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What Is U.K. Politics About?

The U.K. general election campaign, which kicks off in earnest Monday, will focus on many issues, especially the ones that voters say are most important. But beneath how the parties propose to address them are several long-standing political disagreements that fit into three broad categories: left-right politics, U.K. national politics and European Union membership politics.

Some of these will matter to voters more than others, but they all inform how and where the parties will campaign. They’ll also shape which parties might be willing to work together and what kinds of bargains will be struck after an election that appears highly unlikely to give any single party a governing majority.

This election is difficult to forecast, though we’re going to try with our general election predictions on FiveThirtyEight. Understanding these three dimensions of political conflict can help put the numbers in context.


Left-right politics

If you are watching from the U.S., keep in mind that the U.K. political system’s center of gravity is substantially to the left of yours. The political positions espoused by the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats would both fall within those of the Democratic Party in the U.S. And while the Conservatives may seem more aligned with U.S. Republicans, they’re substantially to the left on issues like same-sex marriage, how health care should be provided, and what rates of taxation are appropriate.

Disagreements about the scope of government underlie the classic divide between the Conservatives and the Labour Party on most issues, including taxation, benefits, pensions, education and health care provision. These issues will be very much at the center of the campaign, not least because the Conservatives and Labour will be doing their best to remind voters that they have traditionally voted for one of those two parties because of their stances on them:

  • On taxes, Labour wants to increase the top tax rate to 50 percent, where it was before the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government reduced it to 45 percent in 2012. The Liberal Democrats themselves agree that the rate should return to 50 percent.
  • On education, the Conservatives are proposing to create more “free schools” (charter schools in U.S. terminology), but the kind of voucher program popular among Republicans in the U.S. would be a political nonstarter here.
  • On health care, no one challenges the basic premise that it should be free and universal, but there are differences on exactly how to administer the National Health Service. Indeed, Labour recently attacked Conservative budget cuts just by saying those cuts might at some point in the future require some charges for health services, a claim that Conservatives deny.

U.K. national politics

The U.K. is far more politically centralized than the United States. Parliament in Westminster has the power to legislate on all issues or to devolve (or grant) powers to lower-level governments as it sees fit. Some powers are devolved to local governments (councils) across the U.K., but the House of Commons could rescind these powers at any time if it chose to do so. In the past two decades, the Commons has also devolved powers to national assemblies in the non-English nations of the U.K.: Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland: Northern Ireland has an entirely separate party system from the rest of the U.K., divided along sectarian lines. None of the parties from the rest of the U.K. will have competitive candidates in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein, an Irish Republican party that advocates that Northern Ireland exit the U.K. and join the Republic of Ireland, abstains from taking up the (currently five) seats it wins in Westminster because its members refuse to take an oath of allegiance to the queen. Two of the other Irish parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP, currently eight seats) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP, currently three seats) could help form a government if one party is just short of a majority. These parties are likely to primarily push for financial support for Northern Ireland if they are in a position to negotiate with the major parties. The DUP is viewed as a more natural partner for the Conservatives and the SDLP for Labour, although the DUP could work with Labour as well. The DUP is primarily concerned with Unionism (Northern Ireland remaining in the U.K.) and consequently is more flexible in its alliances.

Scotland: Since a referendum in 1998, Scotland has had its own devolved parliament with power over all areas not explicitly reserved for Westminster, including agriculture, education, health and justice. The Scottish National Party (SNP) has led the Scottish government since 2007, winning a narrow electoral victory that year and a much larger victory in 2011. The SNP, which currently holds only six seats in the U.K. Parliament, appears poised to win many of the 59 Scottish seats in Westminster; that would mark the end of Labour Party dominance of Scottish politics going back to the time of Margaret Thatcher. If it finds itself in a position to negotiate with the major parties, the SNP will be pushing for additional devolved powers for the Scottish Parliament. The SNP presents itself as further to the left than Labour, and party leader Nicola Sturgeon has indicated that while the SNP would not join a formal coalition with Labour, it would provide needed votes to support a minority Labour government on an issue-by-issue basis so long as Labour was implementing progressive policies. The SNP has ruled out supporting a Conservative government in any form.

Wales: Wales also has a devolved parliament, with somewhat more limited powers than Scotland’s. Wales has a national party as well, the Plaid Cymru, but it is unlikely to win many more than the three seats it currently holds. Welsh nationalism has not developed into the political force that Scottish nationalism has, perhaps because of Wales’s longer shared history with England. If the ability to form a government were to come down to a very small margin, the Plaid would support Labour rather than the Conservatives.

England: England has no equivalent national assembly, so the House of Commons determines all policy for England. This creates an asymmetry because the entire Parliament (including members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) votes on issues related to England. The scope of further devolution and the rights of non-English MPs to vote on legislation that affects only England are both lurking issues in the coming election, especially with further Scottish devolution on the horizon. The Conservatives have sometimes argued for a principle of “English votes for English laws” in Westminster, an argument that has been simmering since devolution for Scotland was proposed in the 1970s. Labour is strongly opposed, in part because Labour wins more seats than the Conservatives in Scotland and Wales.


EU membership politics

As a member of the European Union, the U.K. is bound to abide by some EU policies that have attracted significant opposition among the public. In fact, in some polls support for leaving the EU altogether approaches a majority.

The most salient issue tied up with EU membership is migration. The U.K. has seen high levels of immigration in recent years from elsewhere in the EU but is not allowed to place any restrictions on that immigration. An entire party, the U.K. Independence Party, is nominally organized around the goal of “independence” (exit) from the EU, although UKIP also has elements of specifically English nationalism and more general right-wing populism. UKIP could support a Conservative government. However, the party is generally viewed as unreliable and is unlikely to have enough seats to be a major player even though it will probably finish third or fourth in vote share.

The Conservatives have substantial internal disagreement about continued membership in the EU, and David Cameron — the current Conservative prime minister — has promised a referendum on exit to finesse these intraparty disagreements. Labour and the Liberal Democrats are generally in favor of remaining in the EU. The SNP is in favor of staying in the European Union.


The big challenge for making sense of the election is that these political disagreements — about left-right politics, U.K. national politics, and EU membership politics — are not all equally important everywhere in the U.K. Exactly which parties are competitive, and the issues that are important to voters, varies substantially depending on where you are.

Labour and the Conservatives face challenges from different political directions in different areas. Marginal constituencies that come down to Labour versus Conservative tend to cluster around the edges of English cities, the kinds of suburban seats that have always decided U.K. elections. But in much of southeastern England, the Conservatives will face UKIP challenges. In seats across southwestern England, the current coalition partners, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, will face off in one of the latter’s traditional strongholds. In Scotland, the SNP will face off against Labour in most constituencies. And we have not even mentioned the Green Party, another left party that has recently been polling at nearly the same level as the Liberal Democrats across the U.K., but without sufficient concentration of support to be a threat in more than a handful of constituencies.1

At the level of individual seats, there are relatively few where more than two parties have a chance. The U.K. does not have just one two-party system; it has lots of different two-party competitions in different parts of the country. This is a big part of the challenge of forecasting the election.

Footnotes

  1. All of which contain large universities.

Ben Lauderdale is an associate professor of social research methods at the London School of Economics.

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