Monday, 24 May 2010

Of AV and 2015

One of the compromises agreed between Britain's Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties on May 11 was an referendum on replacing the present "first past the post" method of election to Parliament by a mere plurality with the "alternative vote" system, under which voters are able to select candidates in order of preference: under the proposed scheme the candidate with fewest first-preference votes is eliminated from the contest, and their second preferences are redistributed to the candidates so chosen by their voters. The process is repeated until only two candidates remain, giving one an overall majority at the final count.

The system is widely agreed to be an improvement over FPTP, in which MPs generally enter the House of Commons on the basis of only a majority of votes cast. Under AV there will at least be a majority for the members of the new chamber. It's not the proportional representation that LibDems have long sought, but it's a step toward fairer representation that's likely to net the party a few dozen additional seats on the basis of second- and third- preference votes from eliminated candidates of other parties.

LibDem hopes from AV seem to hinge heavily on maintaining or replacing the preferences offered by the traditional permeability of the Lab/Lib margin, lately the “Keep the Tories out” factor which encouraged "tactical voting" between the centre and left parties. There’ll be a good deal less of that in 2015 and perhaps for many years after, because LibDems can’t be relied on to keep anybody out, which as they rightly point out isn’t their job anyway.

Will there be the same opportunities at the Conservative/LibDem margin? I doubt it. Historically there seems to have been far less exchange of tactical votes between the two, but that might be put down to the very expectation of LibDem choice that made Labour sympathisers ready to vote LibDem.

But there’s an alarming warning in to the 2010 British Election Survey: whereas 48% of LibDem and 41% of Labour voters gave each other’s party as their second choice, only 21% of Conservatives put LibDem second. That in itself isn’t so surprising given talk of shared “centre-left” values sufficient to chill Tory blood: the real shock is that 41% of Tory voters put the anti-Europe UKIP second and another 10% the racist BNP, indicating a still larger body of anti-EU and anti-immigration feeling that’s likely to limit LibDem appeal given the large body of non-switchers and preferences for smaller parties common to all three main parties.

Both coalition partners have been fortunate in having the Greek crisis push grand European integration schemes into the background, possibly for the next five years. But that won’t last forever. Nor will the likely easing of immigration to a UK in the doldrums. So both issues could be very “live” to Tory voters in 2015 and beyond. And if they’re not enough there’s always LibDem stances on tax and social policy to cool their ardour.

So what should LibDems do? Go beyond the Orange Book’s critique of EU bureaucracy and regulation by adopting a more sternly Eurosceptic tone? Take a harsher line on immigration and play down their stated social justice aspirations? In short, become a party explicitly of the centre-right rather than of the centre or centre-left? Or should they do their utmost to distance themselves from their coalition partners in order to win over otherwise estranged pro-Labour wellwishers (and doubtless estranged LibDem voters)?

From a purely selfish LibDem perspective the answer has to be the latter. Reaching out to Labour voters offers far greater second-preference dividends than appealing to Tory supporters mostly in diametric opposition to key LibDem positions. It won’t be easy after what many Labour supporters will unjustly see as the "betrayal" of 2010, but the alternative could be bitter disappointment for a party already facing the danger of electoral backlash through association with the unpopular government spending decisions of the next few years.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

The Liberal dilemma

Centre-left, centre-right or just centre? The problem has plagued Britain's Liberal Party and its successors for much of the past century, and with this month's deal between Liberal Democrats and the larger Conservative Party it threatens to resurface in ever more acute form following 70 years of broad Liberal alignment with the advancement of "social justice".

This isn't the place to go into the rights and wrongs of the May 11 Tory-LibDem pact: the smaller grouping was faced with the choice between a numerically fragile coalition with Labour and one which could command an unassailable Commons majority, albeit with a Tory party historically seen by many Lib Dem supporters as a bitter ideological foe.

In the event, the overwhelming majority of the party and its voters have accepted the deal, with the first subsequent public opinion polls showing LibDem support down three percentage points at 21% of electors in Great Britain and backing for Labour up by a similar amount. If that's to be believed, perhaps a million of the nearly 30 million who voted on May 6 would have switched from LibDem to Labour rather than vote for a future Conservative ally in government, enough probably to make a Labour-LibDem coalition the likely government. But had that been the outcome, others would now doubtless be registering their displeasure by shifting their allegiance from LibDem to Tory - perhaps in sufficient numbers to give the latter a Commons majority - so any alternative scenario is little more than speculation.

