learned from the others’ mistakes. (After Ed Miliband failed to mention the D-word in his speech at the Labour party conference in September, he had to issue an apology.) But the way political parties address the deficit (or, at the very least, the rhetoric they use to describe how they want to address it) demonstrates the clearest political divide in the U.K.: Right-of-center parties tend to suggest lowering government spending to trim the deficit, while left-of-center parties tend to suggest raising taxes.

The Conservatives promise to eliminate the current deficit by 2018. Party leader (and Prime Minister) David Cameron said they would do so by cutting spending on health, welfare and pensions by £30 billion and recouping £5 billion lost in tax avoidance. Labour, too, has promised to “balance the books,” although the details of its deficit-reduction scheme are vague at best.

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats say they would reintroduce a top tax rate of 50 percent (currently, the top rate of income tax for those earning £150,000 or more, equivalent to about $225,000, is 45 percent). By contrast, the Conservatives have said that the minimum income for 40 percent taxation should be raised from £41,900 to £50,000 (from about $63,000 to $75,000).

The Labour party has also said that it would impose a tax on properties worth over £2 million ($3 million), aiming to raise £1.2 billion. The idea for such a policy came much earlier, in 2009, when the Liberal Democrats suggested their own version of a “mansion tax,” which they now hope will raise £1.7 billion. The Conservatives oppose the measure.

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have taken aim at Britain’s banking sector. Labour’s proposals on banking reform include a one-time tax on bankers’ bonuses. (Labour also promises to extend to 10 years the liability period to pay back their bonuses for bankers who have been found to have engaged in misconduct.) The party would also introduce legislation that would require banks to publish the number of employees who have an annual salary over £1 million ($1.5 million).

The Liberal Democrats are the only party to place the banking sector at the heart of their strategy to reduce the deficit. In March, Danny Alexander, the chief secretary to the Treasury, said the party would raise £8 billion ($12 billion) by imposing an additional 8 percent corporation tax on U.K. banks. The Conservative party, which receives more than 50 percent of its funding from the banking sector, has said that it would raise the bank levy by 0.21 percent to raise an additional £900 million.

All parties agree that Britain’s lowest earners should be paying less in taxes. In October, Cameron said income tax should be paid on incomes over £12,500 rather than over £10,000 ($18,750 rather than $15,000). The Lib Dems have the same plan but say they would implement it incrementally — raising the minimum threshold for taxation first to £11,000 in April 2016. Labour has instead promised to cut the starting tax rate to 10 percent from 20 percent.

SNP policies for the Scottish economy include maintaining tax reductions for small businesses, freezing local taxes and investing £200 million in renewable energy.

The National Health Service

The issues here are tied up in the economic ones mentioned above. Established in 1948, the NHS provides health care that is (with a few small exceptions) free at point of use for any U.K. resident. That comes with a big price tag: Planned expenditures for 2014-15 are £113 billion ($170 billion), the second-largest area of spending for the government.

Still, mentioning cuts to the NHS is very politically damaging so all parties are keen to emphasize a commitment to protecting the service.

In late January, the Labour Party unveiled a 10-year plan for the NHS that includes recruiting 20,000 more nurses, 8,000 more general practitioners, 3,000 more midwives and 5,000 new home care workers. To pay for these health care workers, Labour would establish a new £2.5 billion fund, raised through the mansion tax mentioned above, renewed efforts to tackle tax avoidance and a new levy on tobacco companies.

The Conservatives have also promised additional spending on the NHS, though less than Labour. In November, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne pledged that £2 billion would be invested in frontline NHS services across the U.K. And in January, Cameron promised that “not a penny” would be cut from the NHS budget between 2015 and 2020.

The Liberal Democrats have suggested investing far more, and theirs is the only party to match the amount that chief executives of the NHS have said they need. The Lib Dems pledge to ensure that the service has the extra £8 billion it needs each year until 2020. The party has also sought to differentiate itself from others by focusing on mental health.

For the SNP, the priority remains to protect budgets and reduce privatization. The party has also pledged to reduce by 25 percent the number of senior managers in the health service over the next parliament.


The disagreements don’t seem insurmountable on these three issues — in fact, it’s clear that there are broad areas of overlap among the parties. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy to build consensus.

Labour has ruled out a coalition with the SNP. The SNP has ruled out a coalition with the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats have ruled out a coalition with the SNP or UKIP. A Labour-Conservative coalition has been described by Labour as “utter, utter nonsense” and by the Conservatives to be as likely as a “snowball in hell’s chance.”

Clearly, this election is going to be anything but straightforward.

Footnotes

  1. Votes matter, too — no party wants to be seen as disregarding the choices of the British electorate. If, for example, the Tories get a higher percentage of the national vote but win slightly fewer seats, the Lib Dems will have to make a difficult decision about whether they go into government with them or with Labour.

Mona Chalabi is data editor at the Guardian US, and a columnist at New York Magazine. She was previously a lead news writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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