UK: First election since allowance scandal

Angus Reid
Election Date: May 6, 2010

At stake: House of Commons

Note: This election date is tentative.

Background

The United Kingdom of Great Britain encompasses England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Britain was one of only three European Union (EU) member nations—along with Denmark and Sweden—that did not adopt the Euro as the national currency in 2002.

From 1979 to 1997, the Conservative party administered the government under prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major. The early years of the Thatcher government saw the privatization of several state-run enterprises, rising unemployment rates and a war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. The Conservatives easily won the election of 1983, and achieved a reduced majority in 1987.

In 1990, Thatcher resigned after failing to defeat Major’s leadership challenge. Major would win a fresh term in the 1992 election. In 1996, the country’s beef industry almost collapsed after the government acknowledged that Mad Cow disease could be transmitted to humans.

In the May 1997 election, Tony Blair became prime minister after leading the Labour party to victory. During Blair’s first term, plebiscites in Scotland and Wales allowed for the creation of separate legislative assemblies. Blair would earn a second term in the June 2001 election.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, United States president George W. Bush declared in an address to Congress, “America has no truer friend than Great Britain.” British soldiers participated in the war on terrorism, initiated in October 2001 after Afghanistan’s Taliban regime refused to hand over al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, prime suspect in the attacks.

In late 2002, Blair was one of Bush’s closest allies in demanding full disclosure of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction program. A coalition encompassing troops from the U.S., Britain and 39 other countries invaded Iraq in March 2003. Britain originally committed 8,700 soldiers to the U.S.-led military effort.

Following the end of major military operations in May, no evidence of weapons of mass destruction was found. Blair faced criticism for allegedly overstating intelligence reports to make the case for war more plausible. The suicide of former weapons inspector David Kelly—cited as the source for a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) report on hyped intelligence—further affected the prime minister’s image. In January 2004, an official investigation cleared Blair of any wrongdoing, and chided the BBC for its “unfounded” story.

In October 2004, the Iraq Survey Group concluded that Saddam Hussein’s regime did not possess weapons of mass destruction. Blair accepted that pre-war intelligence may have been flawed, but stood by the decision to launch military action, citing Hussein’s poor human rights record.

In the 2005 election, Blair led Labour to a third consecutive victory—albeit with a lower number of parliamentarians—with 356 seats, followed by the Conservatives with 197 and the Liberal Democrats with 62. Blair acknowledged the result, saying, “It seems clear that the British people wanted the return of a Labour government but with a reduced majority.”

Click here for 2005 House of Commons Election Tracker

2010 House of Commons Election

The next election to the House of Commons must be held on or before Jun. 3. Sitting prime ministers can dissolve Parliament and call an early ballot at their discretion. It is widely believed that the election will take place on May 6.

The three main parties head to the General Election under new leaders. In June 2007, Gordon Brown officially became Labour leader and prime minister, replacing Tony Blair. Brown had worked as chancellor of the exchequer.

Since December 2005, David Cameron has been the leader of the Conservative Party. In December 2007, current parliamentarian Nick Clegg became the new leader of the Liberal Democrats.

The Scottish National Party (SNP), which won the Scottish Parliament election in 2007, is seeking to secure control of at least 20 seats in the House of Commons. Several smaller parties which enjoyed a surge in support during the 2009 European and local elections—such as the United Kingdom Independence Party, the Green Party and the British National Party—will attempt to win a seat in the lower house for the first time.

Since 2007, defaults on so-called subprime mortgages—credit given to high-risk borrowers—in the United States caused volatility in domestic and global financial markets and ultimately pushed the U.S. economy into a recession. A recession is defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth. The crisis has affected the global financial and credit systems, and triggered layoffs in companies around the world.

Britain has been hit hard by the global financial crisis. In 2007, the British Northern Rock bank—a prominent mortgage lender—was forced to seek emergency funding from the government. Brown’s administration has intervened to save bankrupt banks and boost the economy.

