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Britian: A Marriage of Convenience

11 May 2010

Britian: A Marriage of Convenience

By Gwynne Dyer

There has not been a coalition government in Britain since the Second World War, but it may have to get used to them.

The election on May 6 left both major parties, the Conservatives and Labour, short of a majority, and put history’s also-rans, the Liberal Democratic Party, in the position of king-maker. It has used that position very cleverly, and Britain may be heading for a major constitutional change.

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democratic leader, used the five days of hectic negotiations after the election to extract a high price from the Conservative Party for agreeing to enter a coalition with them. Policy differences on taxes or educational policy could be finessed fairly easily, but Clegg’s bottom line was electoral reform. That used to be a Conservative red line – but in the end they crossed it.

Electoral reform? Who cares about that except a few policy wonks? Well, no: the Liberal Democrats care passionately about it. It’s the only way they can ever fight their way back into the centre ring of politics.

The Lib Dems’ political ancestors are the Liberals and, before them, the Whigs. For more than two centuries that lineage provided one of the two great parties that alternated in power in Britain. Then in the 1920s, with the rise of the Labour Party, the Liberals came third in one election – and never found their way back to power.

The winner-take-all British electoral system (“first-past-the-post”) is cruelly unfair to third parties. In the election just past, the Lib Dems got almost a quarter of the votes – but less than a tenth of the seats in parliament. So many people saw a vote for them as a wasted vote, even if they liked their ideas.

It was a vicious circle, so for many decades now the most urgent tactical goal of the Lib Dems has been to change the voting system. Alternative vote, “alternative vote plus,” proportional representation – anything that gave them a fair chance of winning.

The two “major” parties, the beneficiaries of the existing system, naturally resisted any change in the electoral rules. The only way it could ever happen is if both of them had to beg for the support of the Lib Dems. Like now.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg would have preferred a coalition with Labour, since most Lib Dem voters are more or less on the left. But he rightly said he had to talk to the Conservatives first, since they had ended up with more seats than Labour after the election on May 6 – and he also knew Labour would be an even less trustworthy partner in power than the Conservatives.

Former prime minister Gordon Brown tried hard to make a deal with the Lib Dems that would keep the Labour Party in power, but his party, aware of the savage cuts any incoming government would have to make to deal with a runaway budget deficit, didn’t agree. Many of them thought this was a good election to lose – so Brown’s prospective coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, could not trust Labour to keep any deal he made.

A senior Liberal Democrat, discussing the parallel negotiations the Lib Dems conducted with Labour, explained that though the talks were amicable, “problems remain on deliverability and Labour cohesion.” In other words, some Labour members of parliament would rebel against the deal, probably sooner rather than later – and since a Lib-Lab coalition would have the slimmest of majorities, just a few rebels could bring the coalition down.

Prime Minister David Cameron, on the other hand, may come to rue the day when he agreed to the terms of the deal that finally put him in office.

Cameron was not well liked by large sectors of the Conservative Party he leads even before the election: he was a “modernizer,” and Conservatives are conservative. But he is more actively disliked now, because many senior members of the party (and probably most of the rank and file) blame him for failing to pull off a clear win against a Labour Party that was exhausted and partly discredited after 13 years in power.

They thought they were cruising smoothly to victory, and they wound up 20 seats short of a majority. They accepted the extortionate concessions the Liberal Democrats demanded for a coalition because after 13 years in the wilderness they were positively panting with eagerness to be in government again. But when the going gets rough, they will blame Cameron for those concessions too.

The biggest concession was, of course, a promise to the Lib Dems to hold a referendum on changing the electoral system. Labour made a similar promise, but in the assessment of the Lib Dems a coalition with Labour would not survive long enough to get the legislation through, so they ended the Lib-Lab talks.

The Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition, on the other hand, has a big enough majority in parliament that it cannot be brought down by just a few rebels from either party. It could actually last four years, which would be long enough to change the voting system (if the voters agree, and current opinion polls suggest they would).

