international analysis and commentary

Britain hanging in the balance

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In Britain, general elections are usually straightforward affairs. One of the benefits of the first-past-the-post two-party electoral system, many believe, is the certainty of the result it delivers. Yet Britons awoke on May 7th to neither a renewed mandate for the embattled Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, nor to the confident election of a new government led by Conservative opposition leader David Cameron. For only the second time since the Second World War, the electoral system failed to produce a clear majority victory and Britain faced a hung parliament.

As analysts, politicians and bureaucrats scrambled to make sense of the result, or lack of it, two key questions emerged: why has this happened and what now? The indecisiveness of the British electorate can be explained by both the turbulent three years of Gordon Brown’s premiership and the developments of the campaign. Britain’s economic crisis and soaring debt have been the key issues. Though many believed Brown’s immediate response to the crisis was correct, his uncharismatic character left him unpopular with the electorate, and even his own party, leading many to question his leadership. Yet David Cameron failed to fully convince as an alternative. His pledge to immediately cut public spending in a bid to reduce Britain’s deficit prompted fears of a ‘double-dip’ recession, whilst his unspecified social policy, ‘The Big Society’, was greeted with confusion on the doorstep. Further fueling uncertainty was a general distrust in British politics following the 2009 MPs expenses scandal. Britain’s third party, the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems), sought to take advantage of this by offering a ‘new politics’ of electoral and political reform. Nick Clegg, their fresh-faced leader seemed at one point to be on the verge of a major breakthrough when he outshined Brown and Cameron in the UK’s first ever televised leadership debate during the campaign, only to be cut down to size by savage attacks by the right wing press.

No politician was therefore able to fully convince the electorate of their credentials and the results reflect this. The Conservatives did well, gaining 97 seats to make 306 in total, but still 20 seats short of the overall majority needed to form a government. Furthermore the 36% of the vote they received was only 4% up on 2005 and way below the 42% taken by John Major in 1992 when the last Conservative government was formed. Labour had a bad night, falling to 258 seats and 29% of the vote, down from 35% in 2005, but didn’t lose as many seats as was expected. The Lib Dems, buoyed by ‘Cleggmania’ which followed their leader’s TV success, failed in the end to convince voters on the substance of their policies, surprising many by actually losing a few seats, from 62 to 57, despite a slight rise in their share of the vote to 23%. Moreover, despite hopes that turn-out would be high after a prominent campaign, in the end only 65% voted – barely 3% up on 2005 and still well below the 70%-plus Britain always experienced from 1945-97. A significant number of voters were thus unconvinced by any party.

So what now? Despite constitutional convention which calls the Queen to invite the sitting Prime Minister to seek to form a government first if no party has a majority, Cameron was quick to claim the moral right to Number 10 just hours after the election, stating that Labour had lost their mandate to govern. Only 20 seats short of a working majority, Cameron has two choices: to seek to rule with a minority government or to woo Nick Clegg’s 57 MPs into a coalition. Brown, ideologically closer to the Lib Dems than the Conservatives, hopes to similarly entice Clegg into a coalition minority government.

Nick Clegg therefore finds himself as kingmaker, but neither path available to him is particularly appealing. If he talks to Labour, they are more likely to compromise on key Lib Dem policies, notably electoral reform, but Clegg might lose popularity if he props up a losing government. Alternatively Clegg could agree to a coalition with Labour without the unpopular Brown, but might then be accused of being undemocratic by supporting an unelected Prime Minister. Moreover, any cooperation would appall supporters who flocked to the Lib Dems as an anti-Labour vote. On top of all this, a Labour-Lib Dem coalition would still be a minority government and would have to negotiate concessions with the Northern Irish parties and the nationalists from Scotland and Wales to pass legislation – hardly a strong and stable government.

Just as treacherous would be a deal with the Conservatives. After the election, Clegg admitted that the Conservatives had earned the right to be the first to seek to form a coalition, which was followed by Cameron publically offering him talks. Cameron can offer real power including cabinet positions with the two parties combining to form a majority. Yet once in Number 10, Cameron has the power to call a second election whenever the polls point to a Conservative victory, quickly discarding the Lib Dems. Moreover the Conservatives are fundamentally opposed to many core Lib Dem beliefs, notably Europe and electoral reform. Senior Lib Dems and party activists will baulk at the thought of working with the Conservatives, and any cooperation could damage the party especially if they become associated with the savage cuts that Cameron has promised. Clegg might thus prefer to offer nominal support in opposition to a minority Conservative government, claiming to be offering stability in the national interest whilst not being tainted by Cameron’s cuts. Whatever their concessions on certain Lib Dem tax and education policies, if the Conservatives can’t offer electoral reform any coalition could prompt a huge backlash from Clegg’s party for not making the most of holding the balance of power. The last hung parliament was in 1974, and party activists and MPs don’t want to have to wait another 36 years to reform the disproportionate system in their favor.

Clegg thus has to walk a delicate line between satisfying his party and overplaying his hand. The markets did not respond well to the election uncertainty and business leaders are pressing for the swift formation of a government. Clegg, though, is not the only leader under pressure and the knives are already being sharpened in both the press and party HQs. Many of the Conservatives are questioning why Cameron was unable to deliver a full majority, whilst senior Labour politicians are wondering if they might have won were it not for the personal unpopularity of Brown. The horse trading and deal making immediately after the election could prove more important than the election itself. Whether Britain reforms its electoral system, sees a return to Conservative rule after 13 years, or samples its first genuine coalition government for generations, will all be decided behind closed doors in the next few days. Whatever government is eventually formed, the effects of this decisive show of indecisiveness by the British electorate are likely to cast a long shadow over the coming months and even years.