Dr John Stanton, a Lecturer in Constitutional Law in The City Law School analyses the General Election and says the British electorate is calling for greater democratic legitimacy and engagement.
It all started with the exit polls published at 10pm on the 7th of May.
Political enthusiasts, commentators, pollsters and members of the public looked on in disbelief as fresh predictions expected the Conservatives to win considerably more seats than Labour; 316 to 239 with the Lib Dems set to win just 10. In the weeks running up to the election, the polls had suggested that there would be little between Labour and the Conservatives, with neither forecast to achieve the necessary majority. Consequently, there was much talk about the possible coalition options with which David Cameron and Ed Miliband would be faced in what was projected to be long negotiations to the door of 10 Downing Street.
Many confidently discarded the exit poll as wrong. Paddy Ashdown even promised to eat his hat if it transpired to be accurate. As the night went on, however, it appeared actually to be cautious. With each passing declaration, predictions shifted to forecast a narrow Conservative majority, with even greater losses for Labour and the Lib Dems. This appeared, in the end, to be accurate. Final results declared a Conservative majority with 331 seats and rather drastic losses for Labour (232) and the Lib Dems (8), many of those coming in favour of huge SNP victories north of the border.
So, after five years of Coalition, we embark once more upon a term led by a single-party government. It is, however, by no means a return to a constitutional norm. Last term’s coalition government highlighted a number of concerns with the process whilst forthcoming constitutional issues mean that going forward there is perhaps a need and definitely the scope for constitutional reform. This article examines the constitutional implications of the election result and how things might (or should) change. The first such issue has been widely commented on – electoral reform. In the run-up to the election and the forecast of another hung parliament and possible coalition, First Past the Post (FPTP) was criticised for the manner in which it would have failed to present a government for which the UK people voted. In 2010, nobody voted for the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government yet that is what we got. Though this time around a majority was achieved, there are still widespread concerns that FPTP is inappropriate to achieving a representative election result. Proportional representation is widely thought to be the preferable alternative, that also being highlighted by some of the parties in the run up the 2015 polling day. Though the Conservative manifesto proclaimed that, as per the 2011 referendum, the UK public stated an overwhelming preference for FPTP, we could see demand for electoral reform before we go back to the polls in 2020. What this means for the broader constitutional process remains to be seen, but it could of course have wider effects above and beyond the manner in which seats are allocated.
The most notable issue, however, is Scotland. Of the 59 seats north of the border, 56 of these were taken by the Scottish National Party, with one a piece for the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems. Though David Cameron’s party achieved the overall majority across the UK, the overwhelming SNP majority in Scotland means that the relationship with its leader, Nicola Sturgeon, could be a crucial one. The Conservative Cabinet will need to be mindful of the SNP and potentially open to working with them on Scottish issues. Promises of devolution, of course, are also relevant and the significant number of SNP MPs at Westminster could mean that Scotland’s interests in that debate are appropriately represented. People are, of course, also talking about Scottish Independence. Many have already noted that if the much promised EU referendum successfully achieves the UK’s departure from Europe, then questions of Scottish Independence are likely to come to the fore once again.
The underlying theme, though, is democracy and legitimacy: the pursuit of appropriate electoral processes and the need to ensure that Scotland it appropriately represented at Westminster. And it is a theme that is evident elsewhere. Unlike in previous years, the public were faced with greater choice in the election. A debate that featured seven party leaders underlined the prominence that parties such as UKIP, Plaid Cymru, and the Green Party have this year enjoyed; whilst the highest turnout since 1997 shows engagement with what was widely expected to be a close contest.
Whatever the various concerns and difficulties facing the various political parties today, one thing is clear – the need for democratic legitimacy and engagement features prominently across the country. Any reform and renewal that the government might introduce must appreciate and acknowledge above all else the needs and desires of the British people.