I have never made a secret of the fact that I am no expert on politics outside of Ireland. I watch elections in other countries in a disinterested fashion. The systems are strange and I find it gives you an insight into just how bizarre politics can look when you are not involved. The UK election is probably the most interesting one in my lifetime. Up until now all I have ever seen is a strange and undemocratic voting system with two competing parties that are so alike they make Fine Gael and Fianna Fail look like polar opposites. However, this time the election is highly unpredictable and that gives it a slight edge.
There is no doubt, however, that the UK election does have big implications even on the international stage. So what’s going to happen? I asked John McGuirk who likes to follow these things and he reckoned its heading to a hung parliament. It was his view that David Cameron might be able to get a government together but it will be very vulnerable and there will probably be another election within two years. That doesn’t fill me with confidence. The one selling point the UK system used to have was that it produced strong single party governments. It now appears increasingly unstable. Jason O’Mahony, who is also a man who follows politics all over the world, told me that although there may be a hung parliament Ed Milliband might find himself in power with a minority government if the Scottish National party (SNP) abstain. He says it might work but it will be problematic come budget time.
Strangely, if the SNP do have some hold on power it could produce some interesting situations. McGuirk told me that people in Northern Ireland might find it strange if the SNP end up in government seeking Scottish Independence and the breakup of the union. Equally Jason O’Mahony pointed out that if David Cameron is in power and holds a referendum on EU membership that could trigger a second Scottish independence referendum. Now that scenario excites me. It would present us with a strange reversal where English voters would have to choose between staying with the EU or losing Scotland.
The voting system in the UK is First Past the Post (FPTP). You get the most votes you win the seat. There is only one seat. Second place gets nothing. The problem is that the one strong attribute it had is gone. It is no longer producing strong stable governments. McGuirk tells me ‘It’s fun to watch it breaking down’. He says that because there was really a two and a half party system if they had had proportional representation like Ireland then The Liberal Democrats would always be in government propping up one of the other two. That has changed now. The advances made by SNP and UKIP mean there are more parties and the system cannot really handle this. McGuirk reckons that they have to face the fact that the system must now change and he pointed out to me that people like Dan Hannon who opposed changing the voting system in the past now wants to reform things.
Jason O’Mahony described FPTP as ‘horrific’. He said that it was not a voting system but a raffle and even argued that it would probably work out statistically fairer to just pick names from a hat. He agreed that the system was now breaking down. He pointed out that ever since the Magna Carta the British have had a system where you had wealth versus workers. Those old classifications have gone now though. It is not easy to compartmentalise people any more. People who are economically right wing might be socially left wing. Increasingly voters aren’t easy to pin down. They are right on some things and left on others. UKIP may appear to be a right wing party but will get much support in working class areas. On the other hand some very wealthy people will seek left wing liberal parties with social policies in line with their views.
The UK system produces strange results. O’Mahony pointed out to me that the SNP might get 45% of the vote in Scotland. That means more than half the population voted against them but the SNP could win all the seats on offer. That really is stunning. Some parties will get a handful of seats with a tiny percentage of the vote others will get a sizeable proportion and end up with less. It will not be just the Irish that find this bizarre. Most of Europe would wonder how this is a functioning democracy at all. At the rate things are going it might be functioning a lot less after the results come in.