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general election. hung parliament. electoral reform. liberal democrats. coalition

The election – what the hell do we do now?

   It was a night of electoral chaos and high drama followed by a weekend of profound uncertainty and inconclusive horse-trading. Voters claimed they were disenfranchised and there were threats of legal challenges.  As the election night wore on it became clear that no one party was the winner and the Liberal Democrats ended up as reluctant king makers.  No, not the 2010 general election, but the Scottish Parliamentary election of 2007. 
  The parallels between the Holyrood election and the Westminster result are striking, right down to the anger and confusion at the polling stations. On Friday it felt rather as if Britain had been turned upside down. Suddenly the London media was eager to understand how the proportional representation system worked and how coalition government, er, happened.  Phrases like “confidence and supply”, which we’d all learned  three years ago,  raised puzzled eyebrows among the metropolitan hack pack. Isn’t “minority government” a contradiction in terms? Welcome to the new world of co-operative politics. 
    Suddenly Scotland was seen as the template for Westminster after its hanging by the electorate.  How exaclty had Alex Salmond managed to survive three years and three budgets without a majority and with no coaliton?.  Correspondents were fascinated to learn how, after the ‘inconclusive’ Holyrood election result in 2007, Gordon Brown reportedly advised the defeated Labour First Minister, Jack McConnell, to cobble together a deal with the Liberal Democrats and form another unionist coalition against the nationalist enemy, the SNP.   That keep-calm-and-carry-on strategy lasted about a day.  The Scottish Liberal Democrats had already realised that propping up a defeated First Minister could open them to accusations of forming a “loser’s coalition” – of being so desperate to hang onto their ministerial motors that they would accept the leadership of an unpopular leader who had been rejected by the voters. 
  That lesson applies again this weekend during the febrile negotiations over the future governance of the UK.   Britain is too new to the coalition game to contemplate the loser becoming the winner again through the magic of coalition, as Gordon Brown is learning to his cost.  It happens all the time in other European countries and there is nothing in the rules that says the party with the most seats and votes is the one that should form the government.  However, in our political culture we like defeated prime ministers to stay defeated, especially if – as in Brown’s case – they haven’t been elected in the first place. 
    In 2007,  the Libdems were equally adamant that they would not form a coalition with Alex Salmond’s Scottish Nationalists because they had a fundamental constitutional disagreement about a referendum on independence.  Now, I don’t want to carry this Scottish comparison too far – Westminster is a very different kettle of constitutional fish –  but I think there is a strong possibility that Nick Clegg may fail to cement any deal with  David Cameron’s Tories at their meeting today for much the same reason: that there is a fundamental constitutional disagreement about a referendum on electoral reform – as well as a host of other issues like public spending cuts, Trident, europe etc…It seems inconceivable that Clegg could carry the support of his party if he ditched PR and equally unlikely that Cameron could offer it. The former cabinet Norman Tebbit probably speaks for many Toy MPs voters when he says he would rather see the party in opposition than in a cock-eyed coalition with the loony Liberals (as many Tories regard them).  His view is that any Lib-Lab arrangement would fall apart soon anyway precipitating an early general election which the Tories would win handsomely.  

