Impending Fissures

Royal wedding fever has turned to honeymoon speculation and, more importantly for Parliament and British politics, coalition debate. On Thursday (May 5th) the British public will go to the polls to vote in local elections as well as in a general referendum on the future voting system for the United Kingdom’s Parliament. This is a big test for Parliament’s fragile one-year old. 


The British media has moved away from images of the gravity defying hats to the leaders of the coalition, Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg and Conservative David Cameron. Local elections do not change current members of parliament or party numbers in government, but determine local council seats. For example, up for the vote in England are thousands of seats on shire district councils, unitary councils and metropolitan district councils, in all more than 9,400 seats. The Telegraph newspaper predicts that the Labour party could gain up to 1,500 council seats on Thursday, while the Conservative party may lose as many as 900 seats and the Liberal Democrat party something in the range of 600 seats. 

Alongside the local elections is a countrywide referendum on the voting system in use for parliamentary elections. At present, parliamentary elections operate on the first-past-the-post system: constituents vote for one candidate each and the candidate who gains the most votes in their constituency becomes the Member of Parliament for that area. The Liberal Democrats have long supported more proportional representation, and as part of the agreements made in forming the coalition, guaranteed a referendum on employing the Alternative Vote (AV) system. Under AV, voters are asked to select candidates in order of preference, with the option to vote for as many candidates as are running. Initially, only first choice votes are counted, and a candidate winning more than 50% of the vote is automatically elected. If no candidate emerges with more than 50% of the vote, then the candidate with the least amount of votes is taken out of the running and his second choice votes are distributed to the remaining candidates in a new count. If one candidate now has more than 50% of the vote, that candidate is elected, and if not, another count occurs with the same elimination of the last place candidate and reallocation of that person’s next preferences. This goes on until one candidate has 50% of the vote (or there are no more votes to be distributed). 

There are various arguments in favor and against instituting AV. Overall, the Liberal Democrats are in favor of the switch while most Conservatives are against the move, but there exist different opinion groups across all the major parties. The divide on this issue, combined with changes to council seats in local elections, has the potential to weaken the coalition—some pundits predict a derailing of the Lib Dem-Conservative partnership. Clegg and Cameron have both stated that the AV vote will not split the coalition and that the partnership will survive regardless of the result. In either case, May 5th will mark a new iteration in the changing face of British politics. 

On the austerity and immigration front, there have been several noticeable developments over the last few weeks. French President Nicholas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi announced plans to limit the current system of passport-free travel within Europe—under the existing Schengen treaty—because of the influx of many North African migrants (particularly Tunisian and Libyan) into Europe. Many Members of the European Parliament argue that government-imposed border controls would weaken Schengen, detrimental to EU collaboration. The European Commission will propose new rules tomorrow. This development highlights the responsibilities and difficulties for European countries in supporting asylum populations, alongside simultaneous obligations to Europe to maintain approved collective legislature and standards. 

In Britain, the National Institute for Economic and Social Research recently reported that eastern European immigrants have contributed almost £5bn to Britain’s economy since 2004. The UK was one of three countries to allow immediate free access to labourers from the eight 2004 accession countries, and has seen a British GDP increase of 0.34% as a result, the report states. The British group MigrationWatch UK, which campaigns for stricter controls on immigration, has questioned the value of this GDP increase. They argue instead that GDP per capita is of more importance, and that the impact of migrants on production has been less than their impact on population size. 

Ministers this week admitted that asylum claims on the basis of sexual discrimination are not being recorded, presenting the possibility of active deportations to countries where deportees risk persecution—a risk prevented by the European Charter of Human Rights. The New York Times reported on the current disparaging results in the British Government’s attempts to revert the deficit, and to audible relief, a missing Nepalese male choir have been found. Read the full story here.

(The BBC have put together this useful guide to AV if you would like further explanation.)