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.