A Guide to the UK General Election for International Students

Image shows the sun setting over the Houses of Parliament.
This Thursday, Britain will go to the polls for what may well be the most tight-run UK election in living memory.

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Far from the traditional two-party system that operates in this country, in which power changes hands reasonably predictably between the centre-right Conservative Party and the centre-left Labour party, the election on 7th May 2015 is highly unlikely to deliver a majority for either of the two largest parties. That’s despite the fact that a virtue of the UK electoral system is supposed to be that it delivers majority governments.
It’s very hard to predict what’s going to happen after the election, from which party will be the largest to what manner of government, whether based on a coalition or minority rule, might be in power. And unlike in the past, this won’t all be resolved when the votes are counted on the morning of May 8th – there may be days or even weeks of uncertainty as parties try to assess how and whether they can work together to form a government.
UK politics is complicated. If you’re thinking of coming to study in Britain any time over the next few years, the outcome of this election may well affect you. In order to save you from wading through a mass of information on subjects as diverse as the Green surge, Trident, the DUP, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act and Ashcroft polling, we’ve compiled this guide to the 2015 election for international students, to give you all the fundamental information that you need to know.

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What are the political parties?

In this overview, I’m going to look exclusively at the parties of England, Wales and Scotland. Northern Ireland has its own set of political parties, which may have a role to play in coalitions after the election, but which otherwise don’t have much to do with the politics of the rest of the UK.

Image shows a cartoon of Winston Churchill with a rifle.
Winston Churchill is probably the best-known Conservative Prime Minister, though he was also a member of the Liberals for a time.

The Conservative Party: otherwise known as the Tories, they are the centre-right party that gained the most seats at the 2010 election and their leader is the current Prime Minister, David Cameron. Famous former Conservative Prime Ministers include Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. It seems unlikely that they will increase their vote share in this election, though their reputation for economic competence may be enough to make them the largest party again at the coming election.
The Labour Party: the second-largest party in the UK, Labour are a centre-left party, led by Ed Miliband. Under Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown, Labour were in power from 1997 to 2010. They are likely to increase their vote share in this election, but also probably not by much. They are perceived as more caring than the Conservatives, but are struggling to capitalise on that in this election.
Image shows a yellow Liberal Democrat sign.
The Liberal Democrats use distinctive diamond-shaped signs.

The Liberal Democrats: often shortened to the Lib Dems, this traditionally centre-left party has taken a more centrist stance in this election campaign in order to position themselves as a good coalition partner for either the Conservatives or Labour. Their decision to go into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 has not been popular, and they may well lose half of their 57 seats in this election. Nonetheless, their willingness to go into coalition may mean that they stay in government after the 2015 election.
The UK Independence Party: invariably shortened to UKIP, this right-wing party has grown out of its single-issue opposition to immigration and the EU, to become an increasingly serious electoral force. However, while UKIP’s vote share is set to increase significantly in the coming election, the nature of the UK’s electoral system means that they are unlikely to gain more than a small handful of seats.
Image shows a Green party protest.
The Green Party have been active in protests; their only current MP, Caroline Lucas, was arrested at an anti-fracking protest last year.

The Green Party: another party with growing popularity, this left-wing party has expanded from its environmental focus to a broader anti-austerity platform. They are especially popular with younger voters. However, though their share of the vote is set to increase, like UKIP this is unlikely to gain them any more seats – in fact, some polls suggest that the Greens will continue to have only one MP.
The Scottish Nationalist Party: usually referred to as the SNP, they are a left-wing anti-austerity party that seeks independence for Scotland – a proposition that was very narrowly defeated in a referendum last September. Following that referendum, support for the SNP has soared, and they are likely to go from having a mere 6 MPs to more than 50; a remarkable shift given that they only field candidates in Scotland. Their leader, Nicola Sturgeon, also enjoys an unusual level of popularity.
Plaid Cymru: pronounced plied come-ree, they are the Welsh equivalent of the SNP, promoting left-wing, anti-austerity policies and increased autonomy for Wales. While full independence for Wales is their ultimate goal, this is a much less popular proposition than its equivalent in Scotland, so simply increasing devolution is their current priority. With the Greens and the SNP, they are part of an informal alliance of anti-austerity parties.

First Past the Post, and other issues of coalition

Image shows an AV referendum voting slip.
The Alternative Vote system was supported by just 32% of the electorate.

To many European readers, the idea of coalition governments is completely normal. But that’s not the case in the UK. Our voting system – First Past the Post, or FPTP – almost always delivers majority government. There have been 18 British governments since the Second World War. 16 of those have been majorities, one has been a minority government that lasted less than a year, and the final one is the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition that endured from 2010 to 2015.
FPTP is a very straightforward system. The UK is divided up into 650 constituencies. Potential parliamentary candidates (who can be party affiliated or independent, though independents rarely win) stand in each constituency, and whichever candidate gets the most votes becomes the MP (member of parliament) for that constituency. In the past, it’s been the norm for one party to get more than 325 MPs – i.e. a majority of the 650 MPs possible – and so it was straightforward for them to form a government.
Image shows Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Woods and Natalie Bennett sharing a hug as Ed Miliband looks on.
Ed Miliband is likely to need the support of the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru, whose leaders famously shared a group hug after a debate.

