The UK is heading to the polls for a general election this Thursday, June 8th. For astute international news watchers, you may have noticed that this is the third major election in Britain in 2 years. Here are some FAQs for any American wondering what’s going on:
1. Why so many elections?
The UK has suffered election fever over the last few years (let’s also not forget the Scottish Independence referendum in September 2014!). The general election taking place on June 8th was an unscheduled surprise. The last national election (won by David Cameron, Conservative Party) was in May 2015. Cameron’s election manifesto included a pledge for an In/Out vote on Remaining or Leaving the European Union. This subsequently took place in June 2016. The next general election wasn’t supposed to happen until 2020.
2. Are there not fixed terms like the United States?
In the United Kingdom, there is a Parliamentary (not a Presidential) system of government. People vote for their local Member of Parliament (equivalent of a Congressman), and the Party that gains a majority in the House of Commons (the equivalent of Congress), technically wins the election. The leader of that party then becomes Prime Minister. Up until 2010, it was totally in the Prime Minister’s power to call a general election at any time of their choosing. The maximum length of their term was 5 years, but frequently a popular Prime Minister would call an election sooner at a time of their own political convenience. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act in 2011 changed this, which set in law a fixed term lasting 5 years. Interestingly, Theresa May has pledged to repeal this Act if she wins on June 8th.
3. How did the June 8th general election happen?
There are currently two exceptions to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. One is a vote of no confidence in the Government, and the other is a two-thirds majority vote in the House of Commons. On 18 April 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May called for a general election on June 8th. The House then voted the next day by 522-13 to go ahead with the election (easily the 2/3 needed). Currently there are 650 Members of Parliament in total. There is also a House of Lords, which is not directly elected. Without making things more complicated, you can read about the function of House of Lords here.
4. What happened to David Cameron?
He resigned following the Brexit result. He had campaigned forcefully for a Remain vote. When the country voted to Leave, his position became untenable. Following his resignation, Theresa May, the Home Secretary (the Minister in charge of internal policies including immigration and policing) was swiftly internally elected leader of the Conservative Party, and therefore Prime Minister.
5. Why did Theresa May call the election?
Constitutionally, no general election was required until May 2020. Theresa May would have continued as Prime Minister until that point. Having previously refused to request another general election before then, Theresa May changed her mind in April. Why? Well, her official reason was because she was concerned the Conservatives only had a slim majority in Parliament, and the opposition parties would make it difficult for her to negotiate the terms of Brexit with the other European Union members. Article 50, which triggered Brexit, set in chain a 2-year process in which all negotiations regarding the UK’s trade agreements with the EU must be completed by March 2019. This is arguably the most important issue facing the UK over the next several years. A stronger mandate from the country would theoretically strengthen Mrs May’s position. The reality, however, is that calling the early election was also a politically expedient move that was taken because (at the time anyway) Theresa May was riding very high in opinion polls and facing a weak opposition.
6. What political parties are running?
The major 2 parties in British politics over the last few decades have been the Conservatives (equivalent of the Republicans) and the Labour Party (equivalent of the Democrats). The Liberal Democrat Party (considered left wing) have been the third major party. There are also other strong challengers including the national parties in Scotland and Wales, and the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which is focused on Britain leaving the European Union. For some perspective, in the 37 years since 1979, 24 years have been under Conservative administrations, with Tony Blair’s “Third Way” more centrist Labour Party winning power between 1997 and 2010, and a Conservative-led coalition government between 2010-2015.
7. Who is Theresa May’s main challenger?
The Labour Party is currently led by Jeremy Corbyn, who is as close to a populist UK version of Bernie Sanders as there could be. His views would be considered very socialist in the United States.
8. What are the major issues and is healthcare one of them?
The major issue is probably how Brexit negotiations will proceed up until March 2019. Following this are issues of national security (especially following the recent atrocities in Manchester and London), taxation, poverty & inequality, education and taxes. The National Health Service (NHS), the government-funded centralized healthcare system, is consistently an emotive topic. All parties agree on increased funding and securing its future, to differing degrees.
9. Who is favorite to win?
The opinion polls have narrowed considerably since the election was called, but Theresa May’s Conservative Party is still favorite to win. Despite some self-inflicted slip ups, including on issues of taxes and how to fund elderly social care, she is still the most likely to gain a majority in Parliament. Interestingly, the general perception in the UK is that the media and press, particularly newspapers, are very right-wing (in America, it’s the “liberal” mainstream media that is more often talked about).
10. How will the result affect the United States?
With the current White House and Congress, there’s probably more in common with Theresa May’s Conservative Party than with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. It’s likely that the UK will want to secure some fairly swift trade deals with the United States no matter who wins. The two countries will also likely remain staunch allies with a shared culture, but do expect a much more rocky relationship with the UK if Corbyn wins.
Please do not read on if you don’t want an opinion point! I vote much more for the candidate than the individual party. Although Theresa May is not the most charismatic individual, and I don’t agree with all of her policies, I consider her to be the best person to lead the country. Elections are about choosing the best out of what’s available. That’s why the Conservatives will be getting my absentee vote. Democracy is greatly strengthened when there are two very strong political parties fighting it out. The Labour Party, whom I voted for when Tony Blair was leader, need to learn to move back to the centre ground if they ever want to win again, and be a more credible governing party. Jeremy Corbyn is simply not Prime Ministerial material, has faced constant rebellions among his own team, and is a weak and ineffective leader. One thing I will give him, however, is that he is a man of conviction and consistent in his ideology. His extreme left-wing policies, including an extreme socialist and anti-business agenda (such as renationalizing railways and energy) would take the UK back to the tax and spend philosophy of the 1970s, and be very dangerous to the country’s economy and global strength.
Suneel Dhand is a physician, author, speaker and consultant. Learn more about him at suneeldhand.com