Friday, 7 May 2010

Westminster in chaos

It was a long night, and it was only just a moment ago that the BBC was finally able to declare an official UK election result – or non-result, as the case may be. For the first time in decades, a British election has yielded a hung parliament. No single party has a majority, with the Conservatives falling well short of the 326 seats they needed to form a government. Now the clock is ticking as politicians scramble to come up with some kind of solution.

It’s looking as if a Liberal Democrat – Labour coalition may not be enough for a majority either, which may rule out that option. It was a disastrously disappointing night for the Lib Dems and their supporters. Despite all the speculation after the first televised debate that this could be their year, the Lib Dems actually lost seats in this election. It’s truly stunning.

Of course along with all the polling showing surging support for the Lib Dems after the first debate came notes of caution that the pollsters did not know how the increased support would affect the actual vote. UK elections still use a peculiar first-past-the-post system for their elections which heavily favours the two main parties. This type of electoral system is normal in the presidential system of the US, but it is unusual in a parliamentary system. Most other parliamentary democracies use a ranked voting system where people indicate your first choice and then a second choice. The Lib Dems have made switching to a proportional representation or ranked system a cornerstone of their campaign, and recently Labour agreed to put it to a referendum. The Tories have refused to consider such a change, but it is likely that the Lib Dems would demand this if they were to enter into a coalition with the Conservatives..

Indeed it is looking like a Lib-Con coalition might be the most likely outcome, since a Lib-Lab government wouldn’t have a majority. But it's unclear how this would work in practice because the two parties are quite far apart ideologically, especially when it comes to the EU. Indeed the media pundits were speculating last night that it was Nick Clegg’s pro-Europe views which led to British voters rejecting them at the polls. The storyline is shaping up to be this: voters were initially attracted to Clegg after they were introduced to him as a third option in the first debate, but once they learned about his pro-EU stance, particularly his early support for Britian joining the Euro in 1997 (although he says Britain should not join it now), they got turned off. This seemed to be backed up by some of the man-on-the-street interviews the BBC did outside polling stations.

But it’s hard to predict with any certainty what’s going to happen. One thing that is certain, however, is that this is going to send the markets reeling. Bond markets in the city opened at 1am last night to react to the news, and today the pound has dropped to a historic low against the dollar. It is likely the markets won’t give the UK much time to come up with a solution before they really start to go after the country.

‘The markets’ were sort of the omnipresent force in last night’s election coverage. For the past month the Tories have been warning against this very result, saying voters needed to give them a strong majority or “the markets” would descend on the country like a flock of ravenous vultures. Now the case is being made that a solution must be found quickly to satisfy this dangerous beast just off Britain’s shores. Watching the twitter feeds last night I was struck by how many people resented this constant bowing to “the markets”, as if concern for this mysterious force should trump any democratic process or political logic. Isn’t this the same market, people asked, that got us into the economic crisis we’re in now? Why are we letting “the markets” decide our election now?

The reality however is that Britain has little choice. It’s borrowed so much over the past decade that it’s literally captive to the markets as a debtor is captive to his creditors. In many ways, “the market” now owns Britain, and this cruel landlord must be satisfied with whatever ‘refurnishing’ his tenants attempt to do.

Of course this period of time after an election where the parties negotiate to form a government is perfectly normal in every other European countries. And as many comentators have pointed out, this is only a "crisis" is the media and politicians make it one. Of course the UK doesn't consider itself to be like other European countries,  so this uncertainty is psychologically traumatic for many Brits.

Contrast to US elections

This was the first UK election I’ve been here for, and it was really interesting to see how the coverage and process differs from a US election. In the US, state results are usually called well before the votes have actually been counted, based on a combination of exit polling and early count results. So when the polls close in a given time zone, the networks instantly show results for the states that are easy to predict. In the UK, however, they don’t show results until all the votes have been counted and announced in a given district, so it’s a long process. They do however release the one official exit poll right when the polls close, with a lot of cautioning that it has frequently been wrong in the past.

As they announce each district, the BBC uses a “swingometer” to show the percentage by which the vote has shifted from one party to another. This usually proves important as the night goes on because it’s an indication of how the other seats may go. However last night it seemed to prove a poor indicator because the swing was so different in different regions of the country, which seemed to be frustrating the journalists.

One very notable contrast to US elections was that when they announced these results, the BBC usually didn’t bother mentioning the actual name of the candidate who won in that district. With each result it was “Labour retains the seat, with a swing of 4.5%” or “Tories gain a seat in Battersea, with a 8.6% swing”. It was as if the actual people running were completely irrelevant. The only time names were mentioned was if one of the people was in the cabinet, or if they had been a high-profile case in the expenses scandal.

Of course given that in the British parliamentary system these backbench MPs actually have very little to do, it probably is irrelevant what their names are. But in the US, it would be quite bizarre for the news networks to just fail to mention the name of the candidate who won in the district being announced. Then again in the US system, that person is actually going to have a job to do in the congress. In the UK, for most of these people, their only job is to be foot soldiers for the party they’re a member of.

Interstingly, there was a lot of televised freaking out going on last night about people across the country not being able to vote because the polling stations closed at 10pm even though there were people in line. The BBC presenters kept calling this "shameful" and that it was like "a third world country". But this kind of thing happens in the US every election. Each time there's lots of handwringing about it, but everyone forgets the next day. It's a normal part of voting, but at each election people seem to forget that. Either that or they're just desperate to fill up airtime as they're waiting for results with ginned-up controversy.

Next steps

It will be interesting to see how the actual popular vote works out, as it may have an effect on the legitimacy of whatever government is formed. However it appeared last night that the Lib Dems may not even be able to blame the first-past-the-post system for their defeat last night, as they seem to not even be coming close in the marginal seat races they had hoped to win.

Technically the parties have until the Queen’s Speech in 12 days to figure this out, but in reality they really have just one or two days because of market pressure. My prediction: in order to satisfy the markets the Lib Dems and the Conservatives are going to have to form a fast coalition today. But what concessions will the Lib Dems get? It’s going to be an exciting 24 hours in British politics.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a mess indeed! Reminds me of the 2000 election in the US.