In November 2008, Brown introduced a “shock-treatment” stimulus package to jump-start the country’s economy through tax cuts, increased government spending and a greater role in government lending. The package was valued at $31 billion U.S.

In May 2009, the British newspaper Daily Telegraph published a leaked memo showing that several lawmakers have spent their allowances on things such as tennis court repairs, horse manure, light bulbs, pornographic movies and even mortgage payments. The scandalous revelations greatly affected the reputation of Britain’s Parliament, mostly because such expenses billed to the taxpayers are technically allowed due to loose regulation. Members of all major political parties have been implicated in the scandal.

Michael Martin, speaker of the House of Commons, resigned—a first in over three centuries—over the expense row. Martin was accused of resisting new legislation that would have made lawmakers’ expenses more transparent.

In December 2009, three television networks—ITV, Sky and the BBC—announced that the three main party leaders would take part in three 90-minute debates during the 2010 electoral campaign. A televised leaders debate has never been held during a general election campaign in Britain.

An Angus Reid Public Opinion survey conducted in early January found that 75 per cent of Britons regard the debates as a positive development.

In January, the Office of National Statistics showed that the UK economy grew by 0.1 per cent in the last quarter of 2009, ending six consecutive quarters of contraction.

An Angus Reid Public Opinion survey conducted in late February found that 85 per cent of Britons rate the economic conditions in the country as “poor” or “very poor.”

In February 2010, 392 current and former lawmakers received orders to pay back roughly $1.7 million U.S. for their misuse of allowances. Keir Starmer, director of public prosecutions, announced that four current lawmakers would be criminally charged for actions related to the expenses scandal. They are Labour MPs Elliot Morley, David Chaytor and Jim Devine, and Conservative House of Lords member Lord Hanningfield.

An Angus Reid Public Opinion survey conducted in early February found that 50 per cent of Britons believe that most of the current MPs in the House of Commons have misused the expenses system for personal gain.

In February 2010, Brown proposed adopting the alternative vote system, which allows voters to rank their first, second and third preference in a specific constituency so that, if no candidate gets 50 per cent of the first-choice votes, the second and third choices are added to the tallies until a candidate achieves a majority. Brown has pledged to hold a referendum in October 2011 on whether to change the electoral system, if the Labour party forms the government after this year’s general election.

An Angus Reid Public Opinion survey conducted in early February found that 40 per cent of Britons would vote in favour of adopting the alternative vote system in a referendum, while 31 per cent would retain the first past the post system.

Throughout 2010, the Conservative Party has maintained the upper hand over Labour. An Angus Reid Public Opinion survey conducted in mid-March found that 39 per cent of decided voters would support the Conservative candidate in their constituency, followed by Labour with 26 per cent and the Liberal Democrats with 21 per cent.

Political Players

Queen: Elizabeth II
Prime minister: Gordon Brown – Lab.

Legislative Branch: The Parliament has two chambers. The House of Commons has 646 members, elected to five-year terms in single-seat constituencies. The House of Lords has 675 non-elected members; 557 life peers and 118 hereditary members.

Results of Last Election:

House of Commons – May 5, 2005

Vote% Seats
Labour Party (Lab.) 35.3% 356
Conservative Party (Con.) 32.3% 198
Liberal Democrats (Lib-Dem) 22.1% 62
United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) 2.2%
Scottish National Party (SNP) 1.5% 6
Green Party of England and Wales (Gr) 1.0%
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) 0.9% 9
British National Party (BNP) 0.7%
Plaid Cymru – Party of Wales (PC) 0.6% 3
Sinn Fein (We Ourselves) 0.6% 5
Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) 0.5% 3
Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) 0.5% 1
Respect Party (RP) 0.3% 1
Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) 0.2%
Independent Kidderminster Hospital and Health Concern (IKHHC) 0.1% 1
Veritas Party (VP) 0.1%
Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI) 0.1%
Scottish Green Party (SGP) 0.1%
Liberal Party (Lib.) 0.1%
Independents 1