The Winner Takes it All

Or - the first past the post gets the most in the UK's General Election, which this year was a bit of a foregone conclusion...

The British Labour Party - a marriage of late 19th century trade unionism, Christian socialism and a very English form of Marxism (i.e. not very Marxist) - managed in the first election of the 21st century on 7th June this year to achieve something it had not managed throughout the last century - in fact, for its entire 101-year history. It won a second general election after a first term in office.

The party under Harold Wilson in 1964-70 briefly looked like doing what the Conservative Party (aka the Tories), led by Margaret Thatcher and then John Major, did between 1979 and 1997 - that is, effectively monopolise the political stage. Labour won a pit-stop election in 1966 to legitimise the devaluation of the pound in 1967, but failed at the 1970 election. It also won twice in 1974, though that barely counts, as the second election came only a few months after the first. It was simply used to cement the first election victory, which had been won despite the party gaining fewer votes nationwide (due to the so-called "first-past-the-post" [FPTP] system of voting) than Ted Heath's Conservatives. Over the whole of the 20th century the Labour Party held office for only 20 years, against the Conservatives' record of 50 years. But Labour now has a 100 per cent record in the 21st century!

But only about 41 per cent of those who went to the ballot box this year voted Labour. With turnout at about 59 per cent (the lowest since 1918 and 12.5 per cent lower than the last election in 1997) this translates into about 25 per cent of all eligible voters actually voting for a Labour government. Owing to the peculiar nature of the parliamentary system in Britain, in particular the FPTP system of voting, this 41 per cent - against the Conservatives' 33 per cent and LibDems' 19 per cent - still gave Labour a massive, 179-seat majority in the House of Commons, the lower house of parliament. Labour won 413 seats, the Conservatives 166 and the LibDems 52, while smaller parties, mostly in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, won the remaining 28 seats in the 659-seat parliament.

FPTP simply means a political party can win by a large margin in one area (or constituency) and lose by just a small margin in another, thus gaining one seat and losing the other, while outvoting in absolute terms its opponent (see the US Presidential elections in 2000, in particular in Florida). On a national scale this system tends to exaggerate differences. If a party were to gain most votes in a proportional representation (PR) system (being the largest party but not necessarily the outright winner), it would most likely win far more in the FPTP system i.e. a governing majority, possibly quite large like now. The power this endows the winner with is almost unbridled, and almost unknown in any other western democracy. Many have talked of the "elective dictatorship", a reference to the fact that a majority party in the House of Commons can rule more or less unrestricted within Britain's so-called "unwritten constitution". The winner takes all and stamps the country thereafter in his (or, more memorably, her) own image. Incidentally, Baroness Thatcher's post-election comment that the size of the Labour majority was a "threat to British democracy" was probably the nicest historical irony of the election after the Tories had ruled for a full 18 years.

The first casualty of the election was leader of the Conservative Party, William Hague, who resigned the very next day. His career had been extraordinary. As a 15-year-old he addressed the Conservative Party conference in the late 1970s (then headed by Margaret Thatcher), before working his way, aged 39, into contention for leadership of the party. This came after the collapse of the Tory vote in 1997 and the split that opened within the party over Britain's role (or lack of one) in the European Union immediately after. Hague would have become the youngest prime minister since... Tony Blair, of course. Now aged 48, Blair was 44 when he won in 1997, a full 20 years older than the youngest ever PM, William Pitt (The Younger). But, at only 42 years of age, Hague has probably got enough time to find a new career for himself elsewhere.

As for the Labour Party itself, there are those, of course, who will say its victory was not really that of the Labour Party at all, that Tony Blair and his band of New Labourites are more conservative than the Conservatives. The Economist magazine, traditionally a staunch supporter of the Conservative Party, even called on voters to vote Labour, saying Blair was the only real conservative of the three main party leaders.

Labour has always been more radical in opposition and more moderate in power (on the rare occasions it has had it). It has always bridged various regional, class and ideological boundaries in Britain. It has also transformed itself considerably since Blair took over after the death of John Smith, the "Old Labour" leader, in 1994. It is no longer the big borrower and spender, the party feared by the all-important markets, the party of the trade unions and the block vote. It is now a party firmly of the political centre, talking about "sound economic management", low inflation and controlled public spending. Gone are the Old Labour ghosts of economic crisis, high inflation and so on. And for once in its history, the party has held its nerve in Downing Street.

Old Labour invariably lost power after only one term in office, kicked out by an electorate that saw its savings (if it had any) devalued by high inflation, or its belief in social justice (if it had any) shunted further into the background by the recklessness and power of the trade unions.

The New Labour of Tony Blair is really the product of 18 years (1979-1997) of being in opposition. It became unelectable in the 1980s during the period of Margaret Thatcher's premiership due to its strange mixture of old-fashioned Keynesian economics and its reliance on the trade unions for financial support. It lurched to the far left in the early 1980s and was only rescued from the brink of electoral disaster by a sensible shift away from old-fashioned socialism in the later 1980s and early 1990s.

But now the hard core of the party's leadership is moulded in Blair's image, as bland, likeable, nondescript - and electable - as you could imagine.

The gap on the left of the old political spectrum in Britain has been filled by the old centre, the Liberal Party, now known as the Liberal Democrats, or LibDems. They talk a language of higher spending, higher taxes and, if necessary, more borrowing. They want to spend more on public services and socially inclusive policies. And, like the Labour Party of old, they are also unelectable. It seems it is safer to hold views like this without the temptation of actually putting them into practice.

The 2001 election itself was widely seen as one of the dullest in recent history. Apart from a couple of minor incidents, one in which deputy Prime Minister John Prescott clumped a heckler, nothing very special was expected and nothing very special happened. The spin-doctors, the focus groups (as used in soap powder TV adverts) and the mass media appear to have won the day.

Except, that is, for the remarkable fact that the Conservatives now have no representation in any country of the United Kingdom outside England (and very little in the north of England). The Conservatives have been traditionally known as the party of government, and their full title is the Conservative and Union Party (the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland). A unionist party without representation in three parts of the union is something of a misnomer.

The next big election is actually quite likely to be a referendum on whether or not Britain joins the EU's single currency, the euro. Blair has hinted he wants a referendum on this, but he is being typically non-commital.

The next leader of the Conservative Party, to be decided in September in a vote of 330,000 Conservative rank-and-file members, will offer a big clue as to the party's stance vis-a-vis Europe. A victory for front-runner and europhile Kenneth Clarke would increase the chances of a referendum on euro entry. His opponent, Iain Duncan Smith, is a eurosceptic.

However, Blair made clear in an interview with a French newspaper in July, when the question reared its ugly head again, that he was not about to spring a surprise referendum on the country. But if the leaders of all three main parties turn out to be for the euro, what's all the waiting for? Well, that's another story. That's politics...