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8 Lessons from the civilised UK General Elections 

Author: Muloongo Muchelemba
6 July 2024

The Great British Empire may be long gone but the Brits still reign supreme when it comes to a smooth transfer of power. Just as His Majesty King Charles III ascended to the throne immediately after the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the exit door was swiftly shown to Rishi Sunak after the Conservative Party (Tories) slumped to their worst UK General Election defeat since 1906.

Here are eight lessons from British politics: 

#1 UK General Election is a game of 4D Chess

In theory, the UK General Elections are held every five years. The UK Parliament passed a Fixed-term Parliament Act in 2011 to introduce some predictability to the election cycle. It was also proposed that the elections be held on the first Thursday in May in the election year. Thursdays have stuck, presumably to ensure that the results form part of the Friday news dump. This allows the losing candidate some respite at the weekend and for the winner to get on with the job.

However, the five-year fixed term was broken twice by Theresa May in 2017 and Boris Johnson in 2019. Both secured a parliamentary majority to call for snap elections. They both had similar motivations to strengthen their hand in Brexit negotiations but achieved different results. She reduced her party's majority while he won back the lost seats and added more. The Act was eventually repealed on 24 March 2022 because it had become redundant. 

Snap elections only work when there is a plan to catch the opposition napping and an electorate who are comfortable with the status quo. Sunak gambled when he called for the 4 July 2024 election without consulting his cabinet and MPs. Many MPs were not prepared for a fight. 75 Tory MPs including former Prime Minister Theresa May were among 132 MPs who chose not to contest their seats. Labour was ready and more importantly, the majority of voters were fed up with 14 years of Tory leadership. Sunak may have correctly assessed the rising threat from Nigel Farage’s Reform Party but he was delulu about pulling a miraculous. The start-up political party led by the charismatic but disingenuous Nigel Farage took 4m votes away from the Tories guaranteeing certain defeat.

London, Westminster, UK 25th October 2022, Rishi Sunak arrives in Downing Street as the new Prime Minister. Editorial credit: Sean Aidan Calderbank / Shutterstock.com
London, Westminster, UK 25th October 2022, Rishi Sunak arrives in Downing Street as the new Prime Minister. Editorial credit: Sean Aidan Calderbank / Shutterstock.com

#2 The UK General Election has a short campaign window

Parliament is dissolved when the government of the day calls for a General Election. Members of Parliament (MPs) have just six weeks to campaign. How is this feasible? Most MPs have homes in their constituencies and are supposed to hold ‘surgeries’ every week to meet their constituents. Those who do not follow basic principles of being an MP (i.e. looking after their people) are usually were shown the door at the next election.

The former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, retained his seat by the skin of his teeth. He pounded the pavement in his constituency during the campaign window and engaged directly with voters who though dissatisfied came through for him.

British politics is fought on performance against promises and voter confidence, making a protracted campaign window unnecessary.

#3 The UK General Election is cheaper than others

The Electoral Commission sets strict rules for campaign spend and monitors it. The maximum amount that any party is allowed to spend campaigning in each constituency is £54,010. This means that the total amount that can be spent across all 650 constituencies is £35m. Parties also manage additional campaign spend centrally. It is not yet known how much the 2024 election cost. The 2017 General Election cost £140m, with 70% spent on election officials. This is a fraction of the $14b that was spent on the 2020 US General Election. There are no million-dollar Super Bowl television commercials, intense social media campaigns or have many overpaid political strategists. The elections are also cheaper than in Kenya, where KhS44.6b ($350m) was spent on the 2022 election. 

The UK election campaign relies on party staff and volunteers. Traditional methods of canvassing with leaflets and making phone calls are he norm. Leaflets, newspaper or social media ads must clearly state who paid for them.

#4 The UK General Election has strict rules

Bashing your opponent and calling them ‘sleepy’ or ‘having the morals of an alley cat’ is not allowed. There is no room for personality politics in the UK General Election. The party manifestos, which spell out the party stance and campaign promises, are what matters. Transparency is key.

Unlike the US where there is an endless loop of news before, during and after an election, there is a media blackout on election day until 10pm. This ensures that there is no undue influence on those who have yet to vote. Instead, the media this year covered pets who accompanied their owners to the polling stations as they waited outside. It is light-hearted moments like this that make us proud to be British.

#5 The UK General Election exit polls are fairly accurate

The exit poll drops is released at 10pm and sets the expectations for the final result. The polls are managed by an independent team of statisticians led by British political scientist Sir John Curtis. They reportedly sample of 130/40,000 polling stations around Great Britain to make their projections.

It is remarkable how close the actual UK General Election results are to the exit polls. The exit polls at 10pm on 4 July 2024 predicted 410 seats for Labour and 131 seats for the Conservatives. The actual result was 412 to Labour and 121 to the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats exceeded the prediction by 10 seats. 