    Mind you, David Cameron is a man in a hurry.  He wants to taste power if he can possibly do so.   Perhaps he will listen to the advice from the influential former Tory leadership candidate and defence minister, Michael Portillo, who called on BBC;s Question Time for Cameron to take up the cause of electoral reform.  That is just possible, I suppose, and Cameron’s people have been sounding out the new Tory benches, younger and perhaps more reform-minded than the previous parliamentary Tory party.   But the aversion to PR among most Conservatives is profound because they believe that it might lead to a perpetual Lib-Lab coalition.    The most likely option must surely be a Tory minority administration with David Cameron trying to achieve the balancing act performed so adroitly by Alex Salmond in the Scottish Parliament after 2007. Which is why Scotland is again at the centre of UK politics this weekend.  
    I could be wrong, of course – like the rest of the media, I’ve been wrong about most things in this election.  Nick Clegg might suddenly come out as an enthusiastic proto-conservative.  The Liberal Democrats might abandon the habit of a lifetime and come to a very rapid agreement this weekend on the need for a crisis coalition with a Conservative Party that rejects just about everything they stand for.  Nick Clegg could be awarded the post of home secretary in a Cameron government with Vince Cable as industry secretary and Charles Kennedy as scottish secretary. 
    But it stretches credulity to breaking point to believe that anything like this fantasy coalition could work, or anything like it.  Even a confidence and supply agreement whereby the Libdems agree to pass the Tory budget would be fraught with danger.  The Liberal Democrats have to be very careful that they are not used as human shields by the Tories in the impending confrontation with the public sector unions, as David Cameron pushes through his financial austerity package.  Liberal Democrat voters across the country would be outraged at their own party pushing through service cuts and might resolve never to vote Libdem ever again.  It could destroy the Scottish Liberal Democrats who would be leapt upon by the other parties as the real Tartan Tories. Then there is Europe.  And immigration. No – it just won’t happen. 
    And when Cameron decides to call another general election, perhaps as early as this autumn, the Libdems could be wiped out as the country divides along traditional lines.  And for what?  The “big comprehensive offer” that David Cameron made to the Liberal Democrats on Friday is actually small, limited and conditional.  A “cross party committee” on electoral reform will butter no parsnips, and the proposals on schools and a carbon-free economy offer nothing substantial.  Only Labour is offering the real deal on electoral reform. 
   So, should Nick Clegg swallow his pride, and his words,  and in spite of the Scottish experience seek to do a deal with Gordon Brown,  the “desperate” man he said he would not allow to “squat”  in Number Ten?  Well, Brown has certainly made the best offer so far – a guarantee of  referendum on PR as part of a comprehensive package of political reform. It would change British politics for good, reflect the mood of the country, ensure Libdem participation in future governments, and probably lock the Tories out of power for a generation.     The case for a progressive realignment of politics in Britain is a very convincing one.  There is no ideological or institutional reason why the Liberal tribe and the Labour tribe should not live in the same tent.  Their manifestos are a close fit, and Labour really has had a dramatic deathbed conversion to political and electoral reform.  Amazingly, both wings of the Labour Party seem to be agreed now on the need for this historic realignment – which was supposed to have taken place in 1997 but didn’t because Labour got such a huge majority that Tony Blair didn’t need the Liberal Democrats.
   That painful memory of the former Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown, being left alone at the alter in ‘97, will make it hard for the Liberal Democrats to trust Labour again. Gordon Brown would have to stand down, obviously  – he is just too unpopular – as even the Labour MP John Mann has conceded.  That could be arranged: Brown has already made it clear that he’s been thinking about a career outside politics.  But there is another even more serious problem: a Lib-Lab pact, unlike any Lib-Tory arrangement, would not have a majority in the Westminster parliament.  The Labour and Liberal Democrats combined won 52% of the popular vote on polling day,  but such a formation would only have 315 seats in the House of Commons, eleven short of an absolute majority. 

   Any Lib- Lab pact would have to look to the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and the new Green MP, Caroline Lucas, for support.  Add them together and this ‘progressive popular front’ would have  325 seats, which is tantalisingly close to a majority in the Commons because the Speaker, John Bercow, doesn’t vote. Add in the Northern Ireland Social Democratic and Labour Party’s 3 seats and the non-Tory Alliance MP’s one – and factor in that the Democratic Unionist Party in Ulster is no friend of the Tories -and you start to see a possible coalition emerging which would have perhaps 329 seats against the Conservatives’ 306. 
     It is  on the basis of this arithmetic that Alex Salmond has announced that he’s waiting by the phone for a call from Gordon.  The call has not come – but the phones have been ringing all over the country and I have it on good authority that Labour has been testing opinion among all the minority parties including the SNP.   If the Liberal Tory coalition talks fail, and there is no stability pact between Clegg and Cameron, then this might be the only way of preventing another general election almost immediately parliament resumes. Alex Salmond and Ieuan Wynn Jones, the leader of the Welsh Nationalist Plaid have issued a joint statement proposing a “progressive” coalition of the anti-Tory parties. The idea is to unite all parties, great and small, who want to see a historic, one-off reform of the British constitution through electoral reform. Whether this coalition could withstand the stresses of managing the worst economic crisis Britain has faced in thirty five years is another matter.  The Lib-Lab-SNP-Plaid-Green-SDLP-Alliance would be a ramshackle vehicle with seen party leaders.  Would they agree on where to meet?
   Anyway, Labour might prefer to take its chances with an early election than do any kind of deal with the SNP, such is the ocean of mistrust between the two parties. There is actually a precedent for a Lib-Lab-SNP alliance in Westminster.  Back in 1979, the nationalists supported the Lib-Lab pact government led by the Labour PM James Callaghan.  That involved a kind of “confidence and supply” deal under which, in exchange for a devolution referendum, the SNP agreed not bring down the minority government and support its budget.  Unfortunately, after he abortive March 1979 referendum, when Scotland voted Yes but not by 40% of the electorate, the agreement broke down. James Callaghan said it was “turkeys voting for an early Christmas”, and in the subsequent general election, the SNP were almost annihilated, losing 9 of their 11 seats.  Labour have never forgiven the nationalists for “ushering in” the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher who won the May 79 election.   It was really the Winter of Discontent rather than discontented Nats that did for Callaghan.  However, the memory is not one that will make either Labour or the Libdems enthusiastic about a pact involving nationalists.  
    But if not that, what?  We are very much back now to the minority politics of the 1970s.  As the economic crisis develops, and the political crisis is unresolved, there may be many Commons cliff=hanger votes in which the nationalists may hold the balance.  It’s going to be great fun for political journalists, though perhaps not for the country as a whole.  The real problem with the parliamentary arithmetic is that the Liberal Democrats failed to deliver.  They are too small , with only 57 seats, to seriously call the coalition shots.  The general election result was a massive disappointment to the Liberal Democrats who had been expecting greater things, and to those who have been seeking real reform of British politics. 

