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Cablegate: Uk Elections: Hung Parliaments, Minority

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P 261720Z OCT 09
FM AMEMBASSY LONDON
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 3809
INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE PRIORITY

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 LONDON 002425

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E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV KDEM UK
SUBJECT: UK ELECTIONS: HUNG PARLIAMENTS, MINORITY
GOVERNMENTS, AND "THE SWING" - DO THE MATH

LONDON 00002425 001.2 OF 003


1. (SBU) Summary. With domestic political opinion polls fluctuating in the run-up to the UK's general elections, which must occur before June 3, 2010, political pundits are speculating that it is unlikely that the Labour Party will continue to hold a majority in Parliament but that it is far from assured that the Conservative Party will win an outright majority. Political parties and the UK media have begun discussing the possibility of a "hung parliament," which occurs when no one party wins an outright parliamentary majority. In such a situation, the largest party attempts to find enough common ground and support among the smaller parties to enter into coalition -- often, creating an unstable coalition unable to last a full parliamentary term.

2. (SBU) A number of factors have increased the likelihood of a hung parliament this time: disaffection with the government; extensive boundary changes which have led to the creation of new parliamentary seats and changed the makeup of over 470 existing seats; the ongoing turmoil caused by the expenses scandal; and the third parties and regional parties hiving off votes from both Labour and the Conservatives. In order to form the next government, a party must control 326 of the 650 seats being contested (half plus one). For the Conservatives, that would mean winning 116 additional seats. End summary.

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What is a Hung Parliament? --------------------------

3. (SBU) A hung parliament occurs when no party wins an absolute majority of parliamentary seats at a general election. Normally the process of choosing a Prime Minister is a straightforward one: the leader of the party with the most seats in the House of Commons - who would be able to get the business of Government through Parliament - is summoned to Buckingham Palace and asked, as Prime Minister, to form a government. When there is no clear winner because no party has won at least half of all the seats, the task is harder. While there are no rules to govern the process, the Queen will usually offer the first chance to form a government to the party leader commanding the largest single number of seats in the House of Commons, even if that number does not constitute an absolute majority. If that party leader is unable to put together a coalition that results in an absolute majority, the Queen can ask any other individual in the House of Commons who can build a working majority of support in the Commons to become Prime Minister.

4. (SBU) This last happened in the February 1974 general election, when Prime Minister Edward Heath's Conservative Government lost its parliamentary majority. Heath entered into coalition talks with the Liberal Party in an attempt to stay in government. But when it became clear that Heath would not be successful, the Queen asked Labour leader Harold Wilson to form a minority government. Wilson was only able to maintain enough support for his minority government until October 1974, when he was forced to hold another general election and ultimately won a parliamentary majority of three.

Doing the Math --------------

5. (SBU) Complicating matters during the forthcoming general election are the boundary changes agreed by Parliament in 2007, which have generally been acknowledged to favor the Conservative Party. The changes, as recommended by the Boundary Commission, are made to maintain parliamentary constituencies representing approximately 78,000 voters. The Boundary Commission is a public body and reviews constituencies and recommends changes to them every 10-12 years, reflecting shifts in population size. Any package of changes recommended by the Commission must be accepted or rejected by Parliament in their entirety. The changes mean that the next election will see a total of 650 seats contested, as opposed to the current 646.

6. (SBU) Rallings and Thrasher, respected election experts from Plymouth University, have projected "notional" results for the 2005 general election which show what the outcome would have been then, had the new boundaries been in place. The figures they have produced will be used throughout the media as the basis for determining results this time round. Those results show that, under the changes, the Conservatives have made a net gain of 12 seats, Labour have lost 7 seats, and the Liberal Democrats remain unchanged. 478 out of the 533 constituencies in England will have new boundaries at the next election, resulting in many MPs currently holding "safe" seats now finding themselves fighting in marginal seats.

7. (SBU) At the last election, of the 646 Parliamentary seats LONDON 00002425 002.2 OF 003 up for election, Labour won (with the Speaker included) 356 seats; the Conservatives, 198; and the Liberal Democrats, 62. Labour's victory in 2005 gave the party a comfortable parliamentary majority of 66 seats. If the boundary changes coming into force had been in place then, Labour's majority would have been 48 seats. This is the starting premise which will be used by all major media outlets.

8. (SBU) In order to form the next government, a party must control 326 of the 650 seats being contested (half plus one). For a Conservative victory, that would mean winning 116 additional seats. (NOTE: The exact number of seats to control a majority in Parliament can vary because the Speaker and three Deputies do not vote and some parties do not take up their seats in Parliament. Traditionally, the Speaker and three Deputies, who do not vote, are split two from Labour and two from the Tories, thus not affecting the overall voting majority in the Commons. Sinn Fein's five MPs have not taken their seats in Westminster and cannot vote, thus potentially affecting the total number required for a majority in the Commons. END NOTE.)

