May 8, 2010 by Rhi
So there we go. The election is all over, and it didn’t hurt a bit. Unless you were one of those unfortunate souls who stood in pouring rain outside a polling station only to be turned away without having the chance to exercise your right to vote. I feel this story has been overwhelmed by talk of deals and coalitions, which is a pity. We’ll have to wait for the result of the Electoral Commission’s investigation, by which time people will be so worried about upsetting the balance of any fledgling coalition administration, that it’ll be swept under the carpet. I’d be pissed off if it were me. Especially as it seems to be student who were most affected in Sheffield, and Polling Officers lied to them about needing a Polling Card to vote. But I digress…
I’m going to ramble a bit here, so I’ll put some headers and you can scroll to the most interesting bit. Or you can just go and have a cup of tea, and then tell me later that I need to get a life!
So what IS a Hung Parliament?
So nobody won the election outright, and we have a hung parliament. Now a lot of people have asked me over the last few days “What exactly does that mean?”. Since we haven’t been in this position since 1974, it’s not surprising that people are confused. So basically, a Hung Parliament is when no one party has an overall majority (i.e.wins more seats in the House of Commons than all the others put together), which is a problem when you want to be an Effective Government. One of the main arguments for not reforming the electoral system in this country is that our current method of First Past the Post (where you merely have to get more votes than your closest rival to be elected to parliament) is that it’s supposed to prevent situations like this. So to find ourselves sitting with such a close result between the main two parties (only 48 seats separate Conservative and Labour) is an indication of how split the mood is in this country. Whilst Labour have lost a massive amount of support from the electorate, this hasn’t been transferred to the Conservatives. Or at least, it hasn’t transferred in a way that could mean that they have an overall majority in the House of Commons.
Why does it matter that no one has a majority?
Ah yes, that Holy Grail of British politics – the Overall Majority. It’s a very important tool in being an effective government within the UK political system. Ruling the country depends on a Government being able to implement their changes by winning votes in the House of Commons. The more MPs you have, the easier you’ll be able to push your changes through. So, the reason why leaders keep talking about “stable government” is because that is what an overall majority gives you. Stability. Things Can Be Done. And a government which isn’t in charge of the country is a Bad Thing. It doesn’t just affect what happens in terms of legislation, it affects how the UK is viewed by other countries. A weak government can mean a drop in the value of the pound, which isn’t good news when we’re already stony broke as a nation. As well as affecting our standing in things like war and when negotiating our position in world politics. Powerful leaders like Obama, and Heads of Government in Europe may see little point in including a Prime Minister who doesn’t even have a say in his own country. So having a party which can take charge and do things is very important.
Of course, all of that is only a factor because of the way we vote. Our system is not designed to return a balanced parliament. Most other European countries use a system based on Proportional Representation – ie the number of MPs in the House of Commons would be reflective of the percentage of the vote which each party polled. You know what? I’ll do a post about the advantages of PR some other time… it’s complicated, and involves figures. In the meantime, if you’re interested, Scotland (and Wales) uses a form of PR for their Scottish parliament and local government elections, and you can read about that here
So no one has a majority – what do we do now?
Well, the simple answer is that we, the electorate, do nothing. There’s nothing we can do. We’ve made our choice at the ballot box, and the result basically says that we can’t decide which party would be best. Or you could say that we aren’t willing to let ANY of them loose as a government, and we’d rather have a combination of them all. Either way, it’s now up to the parties themselves how they decide to run with it.
There’s various options open to them. The Conservatives, as the “winning party”, in that they have the most seats, could try to rule in a minority. They’ve done this before in the 1990s when they lost their slim majority, and managed to have votes passed by relying on the smaller Ulster Unionists to support them. This would be like an ad hoc coalition – there would be no UU MPs in the cabinet, and they’d stay on the opposition benches. But the Tories wouldn’t do anything they wouldn’t like, because they know they’d lose. But in the case of this parliament, the Conservatives are so far off an overall majority that it would probably make very little difference. It would also place an inordinate amount of power in the hands of a minority regional party. The Conservatives have been complaining about the number of Irish, Scottish and Welsh MPs who vote on English matters in Westminster (also known as The West Lothian Question), and so to have to rely on these MPs could be seen as hypocritical.
The second option, and the one likely to happen, is that we have a coalition government. This means that the Lib Dems, as the third most popular party, would be approached by either the Conservatives or Labour, and invited to join together to form a Government made of MPs from both parties. Which is what is happening has we speak. And which is causing much consternation amongst lovers of party politics.