#6 The UK General Election results come out quickly

Sunderland South, a Labour stronghold with around 40,000 voters, is traditionally the first constituency to declare results. The 2024 UK General Election declaration came just 70 minutes after the polls closed at 10pm while their fastest record of 43 minutes was set in 2001. 

Labour crossed the magic number of 326 seats (i.e. the majority threshold) just after 5am local time on 5 July 2024 - only seven hours after the polls closed. A broken Rishi Sunak conceded defeat after he was declared a winner in his constituency and used his acceptance speech to apologise to the Tories for the result and took full responsibility. Most viewers were distracted by the opponent standing behind him holding a L sign.

The Tories accepted defeat graciously. The former 49-days-in-office Prime Minister, Liz Truss, tried to pull a George Galloway (he was booted out after just four months as an MP and couldn't be asked to make an appearance for the declaration) and not show her face at the results announcement before reluctantly coming on stage as the BBC camera zoomed in to film her reaction. The social media platform, X, was buzzing with people who pulled an all nighter to witness the unrepentant Truss fall on her political sword. She was joined in defeat by other senior Tories including Penny Mordaunt and Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, who suffered the indignity of standing next to an opponent wearing a yellow mask. You can't make these things up.

Messages for the in-coming Prime Minister, Sir Keir Starmer, started to come in before 6am local time, with the Australian Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese being the first world leader to congratulate his “friend”. 

#7 The changing of the guard is swift

The out-going Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt was the first senior leader to leave Downing Street for the last time. He emerged outside Number 11 at 9:30am with his wife and three children. Gone was the Range Rover and police riders - the family left in a Silver Mercedes people carrier from the local taxi service (joking). The immediate downgrade is savage! The flats at number 10 and 11 plus the offices have to be vacated immediately.

A stoic Rishi Sunak and his billionaire wife, Akshata Murty, emerged over an hour later. Sunak gave a short, dignified speech and then went to Buckingham Palace to formally resign. They went in through the front gate of the palace and out through a back gate. In the end, he managed to outdo Liz Truss' legacy as the worst UK Prime Minister in recent times.

There was a window of about 30 minutes on during which time the UK had no Prime Minister. Larry the Cat was quick to install himself as caretaker though technically King Charles had assumed responsibility. (Side note: King Charles I ruled the country without a parliament for a decade in the 1600s)

Sir Keir Starmer arrived soon after to formally accept His Majesty The King’s invitation to form the next government, becoming the 7th Labour Prime Minister in history. If history is a good indicator of the future, the Tories could be back in 2029. Let's be honest: Keir Starmer is no Tony Blair.

Larry the Cat is the real power at Downing Street. Editorial credit: Drop of Light / Shutterstock.com
Larry the Cat is the real power at Downing Street. Editorial credit: Drop of Light / Shutterstock.com

#8 The key tenants of a smooth transfer of power

The requirement to have an Official Opposition, Shadow Cabinet and an independent Civil Service are key tenets of the smooth power transfer. Sir Keir Starmer was able to fill most of his cabinet seats on his first day in office by lifting and dropping the Shadow Cabinet members into their respective portfolios. 

Similarly, the Tories went from Government to Official Opposition. We are now taking bets on how quickly the Sunaks will swap the grey skies of North Yorkshire for the California sun. Former Chancellor, George Osborne, shared on my favourite UK political podcast, Political Currency, that you can be an MP and never show your face for five years. Osborne also revealed after the election that former Prime Minister, David Cameroon, and other Senior Tories were going to try to convince Sunak to stay on as the Leader of the Opposition (LOTO) until after the Tory Party Conference which ends on 2 October 2024.

It is worth pointing out that this practice relies on a key assumption that the official opposition party is the only alternative to the government of the day.

Conclusion

The most remarkable fact about the UK General Elections is that election results are accepted without question and there is complete trust in the process. There are no unnecessary delays counting the ballots, requests to recount are honoured immediately and there is no post-election violence. It is quiet, dignified and respectful. 

However, the British political system is far from perfect and this election has exposed some serious issues that may trigger a major shakeup. The political landscape is becoming increasingly fragmented and is no longer blue, red or yellow. Over 30 political parties and many independents (who won 6 seats) participated in the July 2024 UK General Elections. The Reform Party winning 14.3% of the vote but only four seats is an indication that the first-past-the-post system might be past its sell-by-date. The 5,814 people who voted for the Monster Raving Loony Party do not want control but representation.

Is it time to switch to the more equitable proportional representation system of government? Will the Labour Party who now control 63% of Parliament - a whisker shy of the two-thirds majority - be willing to pass this change after clawing their way back to power? Unlikely but time will tell.

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