It's All About The 'Swing' -------------------------

9. (SBU) The 'swing' refers to the percentage of voters shifting away from the party they voted for in the last elections to a different party. This shift of voters away from one party and towards another party is difficult to predict but is a key electoral figure discussed by the UK media and politicians. In a House of Commons of 650 seats, a swing of MORE than 1.6 percent but LESS than 6.9 percent of voters away from Labour and to the Conservatives will produce a hung parliament -- with no party enjoying a parliamentary majority, but with the Conservatives likely the largest party. If the Conservatives get a swing of anything ABOVE 6.9 percent, they will hold 326 seats, giving them an outright parliamentary majority.

10. (SBU) The swing is predicted before elections using national polling data and generally considers a binary shift, i.e. voters shifting between Labour and the Conservatives. Increasingly, national polling data cannot be accurately applied across the whole of the UK because of the rise of regional and third parties. Additionally, one feature of recent UK elections has been tactical voting by an electorate, generally in an attempt to oust a particular MP, which often means "protest" voting for a third party. Following the recent expenses scandal, political pundits have asserted that tactical voting against the worst abusers of the expenses system is more likely and will make it tougher to predict results in some constituencies.

11. (SBU) Many Conservatives and Labour politicians at the recent parliamentary conferences argued to Poloffs that a hung parliament with the Conservatives as the biggest party -- rather than a Conservative victory -- is the most likely outcome of the next election; the swing the party needs to win from Labour is too big. Figures produced by the BBC indicate that at no election since 1945 have the Conservatives achieved a swing away from Labour of more than 5.3 percent. So the Conservatives face an uphill battle for the 6.9 plus percent swing they need for full victory. Some political analysts have suggested that the Conservatives will be the biggest party in a hung Parliament after the next elections and then will seek an outright majority in a second election in a year or two -- a theory which is often referred to as the "two election strategy."

Working Off the Polls ---------------------

12. (SBU) With the opinion polls presently in a state of flux - and a general election as much as seven months away - not much can be extrapolated from them. The most recent poll for the Guardian on October 21 put the Conservatives at 44 percent, Labour at 27 percent, and the Liberal Democrats at 18 percent. These figures would give Tory leader David Cameron a majority of at least 100 MPs. However, the situation is very fluid, and only a small shift in public opinion is required to drastically change the outcome: Rallings and Thrasher calculate that if the Conservatives got 40 percent of the vote in a general election, there would be a hung parliament; however, if the Conservatives shifted up just one point to 41 per cent, they would have a majority of 28. According to one commentator in The Times, "a comfortable Conservative majority and a hung Parliament can be regarded as next door to each other, and as about equally likely."

The Rise of the Third Party LONDON 00002425 003.2 OF 003 ---------------------------

13. (SBU) Increasing third party and regional party electoral shares has made it more difficult for one of the major parties to win a general election outright. Third parties currently control 99 seats in the Commons. The Liberal Democrats have gone from 6 MPs in 1959 to 62 in 2005; both the Scottish Nationalists and Wales' Plaid Cymru have increased their numbers and in recent elections there has been a small increase in the number of MPs standing as "independents". The rise of these smaller parties makes it more complicated for either Labour or the Conservatives to win an outright majority, as to do so means winning more seats than their main rival - and all the third parties - combined.

14. (SBU) Leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Alex Salmond, focused heavily on the prospect of a hung parliament in his speech to the party faithful at the SNP's annual conference in early October. Salmond argued that a hung parliament, with the biggest party being reliant on forming a coalition with other parties in order to stay in power, could give his party valuable bargaining power, although he made clear his party would not consider going into any kind of formal coalition. Deputy leader of the Party, Nicola Sturgeon, said a hung parliament would be the SNP's "preferred outcome". Speaking to the BBC, Salmond said he was fully aware of that a "Scottish bloc" could hold a decisive influence, an influence he would use to further his plans to hold a referendum on independence for Scotland.

Coalition Partners - the Liberal Democrats? -------------------------------------------

15. (SBU) The Liberal Democrats have often been touted as the potential parliamentary kingmakers, if there is a hung parliament. Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg publicly maintains that his party would not countenance a deal with either of the main parties, despite David Cameron saying that there was barely "a cigarette paper" between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems on policy issues. Many Lib Dems argue there is rarely much to be gained for the Liberal Democrats to go into a formal coalition in Westminster. They fear losing their identity, and the benefit of having one or more of their number being given a Cabinet position is tempered by the negative reaction of the public to such a move. In a coalition with a minority Labour Government, Lib Dem insiders have told Poloffs they fear they would be accused of propping up an unpopular government. If the Lib Dems go into coalition with a Conservative minority government, and that government chose to hold another general election in a relatively short period of time in order to gain an absolute majority, the Lib Dems could lose the voters who supported them, as happened after the Lib Lab Pact of the late 1970's. Visit London's Classified Website: XXXXXXXXXXXX
SUSMAN.

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