You see, the problem is, we’ve never really had to do this before. And even though everyone could see it coming, it’s still a little surreal. So here’s my view on the matter, and what I think would be the best option.
I voted Lib Dem. I support the Liberal Democrats and am disappointed that they didn’t do as well as was expected. I was desperate to avoid having a Conservative Government, as being a child of the 1980s, and hailing from Scotland, I have no desire to go back there again. For nearly 20 years, Scotland were governed by the Conservatives when they didn’t vote for them. They never had more than 5 MPs in Scotland, and yet the vote elsewhere in the UK was enough to foist them upon us. Scotland was used as a testing ground for the Poll Tax and other unpopular policies, because the Tories had no voters there who they could piss off. So yeah, I am the anti-Tory, and I’ll still hold a party on the day Maggie Thatcher turns up her toes.
BUT, like it or not, the Conservatives won the most votes in the election. And so they ought to be entitled to try to form a government. I don’t like it, but there it is. This country does not have a written constitution, but it does have a sense of fairness. Even if we used a system of PR, the Conservatives would still have come out on top with the highest percentage of the national vote (the elimination of Lib Dem supporters voting for Labour for tactical reasons notwithstanding). Therefore, I respect and agree with reasons that Nick Clegg has given for choosing to accept the Conservative offer to discuss a coalition before talking to Labour. Although politically the reds and yellows might be closer in ideals, any MP worth his salt ought to have at the heart of their career the idea of democracy. And in this case, the democratic right to government lies with the Conservatives.
There are other reason why I would be concerned about a Lib/Lab coalition. Firstly, Labour were in power, and then they lost. To try and continue to remain in power when the majority of the British voting public wanted to oust you would make a mockery of our political system. The idea of Gordon Brown resigning, and the party electing a new leader would make no difference either. Because we would then be in a position of having a Prime Minister who the public didn’t elect. And I KNOW we don’t elect a PM, but it has to be said that many people cast their vote with a view to who they would like to see in power. Given that the Labour leader is only elected by the parliamentary party (which is the MPs, not the ordinary party members) that would mean a new PM being chosen by less than 300 people. Mostly with their own interests at heart. People were pissed off enough when Gordon Brown was elected unopposed, God knows what that would do to the country if they changed leaders within a month of a General Election. And then there’s the fact that leadership elections take time to organise and execute. The idea of the House of Commons being in limbo whilst the Labour party play the politics game is terrifying. It wouldn’t happen, because David Cameron would be in there like a shot, and would have a far better plan to rule.
The success of a coalition government lies in the willingness of the parties involved to make it succeed. Our last sort-of workable coalition was during the Second World War, when a War Cabinet was formed to run the country, with Winston Churchill at its head. He was a Tory, but he used to a Liberal. It succeeded because all efforts were focussed on winning the war. There was no time for party politics when the Nazis were across the channel (and often right overhead). Of course, when the war ended, Churchill was out on his ear. Short memories, the British electorate. And no sense of sentimentality.
So today, we have to trust in Cameron and Clegg (and the rest of their respective parliamentary parties) to thrash out a deal which will see a strong government for the good of the country. It can work – both Scotland and Wales have been governed by coalitions, with concessions being made by all the political parties in order to get the work done. It relies on a massive sea change in the way our political system operates – the old days of points scoring and bully boy tactics during PMs questions will have to be put aside. Besides, if the Lib Dems successfully bargain for a vote on political reform (and win it) then everyone will have to get used to this situation.
To make this work, we all need to put aside our differences and realise that there is no common consensus in our political views any longer. The electorate has spoken, and we can’t agree on what we want. So we’re going to have to compromise. For the parties, this might mean that some of their more radical policies will be watered down, and they may be forced to allow things which they have been vehemently opposed to for generations to become law. For the rest of us, it means we have to put aside any distaste we have at the idea of a Conservative government, (or, if you’re a Conservative, at going into partnership with wishy-washy Guardian reading yoghurt knitters). It might not work, we don’t know yet. If it doesn’t, well we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. But we can’t do anything else right now. To try to hold another election would destabilise the country even further, and would be unlikely to give a different outcome at any rate.
Let’s give it a try, and hope that the politicians whom we have put our trust in, can act like adults and come to some compromise. Because really…. at the moment, it’s all we’ve got.