Sunday, May 09, 2010

U.K. Election Is Over But There's No New Government-- What Happened?


Most Americans probably have never heard of England's Liberal Democrats, a party that came about as a merger, in 1988, between the declining Liberal Party and the newish Social Democratic Party. Socially, they have some libertarian beliefs-- opposing government intervention into people's private lives-- and politically they support a wide array of reforms, from abolishing the anachronistic anti-democratic House of Lords to a multinational foreign policy and a strong environmental agenda to forcing the rich to pay a fairer share of taxes. For nearly a century, first as the Liberals and now as the Liberal Democrats, they have been crusading for proportional representation. The U.K.'s next government may well hang on that issue.

First let's look at some numbers. The Conservative Party won the biggest share of the votes last week-- 36%. Yes, slightly over a third of Brits want to go back to the reactionary policies that failed so spectacularly under Margaret Thatcher. This is what that 36% voted for. The rest of the voters, 64%, voted against that Hobbesian vision. 29% voted for a continuation of the me-too conservatism of a Labour Party that Tony Blair turned into an arm of corporatism, 23% voted for the aforementioned Liberal-Democratic reformers, and 12% voted for a hodgepodge of fringe and regional parties.

The way the established parties have jiggered the electoral system, the Conservatives' 36% of the vote has resulted in 306 seats in Parliament (instead of 36% of the seats, which would be 234 seats). Labour won 258 seats, instead of the 188 their 29% should have given them. And who suffered from this system? Of course, the smaller parties. The Lib-Dems' 23% of the vote got them 57 seats, instead of the 149 seats they would have been entitled to under a pure proportional representation system! And the mishmash of smaller parties would have won 78 seats instead of 28.

That, in short, is what the coalition talks between the Conservatives and the Lib-Dems are all about... presumably.
Bill Jones, professor of politics at Liverpool Hope University, said Liberals have been "campaigning for 90 years to change the voting system, and now there's a possibility."

"There is this feeling: 'Here's this one chance. When will it come again?'"

In 1974 the Liberal Party, as it then was, offered to join a coalition with the Conservatives after an inconclusive election – if proportional representation was part of the deal. Tory leader Edward Heath refused, and stood aside to let the Labour Party form a short-lived minority government.

Since then, successive elections have bestowed House of Commons majorities on parties which won less than half the vote. Margaret Thatcher won a landslide in 1983 with 42.4 percent; Tony Blair did the same in 1997 with 43.6 percent.

Before 1997, Blair flirted with proportional representation and negotiated with Paddy Ashdown, then the leader of the Liberal Democrats.

Ashdown has said there was strong opposition within the Labour party, not least from Gordon Brown, now the prime minister, and Labour lost interest in proportional representation.

Brown, however, discovered an interest in proportional representation as the latest election loomed. His government proposed legislation to hold a referendum on the voting system, but that came to nothing.

Hoping to cling to power, Brown made a new pitch to the Liberal Democrats on Friday. "A fairer voting system is essential, and I believe that you, the British people should be able to decide in a referendum what the system should be," Brown said.

Lord Norman Tebbit, a Conservative luminary from the Thatcher era, grumbled on Saturday that Clegg was "strutting around like a king maker having been rejected by 77 percent of the British electorate."

"By his own terms of PR, he should be put back in a locked cupboard and told to go away while the big boys sort it out," Tebbit told Sky News.

Today's Guardian is covering the intense struggle between the Tories, who are loath to endorse a system that would guarantee they will likely never hold national office again but who crave getting their hands on the government right now, and Nick Clegg's Lib-Dems, who also want a chance to be part of government but will have to give up their demands for proportional representation-- and credibility-- if they buckle to the Conservatives' dismissal of the demand as out of the question. Clegg doesn't seem to have the political maturity-- or the guts-- to stand up to Cameron. They quote James Macintyre of the New Statesman:
Monitor Twitter and the blogosphere today and the conventional wisdom consensus that emerges is that Nick Clegg is indeed about to do a deal with the Conservatives, possibly even at the cost of electoral reform ...

Is this really possible? I cannot believe it, and not just because Clegg reiterated his support for electoral reform at yesterday's central London rally. You can call it wishful thinking, but I genuinely believe that there is an element of going through the motions going on here, and that talks with the Tories may yet break down, after which the Lib Dems will give a serious look at Labour's comprehensive offer of PR and numerous Cabinet places.

And there's another kind of wishful thinking going on on the other side of the ideological divide. This is from the extreme right-wing Mail:
Tory MPs want Cameron to adopt a strong negotiating stance because they suspect that Clegg's position is actually quite weak. Voters, they calculate, will obliterate the Lib Dems at the first opportunity if Clegg is seen to have kept a defeated Labour party in power. They also know many Labour MPs are opposed to PR. As Cameron builds a new government in very difficult times, he has an unenviable task.

But as he seeks to build a new coalition outside his party, he needs to build better relations with the Conservative party's internal coalition. He needs to appoint people who spend time with Tory MPs, party activists and the leading Tory thinkers and thinktanks.

He should adopt the rule that was championed by Ronald Reagan, Australia's John Howard and other successful conservative leaders: Dance with the one who brought you to the ball.

Spend as much time with your base supporters as with your new friends. Worry more about your own manifesto promises than your opponent's.

In other words-- it's fine to tango with Nick Clegg, but save the waltz for the home team.

And from the Lib-Dems themselves? Here's a prominent Lib-Dem blogger's perspective:
All Four of Our Cast-Iron Priorities: Deal. Anything Less: No Deal. (Alex Wilcock)-- "If we do a deal, it has to be for a formal coalition, for a fixed term, published out in the open. Otherwise the prime minister can just cut and run with a new election for party advantage, and we're stuffed."

Selling STV in multi member constituencies to tribal Tories (Jennie Rigg)-- "Multi-member constituencies are the traditional British way of doing things, and Labour got rid of them in the late 40s."

PR is a red line for me in any coalition (Mark Reckons)-- "The fact that we increased our vote share by 1% to 23% yesterday but our number of seats fell by nearly 10% just underlines (yet again) how broken our electoral system is."

Teaching our rivals how to negotiate (Mark Valladares)-- "The parliamentary party and the federal executive appear to have carried out their responsibilities without leaking or public dissent, despite the pressure that they are under."

Clegg's Dilemma: what should happen next (Mat Bowles)-- "The Lib Dems do not hold the balance of power. They don't get to choose between parties. They can only choose between forming a stable government with some reform, and an unstable government with another election soon."

The weakness of Cameron's position (Peter Black)-- "There is a fascinating article in today's Independent that underlines just how weak Cameron's position is within his own party and why his ability to get his feet under the table in 10 Downing Street is key to his survival as Tory leader."

Social Liberal Forum calls for a government of national unity-- "First, we must demand an immediate referendum on a genuinely proportional voting system, for which there is clearly very widespread support among voters. Second, we need robust but fair action to deal with the financial crisis."



At 11:57 AM, Anonymous me said...

That's one obvious advantage of the English political system. If we'd gotten those results here in the US, the Conservatives would take over the entire government (and act like it was unanimous), even though 64% of the population voted against them.

We really do need to reform our electoral system, even more than the English do.


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