That is the Lib Dem strategy.

If it succeeds, coalition governments will become the norm in Britain.


Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

The British Election

7 May 2010

The British Election

By Gwynne Dyer

The great unanswered question of British politics is why would anybody want to win an election in the United Kingdom this year?

The national budget is heading for a 12 per cent deficit. The country is staggering under a massive load of debt and the bond sharks are circling. The future for years to come will be a grim tale of unending tax rises and cuts to vital services like health and education.

Any party that forms a government under these circumstances and does what is needed to save the economy will become massively unpopular, and will ultimately be rewarded with a long period in the electoral wilderness.

But politicians just don’t know how to walk away: it’s not in their genes. So there is fierce competition for this poisoned chalice.

To make matters worse, the election on May 6 produced a result that tipped the major parties into a ruthless scramble for power.

The Conservative Party ended up with 50 more members of parliament than the Labour Party, but neither of the major parties got enough seats to form a majority government. So both of them let the third-place Liberal Democratic Party know they were open to a coalition.

In Germany or Israel or India, this would barely be cause for comment: that’s how politics normally works in those bailiwicks.

In Britain, where coalitions are seen as a nasty foreign habit, it has caused a virtual meltdown in the commentariat.

The Lib Dems’ price for agreeing to a coalition – with anybody – is wholesale reform of the voting system. They do have a point, for the old-fashioned, winner-takes-all system still used in Britain produces remarkably skewed results.

In the last election, in 2005, Labour got only 35 per cent of the votes cast, but 55 per cent of the seats. The second-place Conservatives got 32 per cent of the vote and only 30 per cent of the seats.

The Liberal Democrats got 22 per cent of the vote and only 10 per cent of the seats.

Ever since the Lib Dems (or rather their ancestors, the Liberals) ceased to be one of the two major parties and fell to third place a century ago, that has been their fate. It was almost impossible to escape from that fate because voters came to feel a vote for the third-place party was a wasted vote – and that became a self-fulfilling policy.

So the flagship Lib Dem policy is electoral reform. They want proportional representation.

This is not a battle-cry that makes the heart pump faster, even among the party faithful, and to the non-Lib Dem masses it is quite meaningless.

The only way it could ever happen is if the two major parties should both fall short of a majority and need a coalition with the Lib Dems in order to govern. Like now.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg’s price for entering into a coalition with either the Conservatives or Labour is an ironclad commitment from the prospective partner to act on electoral reform promptly.

Whether that would involve just legislation or also a referendum remains to be seen, but probably both – and Clegg would want it to happen fast, in case there is another election in the near future, as often happens with coalition governments.

Clegg is talking to Conservative leader David Cameron first, since his party got the largest number of seats and votes, but Cameron’s best offer is “an all-party committee of inquiry on political and electoral reform.” He cannot offer more, because his own party won’t let him.

This does not make a lot of sense politically, since Labour, not the Conservatives, is the greatest beneficiary of the current voting system. But there I go again, expecting rational self-interest to determine political choices. The real reason the rank and file of the Conservative Party hate the idea of change – any kind of change – is because they are conservative.

So it may be that the Liberal Democratic leader will soon move on and start talking to Labour leader Gordon Brown (who remains prime minister until he resigns or parliament meets again and votes him out).

Brown has already said he would meet Clegg’s demands on electoral reform, and it is not inconceivable that there could be a Labour-Lib Dem coalition in office before we are all much older.

Something of the sort had better happen before we are much older, because the markets will not wait. They will want to be reassured quite soon that the grown-ups are in charge in Britain, or it will get increasingly difficult and expensive for Britain to borrow money to service its debts.

It is not in the same dire financial straits as Greece, or even Spain and Portugal, but the markets do not make fine distinctions when they panic.

A month ago it was assumed the British Conservatives were cruising smoothly towards victory.

It’s still not clear what blew them so far off course, but they (and all the other British parties) are now in uncharted waters.


Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.