So the processes of forming coalitions that are normal in countries that treat coalition government as normal are rather more alien to British politics. Here are, at last count, the coalitions that parties have ruled out:
The Conservatives: coalition with UKIP
Labour: coalition with the SNP or Plaid Cymru
The Lib Dems: coalition with UKIP
UKIP: coalition with the Conservatives
The Greens: coalition with any larger party
The SNP: coalition with Labour
It can be seen that this leaves a relatively limited range of coalition options available, especially as this doesn’t include arrangements that are de facto ruled out due to complete political incompatibility (e.g. Conservatives/SNP). It also makes these promises quite hard to take seriously. For instance, a Labour/Lib Dem coalition with less formal SNP support is quite a likely election outcome, but the norms of British politics are such that Ed Miliband is effectively required to pretend that he will have a majority government or nothing – even though that only has about a 3% chance of happening. If that wasn’t confusing enough, try the Telegraph’s (hilarious) chart of every arrangement of parties there could possibly be.

The issues

Next, we’ll take a quick walk through the major issues of this election.

The NHS

Image shows a poster that reads "Save our NHS"
The influential campaign group 38degrees has emphasised the importance of the NHS.

The NHS – or the National Health Service – is the healthcare system established under the postwar Labour government to provide healthcare that is free at the point of use to everyone in the UK. Instead of paying for medical treatment at the point of use, every taxpayer in the UK pays an additional ‘National Insurance’ contribution, paid progressively depending on income, which funds the NHS. While this has been tweaked in various ways over the seven decades since the NHS was established (for instance, there are usually small charges for NHS dentistry, and fees for prescriptions in England and Wales), the central principles of the NHS remain.
It is politically disastrous for any politician to be seen as less than fully supportive of the NHS regardless of their place on the political spectrum. As such, it’s used as an attack mechanism from all sides – Labour claim that the Conservatives want to cut NHS services and privatise others, whereas the Conservatives claim that the previous Labour government allowed the NHS to become inefficient and wasteful.

Immigration

The rise of UKIP from a minor party to one which is on track to get the third-highest vote share nationally (though very few predictions have them getting more than 5 MPs) is considerably because they provide a voice for anti-immigration sentiment in the UK. The Conservative Party promised in 2010 to cut net immigration to the UK to 100,000 people per year, a target that they have comprehensively failed to meet. Cutting immigration is a popular policy, albeit one that may damage the UK’s economy.

The EU

Connected to immigration is the UK’s position in the EU. The Conservative Party have promised a referendum on UK membership of the EU by 2017, following a renegotiation of the UK’s position, a move which is hotly opposed by Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and Plaid Cymru. UKIP, on the other hand, would like such a referendum to occur before Christmas. This is an issue that could prove deeply divisive for the Conservative Party, as it is likely to cause a significant clash between its right-wing Eurosceptic backbenchers and the senior section of the party, which is weakly pro-EU.

Scottish independence

The September referendum on Scottish independence was defeated by a margin of 55% to 45%. Polling shortly afterwards suggested that if the referendum had occurred just a few weeks later, the result might have gone the other way. With the SNP set to send nearly 10 times as many MPs to Westminster as previously, it is an issue that is not going to go away. This is particularly because Labour may have to rely on SNP support if they have a minority government, despite the fact that Labour is a pro-union party.

Austerity

Image shows an anti-austerity protest.
Many voters have abandoned Labour, seeing them as insufficiently opposed to austerity.

While the right is divided over immigration and the EU, the left is divided over austerity. The SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens have formed a loose alliance to express their opposition to what they perceive as the pro-austerity policies of the more centrist parties, preferring instead to raise taxes on the rich. This is supported by Labour and the Lib Dems to a certain extent (for instance, both parties support a mansion tax on homes worth more than £2 million), but this support does not go far enough for many voters, who are moving to the parties of the anti-austerity alliance.

Tuition fees

A particular issue for students is that of fees for university tuition. The Liberal Democrats promised ahead of the 2010 election to see tuition fees reduced from the £3,290 a year introduced by Labour, but were then required to renege on this promise as part of their coalition agreement with the Conservative Party, increasing fees to a maximum of £9,000 a year – which has lost them a substantial portion of their formerly strong student support base. Labour have pledged to reduce tuition fees to £6,000 a year, while the Greens would like to see them abolished entirely; both policies that are understandably popular with students.

The possible outcomes

Finally, we’ll take a look at various outcomes and what they could mean for international students coming to study in the UK over the next few years.

Conservative/Lib Dem coalition

Image shows David Cameron and Nick Clegg outside Downing Street.
David Cameron and Nick Clegg outside Downing Street in 2010.

This would be largely the same government as the UK has had for the last 5 years, though probably with a less vocal Lib Dem component as their number of seats will be reduced. The issue of key importance for international students will be the prospect of Britain leaving the EU, as the 2017 referendum is a red line for the Conservatives – the discontented right wing of their party would crumble entirely if they abandoned that promise. Yet the Lib Dems are probably the UK’s most emphatically Europhile party, so the Conservatives will struggle to find a coalition agreement that includes an EU vote that they would agree to. Tuition fees would be likely to stay at their current level; another rise would be fatal for the Lib Dems.

