STUDENTS of British politics are normally taught that the nation’s well established electoral system of first-past-the-post is straightforward and has stood the test of time in the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy.
Candidates are elected on the single day of a General Election by a simple majority of votes in hundreds of constituencies established well in advance by an independent Boundaries Commission, and the political party with an overall majority of seats forms a government. Here at home, we are familiar with this system since it was bequeathed to us and many other former British territories at the time of Independence.
Comparisons with practice in other countries, like France’s split presidential and parliamentary voting over a period of weeks and the electoral college system in the USA when a president can still win despite losing the popular vote, tend to reinforce the British belief in the effectiveness of their own procedures. Periodically, there is pressure for change to a system of proportional representation to allow the voice of minorities to be heard, but a referendum in 2011 on alternative voting methods resulted in reaffirmation of the status quo.
Nonetheless, those students may now be confused following last week’s General Election in Britain. The outcome was a hung parliament in which no party secured an overall majority, and it has produced all manner of contradictions and variables that are anything but simple and straightforward. This is of interest here since our own election last month under the same Westminster form of government was conducted, on the whole, without any major problems and produced a clear winner.
Going in to the election with an existing working majority of 17, Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government won the most votes and the most seats – 318 against the opposition Labour Party’s 262 – but failed to gain the 326 seats required for an absolute majority over all other parties in a 650-seat House of Commons. So, she can either try to conduct business as a minority government or seek support from one of the smaller parties in order to create a working majority.
She has chosen the latter in an alliance, falling short of a full coalition, with the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland which won 10 seats at the election. Thus, its support will bring her above the magic 326 level and she has already formed a new government. Although there are precedents for governing in this way, nobody can tell at this early stage how such an arrangement may turn out. Britain has gone, therefore, within a week from a position of political stability to a period of perilous uncertainty.
Mrs May’s move to strengthen her hand with a projected larger majority in a snap election proved to be a terrible miscalculation. It seems that part of a sceptical and critical electorate was unhappy with her flawed manifesto – in particular, its controversial social policies – and resented her complacency and opportunism. All this apparently contributed to the resurgence of the Labour Party which was already offering inducements about increased public spending and other benefits in the knowledge that it would not win power and have to implement its promises.
Since it is still the largest party, however, the Conservatives have the constitutional right to form a government, not least because Labour would anyway probably be unable to do so even if it joined forces with the smaller parties. Add to the mix the position of Sinn Fein, the Irish republican party in Northern Ireland opposed to the Democratic Unionists, which historically declines to sit at Westminster but this time with 7 seats may do so, and the arithmetic becomes more complicated – to the bewilderment, no doubt, of those students who were led to believe that the system was straightforward.
Amidst the intrigue and deal-making in London which must surely now follow, we believe that there is generally a lesson yet again for politicians to guard against hubris and overconfidence and never to take the electorate for granted. The rise of populism and widespread dissatisfaction with the old establishment policies and practices, both in the US and Europe, ought to be a warning to the political class that should take serious note of this latest backlash against a sitting Tory government in the United Kingdom.
At home, we have seen the demise of a corrupt and discredited PLP government which blatantly pursued its own ends while ignoring the concerns and demands of the Bahamian people. We have every confidence in the honesty and overall integrity of the new FNM government, but we nonetheless urge it once again to act at all times scrupulously in the interests of the whole country. If it fails to do so, it will pay the price at the next election. Perhaps, the example of political events in Britain will concentrate minds.