The British general election is days away, but the outcome is still hard to predict. Last year’s expense scandal left the British public infuriated and mistrustful of the major parties. The recent and first-ever television debates in U.K. history catapulted the third-party leader, Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, into the spotlight and created a buzz around this election. The vagaries of the British First Past the Post system mean that a party could theoretically win the fewest number of votes, but the most seats in Parliament. Voters are clamoring for reform.
I spoke with Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at the University of Oxford, a leading constitutional expert and strong advocate of electoral reform.
Lucy Kennedy: If I’m correct, there’s a possibility that Labor could win the election with just 31 percent of the vote, so 69 percent of the people wouldn’t be represented. How can this happen?
Vernon Bogdanor: Well, our electoral system works quite well when there are just two major parties competing, but when you have three parties, you can win on quite a small percentage of the vote. The Labor Government elected in 2005 had a comfortable majority in the parliament with 67 seats on just 36 percent of the vote. In other words, nearly two-thirds of the electorate voted against it.
Kennedy: What does it mean for the country if such a high percentage of people are not being represented?
Bogdanor: Well, there’s a particular problem in this election, because it’s certain that any government that’s elected will have to cut public expenditure fairly drastically to deal with the deficit in the budget, and of course there’s a problem if a government has too narrow a majority, too narrow a mandate, to do that. If there was a Conservative government elected, which at the present appears more likely than a Labor, the Conservatives would have particular problems because they’re not very well represented in the bigger cities and the major conurbations, and obviously cuts in public expenditure there would hit people particularly hard. So it’s a problem of the British system that the mandates that governments enjoy have become very narrowed over the years.
Kennedy: Do you think that means that the Conservatives can just pander to their own electorate and don’t need to get the vote of people in the inner cities?
Bogdanor: Yes, the Conservatives could win the election without winning the votes of any seats in the major cities. If they did win an overall majority, they wouldn’t need any seats and probably wouldn’t win any in Glasgow, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield, Liverpool and they’d only win one or two in Birmingham.
Kennedy: Protesters are carrying effigies of Big Ben with a noose around the clock, hoping for a hung parliament, because they think this might lead to electoral reform. Can you tell me what a hung parliament is?
Bogdanor: Yes, a hung parliament is a parliament in which no single party has a majority. And that rarely happens in Britain. The last one was in 1974. But obviously it’s more likely this time. It’s more likely because the third party seems to be scoring much better in the opinion polls. People are arguing for that, hoping that it will bring a reform of the electoral system so that we might have proportional representation as we have in most of Europe.
Kennedy: I’ve heard it said that there could be a second election if there’s a hung parliament? Why? And how would this work?
Bogdanor: In the past a hung parliament has led not to a coalition government as you get on the continent, but to a minority government, and that’s very difficult to work at Westminster. So there has generally been a rapid second election. For example, in 1974 we had an election which gave a hung parliament and a second election in October of that year, which gave a very small Labor majority. Now that caused a problem, because in 1974 we were suffering from serious inflation, but the government, the minority, didn’t really take the measures to deal with it. Inflation went through the roof in 1974, and some people say there is the fear that the markets would react against such a government and really put Britain into economic difficulties.
Kennedy: How is it that in Britain you get to call elections when you are unsatisfied, where as in America we have to wait it out?
Bogdanor: Well, you have a fixed-term election system. Elections for the president and Congress are fixed term. In Britain there’s a maximum term which is five years, but the prime minister can normally call an election at any time he wants within those five years. Now some people have said it’s unfair. It gives the prime minister an advantage because he can perhaps manipulate the economy or other things to secure a favorable public opinion. And some people argue – the Liberal Democrats have argued this for a long time and I think the Conservatives are supporting them – they’re arguing for a fixed term parliament.
Kennedy: Does it change the way politicians act?
Bogdanor: Yes, certainly because no one knows when the election is going to be. The prime minister decides, certainly.
Kennedy: So, by no one knowing when the election is going to be, what difference does that make?
Bogdanor: Well it gives the government an advantage, so they can call it at a time of their choosing. The opposition doesn’t know when to spend their money on propaganda or publicity because they don’t know when the election is going to be called.
Kennedy: What do you think of introducing televised debates to British elections?
Bogdanor: I think it’s been a great success and the Liberal Democrats have been helped by that. There was a perhaps unscientific poll carried out at the Cheltenham races this year. And 98 percent could name the favorite in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. But only 26 percent knew who Nick Clegg was. Now the debates have altered all that and helped liberals because they have been given equal time with the Labor Party and the Conservatives. And they used that very effectively. But also, it’s galvanized interest in the election. Before the first debate, 56 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds hadn’t registered, but there was a large registration drive after the first debate. I think it has stimulated interest in politics and the election. I think it has made a major contribution to the election. And I think it’s a very good thing on the whole.
Kennedy: I believe that you were David Cameron, the Conservative leader’s, tutor at Oxford. Are you proud of him?
Bogdanor: Well, he was a very able student, and a very nice student. He’s obviously done extremely well.
Kennedy: Are you surprised he went into politics?
Bogdanor: Well he didn’t take much part in political activity at university. He was always a Conservative, a very moderate Conservative, non-ideological, more like Harold Macmillan than Margaret Thatcher. I’m not wholly surprised. I mean his rise has been meteoric. He’s got very good empathy with people and has a message to deliver. You know, obviously, he’s done extremely well but I have to keep neutral in the election because I’m on the BBC, I can’t say what my particular political preferences are.
Kennedy: What’s your prediction for May 6?
Bogdanor: Look, honestly, no one can predict. No pundit, not one predicted the Liberal Democrats surge. Most people thought the Liberals would do very badly, the Conservatives would sweep up their seats in the South of England. It now looks as though it isn’t going to happen. I honestly think that no one’s prediction is worth anything. We don’t know if this surge will prove a bubble or a breakthrough. I think it’s the most difficult election to call that I’ve ever come across and I think any prediction would be no more than a guess.