   It seems an age ago now, but only four weeks ago, after the first televised debate, the Liberal Democrats were thought to have made a historic breakthrough, and were for a time neck and neck with the Tories.  Cleggmania gripped the nation. Clegg was compared with Barack Obama – a new and unstoppable force in British politics.  Throughout the rest of the campaign the Liberal Democrats remained neck and neck with Labour in the polls.   Unfortunately it all evaporated on polling day, and Nick Clegg won even fewer seats than in 2005.  
       Historians will argue for decades about why Nick Clegg failed in the end to to deliver the votes he had in the opinion polls.   Professor John Curtice talks of the “great mystery of the Liberal Democrat surge”    To what extent were the Cleggites undermined by the subsequent press campaign of vilification, possibly the worst since the days when the tabloids used to rubbish Neil Kinnock?  Within days of Nick Clegg’s success in the debate, the Daily Mail discovered that he was really a Nazi sympathiser, who had compared Britain unfavourably with Germany under Hitler. The other Tory supporting papers were rather more subtle in their attacks on the messiah of third party politics.  The Daily Telegraph discovered that he had accepted cash from political donors and deposited it in his own personal bank account.  This turned out to be irregular but within the rules and it was established that Clegg had not benefited. 
    But these attacks did not appear to be all that damaging, and in the final week of the campaign, the Liberal Democrats were still level with Labour, though falling back slightly.  What no one expected was that on the very day of the vote, there would be a sudden and massive move away from the Liberal Democrats.  Some voters clearly heeded Gordon Brown’s eve of poll warnings that a vote for the Liberal Democrats was effectively a vote for Cameron.   But not many –  Labour only got 29% of the vote – pretty much as the polls forecast, while  the Liberal Democrats lost 5%, ending up with 23`%.  A million Liberal Democrat votes just disappeared.    Perhaps these people were never going to vote anyway, and had just been drawn passively into politics by the televised debates.  Perhaps it confirms that Liberal Democrat voters are inherently less committed than supporters of the other parties.  
    This unexpected Liberal Democrat set-back, should have presented David Cameron with an opportunity to seize the political initiative. much as Alex Salmond did in 2007, when he helicoptered into Holyrood the day after the election and simply announced that he was forming the government.  Timing and chutzpah are everything in minority politics, and Salmond was relying on the confusion and division of the opposition to allow him to get his feet under the government table.  David Cameron could have mounted a similar coup de theatre on Friday if he had organised a rally of supporters and simply declared himself the victor and prime minister in waiting.  In 1974, when the Conservative prime minister Edward Heath lost his majority in the February election, Harold Wilson simply announced that he was going on holiday until Heath vacated Number Ten. 
    But instead of seizing the moment and asserting his right to rule,  Cameron opened a negotiation process, spelling out in public his terms for a Libdem coalition.  It sounded as if he was unconfident about his mandate, unsure of his ground.  By declaring his hand he also invited Labour to enter the negotiations themselves with their own superior offer.  In fact, Gordon Brown managed to slip in a hasty statement outside Downing Street even before Cameron had made his pitch.  It was a bizarre sight, unprecedented in British political history – a public auction of policies   Never happened this way in Holyrood.  Not a very good advert, perhaps,  for coalition politics and a strangely demeaning sight.
   But then, the political  leaders have been knocked down several pegs by this general election in which – in a very real sense – they have all been losers.  For all the talk of the greatest victory since 1979,  David Cameron’s achievement was very modest for a party that was 20 points ahead of Labour a year ago. With only 35%  of the vote, there has been widespread internal criticism of the Cameroons for weaknesses of the Tory campaign – in particular the “Big Society” manifesto which  invited people to set up their own schools.  There was some truth in Alistair Campbell’s claim, blogged from his old office in Number Ten, that under the circumstances, and given his unpopularity,  this election result was a moral victory for Gordon Brown, because he managed to fight of the Liberal Democrats and denied the Conservatives a majority in parliament.   Mind you, that is small consolation for losing nearly a hundred seats.  It also underlines the spinelessness of  Labour ministers who must surely realise that if they had only dumped Gordon Brown after the European election debacle last year, when Labour came fourth, they could have been back in government by now instead of desperately seeking deals with Clegg. 
    Television was perhaps the only real winner of the 2010 general election.  Politicians and commentators alike signally failed to predict the impact that the televised debates would have.  British political campaigning will never be the same.  This wasn’t a twitter election, or a facebook election or even a blogging election. It was a TV election, a kind of political X Factor, in which contenders were put through their paces before a live audience, and the viewers invited to deliver their instant verdict.   However, the voters turned out to every bit as fickle as the X factor audience, given to outbursts of passion that can quickly subside. The voters have made their decision, and we’re still trying to work out what it was, said one minister.  This election was a kind of punishment for the UK political leadership, for the expenses scandal and the banking crisis.  The people wanted a change – well, now they have it. The political system is broken , but we don’t yet know if anyone has the tools to fix it. 