Labour/Lib Dem coalition

This coalition would be pro-EU and more pro-immigration than any government involving the Conservatives, so international students would have less to worry about in terms of visa restrictions or uncertainty over continued EU membership. Tuition fees would be an issue for this government: Labour want to reduce them to £6,000 a year, and the Lib Dems would leap at the chance to reverse their broken promise of five years ago. While this would make university cheaper for students paying UK-level fees, it might make it more expensive for international students, as universities would turn to them to recoup some of their lost income. The flip side of this is more university places for international students, as they would represent a way for universities to make a bit of extra money in comparison with a UK student.

Conservative/UKIP/Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) coalition

Image shows Nigel Farage talking to voters.
UKIP are currently polling on about 15%, but their vote is relatively volatile so the election may hold surprises.

If UKIP manage to turn their increased percentage of the vote into a more sizeable number of seats than current projections expect (unlikely, but not impossible), and the Conservatives similarly do rather better than currently expected, this coalition may become a possibility. It’s less likely than either of the two above, both in terms of numbers and because coalition with UKIP would be anathema to centrist Conservatives, but it cannot be ruled out – yes, even though both the Conservatives and UKIP have said they wouldn’t enter such a coalition (after all, Cameron said the same thing about the Lib Dems in 2010). This would be damaging in terms of EU membership, as the UK leaving the EU (otherwise known as Brexit) would be increasingly likely. UKIP would seek to reduce the number of people entering the UK drastically, possibly with the net immigration target of 100,000 being more vigorously pursued, which would inevitably lead to fewer visas being made available for international students. However, UKIP does have the policy of refunding tuition fees to students who get a good degree in a STEM subject and who work in the UK for five years after graduation, which might gain Conservative party support and would be advantageous for students who are interested in those subjects. The DUP are a Northern Irish right-wing party, and something of an unknown quantity, but are likely to have eight or so seats to contribute to a coalition.

Conservative minority

There is considerable support in Conservative Party circles for the idea of avoiding the awkwardnesses of coalition altogether – the move to the left inherent in coalition with the Lib Dems, or the move to the right that would be required to go into coalition with UKIP or the DUP. They would instead have to rely on ad hoc support from other parties in order to govern. It’s very hard to predict what kind of thing such a government would do, as it would depend entirely on the willingness of other parties to compromise. Plus, it would be in constant danger of being voted out of office by an alliance of opposition parties. This outcome would simply create a longer period of uncertainty about what the landscape will look like for international students in future.

Labour/SNP coalition or informal arrangement

Image shows Nicola Sturgeon in front of an old-fashioned ambulance.
Nicola Sturgeon’s campaign has impressed even her strongest detractors.

I haven’t mentioned the possibility of a Labour minority government, because this more stable version of the same outcome is much more likely. The SNP have ruled out a formal coalition with Labour and vice versa, a promise that is likely to be kept because the SNP don’t want to risk repeating the disastrous consequences of coalition that the Liberal Democrats have faced. However, a less formal arrangement whereby the SNP don’t agree to a strict set of policies, but agree to support a Labour government in crucial votes. This is likely to be broadly similar to a Labour/Lib Dem coalition as far as students are concerned, though if Labour see a lot of their voters turning to UKIP this election, they might wish to pursue a harder line on immigration than a formal coalition with the Lib Dems would allow, and the SNP would be keen to encourage the anti-austerity thinking within Labour that the Lib Dems would reign in.
Once upon a time, the possible outcomes of a UK general election would have consisted of just two options: a Labour majority government and a Conservative majority government. Things haven’t changed that much; it remains certain that after the 7th May, either Ed Miliband or David Cameron will be Prime Minister. But as you can see above, everything else is up in the air. It will be interesting to see what happens!

Post-election update

The eventual result of the election was as follows:
Conservatives: 330 seats
Labour: 232 seats
SNP: 56 seats
Liberal Democrats: 8 seats
Greens: 1 seat
UKIP: 1 seat

As you can tell from the above, the result of a clear if slim majority for the Conservatives came as a surprise to almost everyone. Polling companies have admitted that their predictions were very far of the mark – even the exit poll, which was much closer to reality than previous polling, did not predict a Conservative majority.
So what does this mean for international students? In fact, the probable shape of the next five years is not so different from the prediction outlined above for a Conservative/UKIP/DUP coalition, as Cameron needs to appease the UKIP-esque right wing of his party to avoid a damaging rebellion. The referendum on the EU will be going ahead, possibly in 2016 rather than 2017. An important question is whether the Conservative Party as a whole will be required to oppose Brexit; this has yet to be resolved. The Conservatives have reaffirmed their desire to bring net migration down below 100,000 a year, although they accept the value of international students, so the consequences may only be evident should students from overseas wish to settle in the UK after graduation.






 
 

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Image credits: banner; Trident; Churchill; Lib Dem sign; Green protest; AV referendum; group hug; NHSausterity protest; Cameron and Clegg; Farage; Sturgeon.