But I’m going to help you out, because there is a big election coming up. On the 7th of May, the United Kingdom will hold its next general election, bringing one or more parties to power and giving us our next Prime Minister. I know we don’t have an empire anymore, but we’re still kind of a big deal, and you’ll look (and feel) cool and interesting if you know what’s going on.
The current situation
Right now we have a coalition government, with the Conservatives as the dominant party and the Liberal Democrats as their smaller partner. The Conservatives, or Tories, are on the centre-right, and historically one of the two main parties in UK politics (the other is the Labour Party). Their leader, David Cameron, currently serves as Prime Minister.
The Liberal Democrats have traditionally been on the centre-left. Many of their supporters were outraged when they formed a coalition with the Conservatives, and the Lib Dems’ five years as the tag-along party in government has destroyed their popularity.
Few people have any idea what the party leader Nick Clegg and co. actually stand for. Joining with the Conservatives was, to the majority of Lib Dem voters, an ultimate betrayal of values. In 2010, the Lib Dems were polling at 20-25%; now, they’re lucky to reach 8%.
The electoral system
We use the first-past-the-post system, which means that everyone in every constituency votes for their preferred local candidate, and the candidate with the highest number of votes is elected to serve as the Member of Parliament (MP) for that constituency. For example, my own constituency is East Devon, and in 2010 we elected the Conservative party politician Hugo Swire as our MP. There are approximately 650 constituencies, although it varies slightly with each election.
If a party has more MPs than all other parties combined after an election, that party has an overall parliamentary majority and can form a government. If there is no overall majority, parties can create one by forming coalitions with each other, which is what happened in the 2010 election.
The main contenders
The Conservative Party
Leader: David Cameron
Key election policies: capping welfare spending; limiting immigration; cutting income tax; reducing the economic deficit.
Current opinion poll standings: 30-35%
The Tories are also known as the Nasty Party, and are the traditional villains of UK politics. Famous past Prime Ministers include Winston “I am strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes” Churchill and eternal source of national shame Margaret Thatcher. The current government is in the process of privatizing the National Health Service (NHS), cutting welfare funding for the UK’s poorest people, trying to suppress immigration and covering up historic child abuse by MPs. Several of the party’s most prominent modern figures were members of Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club, a drinking society known for tearing restaurants apart and leaving stacks of cash behind to pay for damages. Don’t vote Tory. They’re terrible.
The Labour Party
Leader: Ed Miliband
Postion: centre-left (alleged)
Key election policies: freezing gas and electricity bills; capping welfare spending; raising the minimum wage; scrapping the Bedroom Tax.
Current opinion poll standings: 30-35%
Labour was founded as the party of the working people and the trade unions. It is responsible for the greatest government in UK history, when Clement Attlee and his 1945-51 cabinet created the NHS and the national insurance system, nationalised all major industries and brought the country out of the war as a fairer and more progressive place.
Sadly, Tony Blair’s “New Labour” of the ‘90s and ‘00s tore this legacy apart, burying the party’s traditional democratic socialism under free market economics. There’s a reason Blair is one of the most hated politicians in the whole of the UK.
Serving leader Ed Miliband was supposed to be a return to the Labour of old, at least a little bit. The son of Marxist sociologist Ralph Miliband, he was seen by many as a new hope for what is supposed to be the party of the working classes (they even called him Red Ed!). Sadly he has disappointed almost everyone with his uselessness. After five years of Tory-Lib Dem governance, the people should be rushing to give Labour their votes. The fact that this isn’t going to be a walkover election shows what an embarrassing job the party is doing these days.
UKIP (UK Independence Party)
Leader: Nigel Farage
Key election policies: leaving the EU, severely limiting immigration; repealing the Human Rights Act; repealing the Climate Change Act; cutting foreign aid.
Current opinion poll standings: 15-20%
UKIP is a racist mess whose leader recently went on air to defend one of his politicians using the word “Chinky”. They feed parasitically off the discontent of the British people, and their ramblings about the uselessness of climate change policy or the dangers of immigration are deeply disappointing to hear in the twenty-first century. A UKIP candidate recently quit after comparing Scottish government minister Humza Yousaf to convicted terrorist Abu Hamza. People are voting for them because they’re sick of Labour and the Tories, which is understandable, but this is a party full of hate.
Leader: Natalie Bennett
Key election policies: renationalising the NHS; increasing minimum wage; introducing a new wealth tax; nationalising railways; phasing out fossil fuels; building new homes.
Current opinion poll standings: 5-10%
The Greens are the newest party in the sense that they’ve never been a serious player in a general election before. As their name suggests, they are committed to protecting the environment, but their other stances are even more central in this year’s election. Fairer wages and nationalisation are two huge economic policies that seem to resonate with people—the kind of people who would have voted for Labour pre-Blair.
I am a card-carrying member of the Green Party and I think they are the only hope right now for the UK. They won’t win a majority, or even enough seats to be influential in a coalition, but a strong election showing would be inspiring for future years and would show the other parties that the left-wing side of the country is loud and alive. #greensurge!
Leader: Nick Clegg
Position: centre-left (alleged)
Key election policies: increasing immigration controls; building new homes; capping benefits; introducing a Mansion Tax; promoting apprenticeships.
Current opinion poll standings: 5-8%
OK they have some policies, but nobody really knows about them and honestly nobody cares. Getting into bed with the Conservatives doomed the Lib Dems, and I don’t see them recovering from that in the next decade at least. Nick Clegg, who manages to lack charisma even in comparison with David Cameron, certainly doesn’t help. Their slogan, “Vote safely this election,” seems like a pretty big misstep when the millions who voted for them five years ago ended up inadvertently helping to bring the Tories to power. The policy plan looks like a weird blend of their traditional centre-leftism and Conservative “practicality,” which is a strange choice considering it was a rejection of the two major parties which led so many people to vote for them last time.
The Lib Dem plan for successful governance is to “borrow less than Labour and cut less than the Conservatives.” That level of specificity and precision is what 5% of the UK is really looking for.
Scottish National Party
Leader: Nicola Sturgeon
Key election policies: opposing the renewal of the Trident nuclear missile system; growing a green economy; improving public transport; protecting NHS spending; ending austerity.
Current opinion poll standings: 40-50% in Scotland
Only Scottish voters can cast their ballots for the SNP, but that might be enough to make it the third largest party in Westminster in May. A huge number of people in Scotland have been severely let down by the political reality in the aftermath of their independence referendum. The increased self-governance that was promised has not really happened, and the SNP is seen by many as the only party that can be trusted with Scotland’s future.
Labour traditionally wins a comfortable majority in Scotland, with the Tories never getting anywhere, but that’s not going to happen this time. Ideas of a Labour-SNP coalition—or a Labour-SNP-Green-Plaid Cymru (a Welsh independence party) progressive bloc—are floating around but nobody is committing to anything.
What’s going to happen?
Who knows, man? No but really, we don’t know. That’s what’s so exciting! It looks like nobody’s going to get an overall majority, so we’ll get a hung parliament and coalitions might be formed. Will UKIP join forces with the Tories and the Northern Irish DUP to make me and millions of others want to hop out of the country for a while? Will Labour get the most seats and make a minority government?
The SNP has pledged to vote down any Tory minority government, and an alliance with Labour and possibly the Greens and Lib Dems would keep Cameron locked out of a second term. There are so many options!
I hope you’re a bit more up to date on all of this now. It’s important for me because this is the first election where I’ll be old enough to vote, and if my first one ends with the Conservatives or UKIP in government I’ll really feel like a bozo. Let’s go Greens!