About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


5 thoughts on “The election – what the hell do we do now?

  1. Iain, can you explain the extraordinary, mind-numbingly idiotic hostility with which Labour have reacted to Alex Salmond's offer to save their necks and keep them in power? We know that Labour in Scotland and the SNP despise each other, but surely even the likes of Gray and Murphy aren't so stupid as to fail to realise what the parliamentary arithmetic is. Labour simply mathematically CANNOT form a majority without the SNP and Plaid. The support of the nationalists could bring about PR which could lock the Tories out of power practically forever, and deliver Labour a miraculous victory from the jaws of total destruction.What, too, of the Holyrood elections in 2011, when the Scottish people know that the SNP offered to save Scotland from the Tories, but Labour let them in? Do Murphy, Gray et al really have THAT much of a death wish?

    Posted by spungo | May 9, 2010, 3:46 pm
  2. With SNP support at Westminster attack dogs (sorry dogs) like Murphy will have to be kept on a very short leash (with muzzle).In Labour minds this would be very bad making a large SNP victory next year, possibly even a majority, likely.Personally I think the SNP will fair better with an unfettered Murphy. IMO Labour are misinterpreting Scottish Toryphobia for Murphy achievement.

    Posted by chicmac | May 10, 2010, 9:00 am
  3. The reason why Labour are behaving like this is because they want the Tories to give it a go and fail in a very short time after which we will have another general election. (I'm not sure they would win that one either incidentally.)I don't envy Clegg his situation. He'll be damned in England if he backs Labour and damned in Scotland if he backs the Tories. His own Party are divided on the issue also. I'm not sure which way I would jump in his shoes unless it was to absolutely guarantee electoral reform. I'm not sure even Labour are offering that. (Checkout their manifesto on the subject.) The other thing they're worrying about is that an agreement with Labour will lead to England itself going for independence. But look on the bright side. It would save us having to keep begging for a referendum on Scottish Independence up here! Of course if the Tories are left to go it alone then we WILL have another election in the Autumn probably and what will happen then? I think the Tory vote really WILL come out and I think they will actually win outright. All chances of electoral reform will then be dead in the water. Jo

    Posted by Anonymous | May 10, 2010, 11:05 am
  4. Jocan't see that. If Labour really wanted a short-lived Lib/tory win they would not be offering immediate legislation for electoral reform.If Labour hoped to win a new GE in the near future they would be in a far stronger position to do so after a period of Liblab pact rule where 1. There would be a dignified leadeship change.2. Electoral Reform was in place (making a new Liblab coalition win virtually a certainty)3. Choice of timing to a degree.No, the blood spitting at the mention of the Scots Nats is purely down to Scottish Labour tribalism. Their entire strategy North of the Border is to oppose anything the SNP come up with, vilify, smear and just plain make up whatever rubbish they think they can get away with in order to attack the SNP.There is no plan B for Scottish Labour.And they have lovingly crafted a political supportive infrastructure in Scotland which basically encompasses everything which relies to a significant financial degree on governent patronage or licensing.A change to working with the SNP in Scotland is anahema to Labour but even if it were not, it would take years to unravel the anti-SNP machine.

    Posted by chicmac | May 10, 2010, 12:38 pm
  5. Well, now that all the dust has settled I am comng to the view that Labour couldn't actually wait to get out of government quick enough.Have they been listening to Mervyn King?This is going to make interesting times ahead in terms of the 2011 election here. That will be against a backdrop of social and industrial strife such as we haven't seen since the days of Margaret Hilda.Who will the Scots vote for in response to that?

    Posted by Observer | May 13, 2010, 7:16 pm

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