Lessons from the British general election


File pic ballot box at a Polling Station in Oxford, central England. The Conservatives managed to obtain a Parliamentary majority in the recent general election.

ON May 7, the people of Britain voted to elect members of the 56th Parliament.

There are altogether 650 parliamentary constituencies spread out across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Voters vote in order to send one representative to the House of Commons, the dominant House in Britain’s bi-cameral Parliament.

The results were surprising, to say the least. The Conservative party (also known as the Tories) managed to obtain a Parliamentary majority, winning 331 seats of the 650 on offer.

The leader of the party, David Cameron, who went into the polls as prime minister of a coalition government with another the Liberal Democrats, was re-elected.

Here are some lessons from the 2015 British general election:

One of the major stories coming out the election was the variance between the opinion polls conducting before the election and the actual results. Opinions polls, some conducted right before election day, predicted that the outcome would be too close to call and result in a second hung Parliament, similar to the previous election in 2010.

But the polls were way off the mark; not only did the Tories do better than 2010, they also managed to obtain a majority in Parliament; the first Conservative government with a majority since 1992.

The gulf between the opinion polls and the actual results shows that either that voters told the pollsters one thing but voted another or that many voters decided to change their votes on the day of the election. Or maybe, it was a combination of both things. Whatever the case, opinion pollsters will now have to re-look at their methods in order to improve for future elections.

In contrast, an exit poll conducted on election day proved to be rather accurate. The exit poll predicted that the Conservatives would win the most number of seats (although short of a majority), that Labour would fall way short of what was needed to form a coalition government, the Liberal Democrats would be decimated and that the Scottish National Party (SNP) would sweep most of the seats in Scotland at the expense of Labour. Apart from the prediction that the Tories would not be able to obtain the majority of seats, the rest of the predicted results were close to the actual outcomes.

The weaknesses of the “first past the post” voting system were especially telling in this elections. Far right nationalist party Ukip managed 12.6% of the popular vote but only managed to win one seat in the Commons. In contrast, the fourth largest party in the Commons, the Liberal Democrats, had 7.9% of the popular vote but managed to win eight seats in Parliament.

Unlike in certain other countries, gerrymandering and malapportionament are not major issues in the UK, so the discrepancies between popular vote and seats won can be solely attributed to the first past the post system. A different voting system would mean more seats for a party like Ukip. Although this is undesirable to many, the election results would be more proportionate between votes obtained and seats won.

The results of the elections were devastating to some of the major parties in contention.

Ukip, although quite successful in its own right, did not do as well as it thought they would. Its leader, Nigel Farage, even failed to win the seat he contested.

Labour, which thought that it was in the running to form the next government, did worse than in 2010.

The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, were by far the biggest losers; they lost 48 seats and only managed to hold onto eight, losing 15% of the votes.

In the aftermath of the election, the leaders of Labour, Liberal Democrats and Ukip all resigned within hours of each other, taking responsibility for their respective parties’ defeats. This practice of assuming responsibility for their party’s failures is alien in Malaysia. We simply do not have a political culture of resigning; leaders stay on until they are forced out or decide to retire.

These is perhaps among the lessons we can learn from the 2015 British election.

We may be culturally different from Britain and we do not have the advantage of centuries of parliamentary history to refine our politics. However, at the same we must take cognisance of the fact that we inherited our current system from the British. There is nothing wrong with tapping into their experience in order to improve ours.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.
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