Prof. Dr. Melanie Sully

The UK Votes articles by Dr Melanie Sully

"Großbritannien im Wahl(kampf)fieber" by Dr Melanie Sully in the "Tiroler Tageszeitung" 18.4. 2015

Here a summary in English.

Great Britain in Election Fever

One thing the UK and Austrian parliaments have in common is that both are badly in need of renovation. In both the roof is leaking, the brickwork crumbling and the costs of repairs controversial. In an effort to bring parliament closer to the people, a discussion is underway in Britain on moving parliament out of the capital, for the duration or repairs, to the regions but before that a general election will take place.

At the end of March the dissolution of parliament was announced after the Prime Minister went to Buckingham Palace to inform the Queen. The election will take place on Thursday May 7th a normal working day. Noone is sure why elections always take place on Thursdays but one idea is that in times of old it was half day for many who travelled to towns for the weekly market.

A Country without Parliament

At precisely 5pm on the day dissolution is announced the 650 Members of Parliament cease to be MPs, start clearing out their offices, return identity cards and then are forbidden to reenter the premises. For unlike Germany or Austria parliament before an election ceases to exist. For the entire period of the campaign until about two weeks after the election there is no parliament in the United Kingdom. It logically therefore cannot be recalled in any national or international crisis. The government takes all decisions also regarding EU matters without parliamentary scrutiny. There are no committee meetings, no debates and no votes. The 750 year history of parliament therefore has been regularly interrupted for election campaigns resuming its existence after a result. And the outcome this time is far from clear.

Who with Whom?

For the last five years the UK has had a rather unusual coalition between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. A five year pact was quickly hammered out in 2010 in just five days, something the Liberals were later to regret. The British are used to a speedy government formation after an election. Normally the day after the vote the new prime minister presents the cabinet names to the Queen. Now there is a very real prospect that once again no party will command an overall majority and that the spectre of coalition haggling all too well known in Austria, will commence.

This new situation has come about because of the erosion of support for the two main parties, Conservative and Labour. The challengers are national parties for example from Scotland whose confidence was boosted by the surge in support for independence in last years referendum. Also Conservatives have now to deal with what the Thatcher Tories were always keen to avoid, namely a rival on its right wing. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) with its mix of anti-EU and anti-immigration rhetoric though threatens not just the Tories but also Labour.

There are in the current House of Commons around a dozen parties and these include the Irish Sinn Fein. These five Members have never shown up in the chamber and take no part in debates or voting. They receive no salary but are elected MPs and carry on constituency work. The Republican Sinn Fein Members refuse on principle to take an oath of allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen, However its members are increasingly concerned about proposals for more powers to Scotland which could financially impact on Northern Ireland which might lead to a rethink on its parliamentary abstention.

There has also been talk of a Great Coalition between Labour and the Conservatives bringing with it an enormous concentration of power with around 85% of parliamentary seats. Since party discipline in the Commons is weak in comparison with Austria, this would be an invitation for backbench revolts on both sides of the House. Such revolts in the past have not just been unpleasant for the ruling party but have actually changed policy.

A minority government could expect to reasonably survive as a law makes it difficult to call a premature election before five years is up.


 Post-election Referenda

Should the Conservatives lead a new government it is almost certain that a Brexit referendum will feature in the so-called Queens speech which opens the parliamentary session. Cameron has said he wants the UK to stay a EU member but has admitted it would not “break his heart” like the loss of Scotland would. Then the EU would be faced at its June summit with demands from the British government which could serve as the basis for a renegotiation package. Until now the EU and the UKs partners have reacted with concern, suspicion and even hostility to the idea of an exit referendum. However the experience of the Scottish vote demonstrated a high level of mature participation and was regarded on balance as a plus for democratic governance.

One of the supposed advantages of the British electoral system (first past the post) in which the candidate in a constituency who gets the most votes wins, was that it should provide a clear result. With this failing there will be calls for electoral reform although the public overwhelming rejected electoral change in a referendum in 2011.

A further complication could arise this time if Labour polled more votes than Conservatives but received less seats. Even UKIP, until now critical of a proportional system for elections for being too “European”, realises that reform could be in its interest. It is now generally accepted though that electoral reform would require another referendum.

Apart from this the question of more powers for Scotland has yet to be debated and passed in parliament. Many do not exclude the prospect of another referendum at the end of the process.

The British election in May therefore could well mark the start of fundamental constitutional reform in the country with accompanying referenda on major issues for some years to come.



The Tiroler Tageszeitung 22.3. 2015 looked at the good prospects for small parties in the upcoming UK election especially the recent surge in support for the Scottish National Party SNP. According to Dr Melanie Sully these could well hold the balance of power meaning no one party can govern alone. This happened at the last election in 2010 and can be attributed as elsewhere to the steady erosion in support for former big parties in this case Labour and Conservative. In Britain it is the SNP but also the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party UKIP that has profited from this trend. Last year UKIP won two parliamentary seats in a by-election after MPs had defected from the Conservatives but UKIP threatens also Labour in so-called swing seats that determine each election. There are 650 seats in the UK Houses of Parliament making it one of the biggest chambers in the world. Past discussions on reducing the number of parliamentary seats have come to nothing. With the prospect of a large contingent of MPs from Scotland following the nationalist pro-independence line and with more powers for Edinburgh, some will want to curb or cut parliamentary representation for Scotland. The Liberals currently in a coalition with Camerons Conservatives have suffered a loss of support and are likely to be careful before considering a revival of this option. The election is on May 7 and parliament will resume on May 18th for the swearing in of new MPs. The so-called Queens speech, the official opening of the parliamentary session, during which the monarch reads out the government programme written by the prime minister and cabinet, is on May 27th but noone can be sure for certain that by then a new government will be in place.

Dr Melanie Sully