Recent U.K. vote bad for Conservatives, but not as bad as it first appears, says Emory expert

June 9, 2017


Megan McRainey


Thomas D. Lancaster, professor of political science at Emory University and an expert in European politics, believes the Conservatives’ losses during the recent U.K. elections represent yet another mistake for Prime Minister Theresa May but may not be as devastating as some think.

“Prime Minister May’s calling this snap election was the Conservatives second major political mistake in a row. The first, of course, was David Cameron’s calling of the Brexit referendum vote in the first place. Neither had to happen for either constitutional or political reasons.

“The press seems to be calling this a ‘hung parliament.’ That’s simply not true. The Conservatives could easily stay in power (and Prime Minister May keep her job) with a formal coalition government—as happens in most European systems—with the Liberal Democrats as David Cameron did after the 2010 election. This would even make sense except the Liberal Democrats don’t want to leave Europe.

“The Conservatives are more likely to form an informal coalition government (could even be formal) with the Democratic Unionist Party (won 10 seats) from Northern Ireland. My guess is that the Conservatives will form a minority government (as an informal coalition) with support from the DUP.

“One should always keep in mind the highly distorting effect of the British “first-past-the-post” electoral system. While the Conservatives won about 48.9% of the seats in Parliament, they did this with a lot few votes (final tally still coming in).  The same applies for the Labour Party. Point is that the electoral system greatly favors the two large parties.  Their strength is even weaker than the percentage of seats won that is being reported. In 2015, for example, the Conservatives won 50.8% of the seats with only 36.9% of the vote. The point is that the Conservatives even lost their “manufactured” majority.   

“Besides the Conservatives being a major loser in this election, so was the Scottish Nationalist Party. They dropped from 56 to 35 seats, a drop of 19. However, in Scotland, the race is between them and the Labour Party. This ‘defeat’ by the SNP may slow down their call for a second referendum on independence.

“Besides the coalitional options, there is likely to be a new election long before the 5-year mandate is required. Under other conditions, but because a minority government had to be formed, the UK had two elections in 1974 (February and October). The second one produced a majority government. The British people know that their majoritarian parliamentary system functions best with a majority government, and responded appropriately in the second election. “