UK Elections: Oh, no! Not another one!

There has been only one occasion in Britain since 1910 when there were two elections within a few months.

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage stands outside his battle bus during an election campaign event in Easington, Britain, on November 24 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage stands outside his battle bus during an election campaign event in Easington, Britain, on November 24
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There are times when going out to the streets to ask the opinion of the people, otherwise known in the media as vox pop, produces responses the man or woman with the microphone did not expect to hear.
Approached by a television journalist in a suburban town during the last election in the UK, an elderly lady, waylaid with her shopping, replied in response to a question about how she would vote in the coming election, “Oh no. Not another one.” I think we can all relate to that.
Her remark was replayed many times before the UK polling stations closed and will no doubt appear again before December 12, the date of “another one,” four months before the possible “another one” here in Israel. The December election in the UK is the third in four years, fourth if you count the June 2016 referendum on leaving or staying in the European Union. The possible Israeli election on March 3 would be the third in 11 months, surely a record in a liberal democracy.
There has been only one occasion in Britain since 1910 when there were two elections within a few months. The first was in February 1974 when the Labour Party, led by Harold Wilson, won 301 seats while the Conservatives, under Edward Heath, the sitting prime minister, won 297, a Labour majority of four but 17 short of an overall working majority. So Wilson decided to go back to the country in the hope of securing a bigger majority. The new election was held in October 1974. The Labour Party won a narrow overall majority of just three votes, leading to a long series of all-night sessions in order to push the government’s policies through the House of Commons, with Labour MPs famously being hauled from their sick beds to vote. I remember it well. I was married to a Labour MP at the time.
The Conservative British prime minister, Theresa May, went to the polls in June 2017, also to try to achieve a better working majority in Parliament for her government. She also failed. The Conservatives ended up with a net loss of 23 seats, thus losing the parliamentary majority and forcing it to rely on 10 MPs from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to form a government.
Because the British Parliamentary system is different from its Israeli counterpart – being based on a first past the post rule in each of the 650 constituencies and not on a nationwide accumulation of votes as in Israel – it theoretically eliminates the dependence of the government on the support of minority parties.
In fact, what happened in that 2017 election was very much akin to the situation here. The DUP is a rigidly Protestant party frequently at odds with the government in Westminster on anything concerning lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, LGBTQ, same sex-marriage or abortion issues, which clash with its religious beliefs. It is similarly at odds, incidentally, with its fellow parliamentarians in the Stormont, the Northern Irish Parliament, as well as the present day government in the Irish Republic.
When the new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson took over from Theresa May, he did not, therefore, inherit a stable majority, which he discovered at a cost during the Brexit negotiations when they involved the tricky question of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
The UK election due to take place this month is being labeled the Brexit election, largely as a result of Parliament’s inability to agree on the conditions under which Britain would leave the European Union. The original referendum, which committed the UK to exit, demonstrated that the country was as divided as Parliament, with 52% voting to leave, and 48% wanting to remain. Recent polls show a slight lead for the “remainers,” along with a new category of respondents declaring that they would simply refuse to vote. Another recent poll, seeking to establish whether the British public actually wanted another general election, revealed that 50% did and 50% did not!
The results of Israel’s two elections this year showed a similar sharp divide in the voting public. The April election resulted in 35 seats in the Knesset for both Likud and Blue and White, with neither party being able to form a government. The September election gave Blue and White 33 seats and Likud 32, and still neither party could form a government. So it seems that the question will be put to us again in March.
The most interesting thing about all these elections is that they did not decide anything. All those appeals to the voters show simply that opinion is split down the middle. Going back to a divided electorate asking it to make up its collective mind gets us nowhere.
It is not that the people have not decided. They have. But there is no consensus. There is apparently a general disposition against compromise. But a liberal democracy, like many other systems in society, can only work on an acceptance of the principle of the majority vote, and where that does not exist, on a solution based on compromise in order to get the system working. I do not suggest that compromise is a quick and easy fix. It clearly involves making difficult decisions, a partial sacrifice of some principles, a readiness to relegate the past to the history books, and the putting aside of winners and losers. The essential ingredient is trust – an understanding that all parties are following the same rules.
It may be that the absence of compromise and the resulting vacuum where a stable government should be sitting, along with continuing uncertainty and disillusionment and fatigue among the public, may push the pendulum in one direction or another. Whether for better or for worse will depend on which side of the pendulum you sit.