Special Reports

United Kingdom: Parliamentary Elections of 2005 Friday, December 14, 2007

United Kingdom: Elections of 2005

In April 2005, Prime Minister Tony Blair called a snap election to be held a month later in May 2005. On May 5, 2005, citizens of the United Kingdom went to the polls to elect its new government. Voters were to select members of parliament in 645 constituencies. The party that secured the majority in parliament was expected to form the government. Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Labour Party hoped to secure a third consecutive term in office. Turnout was predicted to be around 60 and was just over 61 percent in actuality.

Leading up to the elections, both Tony Blair's Labour Party and Michael Howard's Conservatives (or Tories) were expected to focus on matters pertaining to the economy. Whereas the Labour Party concentrated its campaign platform on the regeneration of the inner cities, the Conservatives chose to highlight tax incentives and a plan benefiting business interests.  The Conservatives also wielded an anti-immigration platform. For its part, however, Charles Kennedy's Liberal Democrats decided to direct their efforts to the war in Iraq. Indeed, they repeatedly called for a full public inquiry into the Iraq war, and they also demanded that the attorney general's full legal advice on the war be released to the public. The demand by the Liberal Democrats came after a newspaper reported on a memorandum that allegedly raised questions about the legality of the war. The leaked memorandum was eventually published, and both main opposition parties stepped up their attacks on the prime minister for his perceived deceit over the legal implications of the Iraq war. Moreover, the media's attention remained almost singularly fixated on the matter.

Despite the preoccupation by the media with this issue of the war, Prime Minister Tony Blair launched a rigorous campaign across the country on the basis of his party's economic record and with a focus on domestic concerns. To his benefit, some voters who had been surveyed expressed scant interest in prioritizing Iraq as an election issue. Instead, they generally noted their decisions would be far more broad-based. Still, Blair and the Labour Party were faced with the prospect of a diminished majority in parliament due to the Muslim and pacifist voters for whom the war was a key concern.

Charles Kennedy's campaign schedule across the country was slightly more strenuous than Tony Blair's and garnered much positive attention. As the only major party to oppose the war, the Liberal Democrats also hoped to gain from the fact that they were the only main political party to stake out unambiguous anti-war terrain. Indeed, Kennedy and the Liberal Democrats were positioned uniquely to frame the election as a "referendum on the war." Kennedy's Liberal Democrats were also trying to push a strong challenge to the Tories in conservative areas where the Labour Party was not a factor.
Meanwhile, even though the Conservative Tories attempted to capitalize on the Iraq memorandum scandal, the fact that Howard's party did not actually oppose the war put them at a comparative disadvantage among the anti-war crowd. As such, Howard's Conservative Tories were hoping to yield positive results from their aforementioned anti-immigrant campaign. They also hoped to consolidate support in the south and southwest, where they have traditionally done well,  despite the challenge from the Liberal Democrats.

Polls taken on the eve of the election in late April 2005 showed Blair's Labour Party commanding a lead over his opponents, but the same polls showed he might ultimately end up with a smaller majority in parliament. Some polls showed Howard's Tories holding steady while others showed the party losing ground somewhat. Finally, Kennedy's Liberal Democrats, according to the polls, showed increased support. A full 25 percent of those surveyed just prior to the election, however, said they were still undecided.

As exit polling data was released at the close of election day, it appeared that Tony Blair and the Labour Party could potentially assume an historic third term in office, albeit with a diminished majority in parliament. The exit poll trends held steady and in the end, Blair and the Labour Party garnered approximately 36 percent of the votes cast and held a majority in parliament with 355 seats. The Conservative Tories of Michael Howard had about 33 percent of the votes cast and a slightly enlarged presence in parliament with 197 seats. The Liberal Democrats had about 22.2 percent of the votes cast and 62 seats in parliament. Kennedy and the Liberal Democrats were confident they had met their goals of a better overall election performance than the last time. (Note: At the time of writing, six seats were undeclared).

Some of the key members of Blair's cabinet, such as Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, held their constituencies. But election night was also filled with several surprises. Ousted Labour Party member George Galloway, who had been an outspoken  opponent to the war in Iraq, defeated Labour Member of Parliament Oona King in the Bethnal Green constituency. The Conservative Tories took back Putney and Wimbledon from Labour, secured Shipley, and seemed to have had a somewhat better showing in parts of London. The Tories also took Newbury from the Liberal Democrats. At the same time, an Independent grabbed Labour's safest Welsh seat of Blaenau Gwent. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats held on to Cheadle despite attacks by the Tories, and were victorious over Labour in key constituencies, such as Birmingham Yardley, Manchester Withington, and Cardiff Central.

Blair actually increased his vote share in his constituency of Sedgefield to win his seat convincingly. However, one of his opponents was the father of a soldier killed in Iraq. He ran against Blair purely to protest the war, its (perceived)  questionable legality, and the loss of soldiers like his son. For Blair's part, his sober victory speech given at Sedgefield reflected his cognizance that Labour's overall victory was a muted one. Blair and the Labour Party's success has been likely due to his stewardship of the economy, but the diminished majority in parliament made it apparent that Iraq  was a factor in the election outcome. This was something Blair took time to acknowledge in his speech thanking the voters for returning him as the Sedgefield Member of Parliament, and possibly as the head of government. He said, "It seems clear ... that also the British people wanted the return of a Labour government but with a reduced majority."

Indeed, Blair went on to resume the leadership over government as the only Labour leader to ever achieve three consecutive election wins.  But Blair also bore the responsibility of presiding over the lowest vote share for a ruling party in recent history.   As a result, some political experts initiated a debate as to how long Tony Blair would stay on as prime minister before he turned the reins over to a successor -- more than likely to be Foreign Minister Gordon Brown.  Before such changes were made, however, the immediate business was the formation of a new government.  A day after the election -- which was also Blair's birthday -- he was asked by Queen Elizabeth II to form a new government and went on to orchestrate a cabinet reshuffle.

In a similar case of "mixed results," even as the Conservatives could claim they had increased their popularity and seats in parliament, they were also faced with the reality that it was one of the worst performances for their party. The day after the election Tory leader Michael Howard said he would step down in order to make room for younger leadership of the party.
Likewise,  Kennedy and the Liberal Democrats achieved both positive and negative election results.  Whereas Kennedy's Liberal Democrats were not able to pick off certain key targets in Tory strongholds, they were able to enjoy the achievement of an overall improved election performance and increased popularity among voters. 

Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland,  there were fears that the moderate parties may be routed.  Speculation abounded as to whether David Trimble of the Ulster Union would hold his Upper Bann seat.  This news was later confirmed.  Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party picked up Trimble's seat and enjoyed other gains.  Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams held on to his West Belfast seat with an increased vote share.  In general, Sinn  Fein retained their seats. Largely due to the defeat of David Trimble and the Ulster Union in Northern Ireland, the prospects for peace, set forth by the Good Friday Agreement, were very much in doubt.  Trimble, who resigned due to his party's showing, noted that the people had voted against progress on the peace process and "for stalemate." The depressed prospects for peace, however, were nont long-lasting as several months later , the IRA officially announced an end to its armed campaign after three decades of violence. 

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