By CCTV.com reporter Colin Robinson
The UK is preparing for its first general election in five years, scheduled to be held May 7. So how does it work? What are the major issues? And who will win?
What is a general election?
Voters in each of the UK’s 650 electoral areas, known as constituencies, choose a candidate as a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons, which is responsible for creating laws.
The candidate with the highest percentage of the vote in each constituency becomes an MP. And the party that achieves an overall majority of at least 326 MPs – one more than half the total number of seats available – will form the government, with the party leader serving as prime minister.
Any UK citizen aged over 18 can vote, although many choose not to. Voter participation last time around – in 2010 – was just over 65 percent, but analysts are predicting a higher turnout this year.
What are the issues?
The UK economy was severely damaged by the global financial crisis, and, though it has since shown some signs of recovery, national debt was estimated at close to 1.5 trillion pounds (US$2.23 trillion) as recently as December. Parties must convince voters that they have realistic plans to reduce – or at least manage – the debt that do not involve excessive cuts to services.
The National Health Service has provided comprehensive and mostly free healthcare to the British public for about 70 years, but its future is under threat. With the vast national debt and the NHS’s massive costs, the challenge for major parties is ensuring the sustainability of the healthcare system.
Immigration has been rising in the UK for decades, and while it has brought some economic benefits, there are concerns the nation’s strained economy will not be able to continue to support more migrants. Immigration critics also say it has led to a decline in British cultural identity. Parties will seek to provide plans that control immigration and place limits on benefits available to immigrants.
The education system faces a range of problems, from university tuition fee hikes damaging social mobility to a lack of focus on technical subjects leaving a dearth of practical skills.
Although unemployment in the UK has fallen in the past year and wages have improved, there remain about 1.9 million unemployed people in the UK. About 700,000 workers have controversial zero hours contracts. Research published last November showed that more than 20 percent of UK workers are not paid a salary sufficient to provide a “basic but decent standard of living.“ Politicians must find solutions that provide more job opportunities and improved conditions for workers.
Who will win?
Party loyalty has declined in recent years, leading to closer elections and a rise in votes for traditionally smaller parties that culminated in the 2010 election ending with the first hung parliament – where no party had an overall majority – since 1974.
A coalition between the center-right Conservative Party and the social liberal party the Liberal Democrats was formed. As the more powerful party in the coalition, the Conservative Party led by Prime Minister David Cameron is favorite to gain the most seats. Its five years in power have been difficult, characterized by austerity and funding cuts. But the party has been boosted by slight economic growth and by the Scottish public voting to retain a political union with the rest of the UK.
The center-left Labour Party will be the Conservatives’ biggest rival to gain the most seats. In 2010, following a period of economic instability, the Labour government was defeated in the general election, in which it lost more than 90 seats. But the party appears to have recovered slightly under Ed Miliband’s leadership. Since the last general election, the party’s membership has grown substantially and it is also projected to get a larger share of the vote.
With the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the Liberal Democrats projected to get a similar share of the vote, either – or both – could form part of another coalition.
Social liberal party the Liberal Democrats, led by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, achieved its highest-ever share of votes and its second-highest share of seats in 2010. But its controversial coalition with the Conservative Party, which many Lib Dem voters criticized for ideological reasons, has led to a decline in popularity.
UKIP, which opposes excessive European Union influence upon UK politics, has emerged as a popular alternative to the traditional frontrunners. Often seen as a “straight-talking” alternative to the mainstream parties, both its membership and poll scores have increased in the last few years.
Other parties that could form part of a coalition include the left-wing Green Party, which focuses on environmental issues, Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru, the Scottish National Party, which favors Scotland gaining political independence from the rest of the UK, and the Democratic Unionist Party, a Northern Irish party that favors continued political union for Northern Ireland with Great Britain.
What is the significance for China?
Relations between the UK and China have been generally positive under Cameron. Despite some missteps – such as lecturing China on how it should be governed and meeting with the Dalai Lama – Cameron has preached the value of learning Mandarin, embarked on a major trade mission to China in December 2013, welcomed Chinese investment in London and invited Li Keqiang to meet every senior member of government in 2011 before he became premier. More recently the government agreed for the UK to become a founding member of the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank: a milestone in business and investment ties between the two countries.
The Conservatives’ relationship with the Chinese government is strong, but the outcome of this election is likely to have little impact on relations between China and the UK. Whichever party ends up in power, it is probable that it will continue to build on trade and investment ties. Although there has been criticism of the Conservatives’ approach to China – Labour dispraised the government’s 2013 trade tour and Clegg has been outspoken about China’s human rights – this seems little more than political point-scoring. There is a sense that all of the major players realize they need a positive relationship with Beijing to ensure the UK gains trade and investment benefits.
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