Saturday, 8 May 2010

Lack of Political Maturity in the UK

Well, we had lots of certainties in the 2010 UK general election.  First it was that David Cameron would walk into office without even really having to think up any policies.  Then we had the idea that there would be a hung parliament and finally that somehow the Liberal Democrats would turn back the clock to 1906 and push Labour into third place.  As Norma Tebbit, a man I loathe, noted in 'The Guardian' today, in part David Cameron lost the election more than Gordon Brown did.  Brown was part of the party that had been in power for 13 years, he looks weary and is not charismatic, but still, Cameron could not defeat him outright.  Partly, it was because of the distorted electoral system in the UK so that despite gaining 2 million more votes than Labour and securing 36.5% of the vote compared to 29%, the Conservatives only managed to get 48 more seats than Labour.

One notable thing about this election is that in many heartland seats both Labour and Conservative more people turned out to support the existing MP or their successor from the same party, than they did in 2005.  It is good for democracy that more people voted, some constituencies were seeing a 73% turnout which is almost unheard of in Britain.  Of course, a lot of these extra votes were 'wasted' because in the UK you only need to win a single vote more than your opponent to win the seat.  Gaining an extra 5-10,000 votes in a constituency is not going to give you anything extra.  This trend was seen most in Scotland where the pattern of representation barely changed and the Conservatives still only have a single seat.  What the party leaders did well, certianly Cameron and Brown, was to alert their core supporters to the fact that if they did not get out and vote they risked having their opponents come to power.  This undermined the surge of the Liberal Democrats.  The tactical voters and their own smaller constituency still turned out, but they were now rather over-shadowed by an upswing in the number of traditional Labour and Conservative voters supporting their natural party.  Greater apathy, as is typical in British elections, ironically, would have benefited the Liberal Democrats.  Ironically, not getting as many seats as they 'deserved' might finally make at least some Conservatives see the benefits of a changed electoral system.

The hung parliament had been discussed and certainly was analysed by all the parties before Thursday's result.  However, the exact figures needed to be in to find out what needed to be done.  We could easily have seen a Conservative government brought to power by the 8 Ulster Unionists if Cameron had only fallen a little short of the figure he needed, hence his visit to Ulster last week.  In addition, with the Liberal Democrats having increased 10-20 seats as I thought they might, rather than drop 5 to 57, they would have been the real kingmakers as at present if all the 'Others' went over to the Conservatives, unlikely I know but still mathematically possible, they could out-vote even a Liberal-Labour combination.  On this basis I heard one Conservative ranting that Brown should not even be trying to form a government and should step aside, unaware that Plaid Cymru, the SNP, the Green MP, the SDLP MPs and the Alliance MP (a Northern Irish party closely aligned with the Liberal Democrats) would vote against the bulk of Conservative legislation, especially public sector cuts.

Britain is not familiar with coalitions, they are seen as something weak and even more damning, foreign.  It is ironic that Britain has had coalitions at the times of greatest challenge: during the First and Second World Wars and during the Depression.  The UK was ruled by a coalition for 21 years of the 20th century, in which time it managed to win two world wars.  I suppose the fact that the last coalition ended in 1945 and the last attempt at a 'pact' ended in 1978 means that because 'the past is a foreign country' even these aspects of British history are perceived by today's electorate as being alien.  Minority governments are weak and whilst people point to the example of 1974, there is also the steps towards a minority government that John Major faced as prime minister in the lead up to the 1994 election.  The Liberal Democrats had said they would not enter a coalition and would come to deals over particular policies.  However, the British, unfamiliar with coalitions as they are would be better served by a proper coalition rather than a limping minority government.

Where the lack of political maturity comes in, is how the public and the media cannot tolerate the deals that are being worked out at present.  In continental Europe and further afield, including in New Zealand, such negotiations are common.  There are benefits in a government which represents a wider range of opinion and it tempers the kind of extreme policies the 'elective dictatorship' of the UK has seen in the past.  The right-wing newspapers who insisted that Cameron had won and now insist that he should be in office, do not want this complication.  They have done all they can to sweep Brown away and despite their slurs and whining, they too were not able to convince the bulk of the population that he had to go.  In fact, those who will suffer most from the cutbacks the Conservatives are lining up, clung to him even tighter than before.  Whether Cameron or Brown is the next prime minister, the British public needs to grow up.  Politics is an adult game, and there is no place for stamping your feet and sulking because the simple picture too many Conservatives painted all along, has not become real.  Just because you are indignant and somehow expect Brown to disappear in a cloud of smoke, it will not happen.  Negotiations are not 'shabby deals' as I saw them described on the front of one right-wing newspaper.  Clearly they expect the Liberal Democrats to say 'yes, Mr. Cameron, you are entirely right, we are wrong, we support everything you want to do, without challenge'; that is never going to happen.

Now the work begins.  Even if Cameron becomes prime minister of a minority government any piece of legislation could be voted down, so I do not see the sharp cuts he has been lusting for coming into force any day soon, especially if, as seems likely there will be an election this Autumn.  The British public has thrown itself into this election in a way it has not done for many years, but the expectation that the outcome is going to be neat and tidy is deluded and betrays the immaturity of too much of the electorate.  To a great degree this is fostered by the constant portrayal of any other political system in Europe or further afield as 'weak' or 'unnatural'.  There is a real snobbery that the UK system is the best and no other is worth even considering, despite the fact that you have to get outside the EU before you can find a system less democratic than ours (remember half of our parliament is unelected; and the head of state is a hereditary position).  Grown up Britain and engage with the whole political process and do not sulk because it did not go the way you wanted the first time round.

There are a couple of other things I would note.  First is, as in 1992, when Labour was in with a chance of gaining power, there were electoral irregularities.  This time round people being turned away from voting, sometimes on discriminatory grounds (students in Sheffield were given their own longer line to queue to vote, whereas other voters were able to vote more quickly) and often insufficient ballot papers were printed.  This is because too many returning officers had become complacent that never more than 55%, perhaps 60% but never 73% of the electorate would turn out.  That is incredibly patronising.  Given that some majorities of both Labour and Conservative MPs are smaller than the numbers of people turned away from polling stations, I trust we will have some re-run ballots in some locations, though I imagine the issue will be fudged, again showing how rickety a democracy we live in.  Fortunately the civil liberties group, Liberty seems to be mounting legal challenges.  This is the kind of problem you expect in Third World countries where democracy is new, not a country like this which has had universal suffrage for over 80 years.

The one joyous piece of news is the failure of the BNP to gain any ground.  This is reported as weakening the party and I hope it is now terminally ill.  Saying this, if they are patient, proportional representation may let them get a path to some MPs, though UKIP will probably be in the queue ahead of them.  However much I loathe the thought of BNP MPs I know, as was proven the case very clearly in Barking at this election, such a threat gets parties, notably Labour, to raise their gain and tackle the issues that drive support to the BNP.

At the end of the day, the run on the stock exchange when Cameron did not win an outright majority shows how little we the electorate actually control our democracy.  Financiers are insisting on a government being assembled by Monday threatening to disrupt the economy even further if it is not formed.  Of course, historically there was always a 'run' on the pound whenever a Labour government was elected.  Blair had to win over the ultra-rich to stand any chance of coming into power in 1997.  Now we are being told that the financiers will not accept any government that will not cut public spending sharply and they are upset that Brown who supports a Keynesian rather than monetarist approach to the banking crisis even remains on the scene.  So, basically, even millions of us (30 million people voted on Thursday) have far less clout in terms of determining the next government that a couple of hundred bankers.

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