This isn't the first time Liberals and Conservatives have shared government office: there were coalitions (mostly incorporating at least some Labour elements) in 1915-22 and 1931-45 (with mainstream Liberals in opposition in 1933-40), and then Prime Minister David Lloyd George in 1920 went so far as to plan Conservative fusion with his wing of a divided Liberal Party, a scheme that fell through partly because of Liberal distaste for its anti-Labour implications.

British political Liberalism has always straddled two ideological tendencies: economic liberalism with its emphasis on individual rights and free markets; and the social liberalism that has dominated the party since the 1950s, with its embrace of public intervention as a means to extend opportunities to exercise the freedom which the party advocates. To maximise liberty that may in effect be available only to some, or to seek to extend opportunity for its enjoyment to all? That is the liberal intellectual dilemma.

The growth of social liberalism extends far beyond Liberal Democrats' identification in recent decades as a party of the centre-left. Gladstone's party provided an umbrella for labour representation in Parliament (the "Lib-Labs") from the 1880s. Unemployment benefits and old-age pensions were an innovation of the last wholly Liberal government a century ago. The comprehensive modern welfare system was the brainchild of the Liberal economist and social reformer William Beveridge rather than of the Labour Party on which its shortcomings are often blamed.

Attempts to reverse such leftward drift likewise predate 2004's "Orange Book" with its advocacy of a more pro-market agenda for the party. In the late 1940s and early 1950s a libertarian fringe managed to influence party policy in a rightward direction, many later drifting toward the Conservatives. The former wing of the party which had under Sir John Simon remained in government with the Conservatives after 1933 itself went on to join the latter party, though its breach with the Liberal mainstream was over its acceptance of protectionism, contrary to classical Liberal tenets.

In recent decades the party has continued to lean to the left on a range of social policy issues while striving to emphasise its separateness from Labour. But on some issues such as reducing the role of central government or limiting regulation of business, the present party leadership is closer to Conservative tenets, and it's significant that of the five LibDem Cabinet ministers appointed to the new government, four were "Orange Book" contributors.

Where does that leave Liberal Democrats in future? The partnership with the Conservatives is likely to run its full five-year course. The coalition deal has already strained relations with Labour, with each side accusing the other of insincerity in wanting to arrive at a satisfactory policy compromise. If, as seems likely, the new government faces voter antipathy for its promised spending cuts, the LibDems could bear the brunt of an electoral setback in 2015. Electoral reform may bring them more seats, but Labour remains well placed to gain a substantial share of their vote while there is likely to be little net transfer between Conservative and LibDem.

Can LibDems head off such a loss of the support painstakingly rebuilt since the election disappintments of 1992-2001? Perhaps, but to do so they may have to reverse their recent drift from social to economic liberalism, a particularly delicate manoeuvre given their government pact with the party whose own strident advocacy of private-sector models pioneered the ascendancy of the market perspective in UK politics. If they can achieve the difficult balance between a progressive social agenda and co-operation with a party still widely considered suspect in the social reform arena, they may yet enjoy at least a taste of the best of both worlds.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

How we voted (or didn't)

Inspired by Democratic Socialist Dave's painstaking number-crunching at Liberal Democrat Voice, I've done a slightly different take on British election data here, excluding Northern Ireland with its own distinctive party setup and extending the series back to 1918.

The chart brings out the recent plunge in electoral participation: voter turnout peaked at 84% of registered electors in 1950 and 83% in 1951 but otherwise remained in the 70-80% range throughout 1922-97 before diving to 60% in 2001-05. Now at 65%, it looks unlikely to regain its former level without radically reinvigorated politics.

A surprising fact is that excepting the somewhat misleading "National" win in 1931 (lumped here under Conservative despite the inclusion of Labour and Liberal elements), only Labour has polled 40% of all potential votes, and not in its winning years of 1945 and 1950, but in 1951 when it went down to defeat in terms of seats in the House of Commons. Since then it’s been downhill most of the way.

The impact of the 1981 SDP defection from Labour and the new party's alliance with the then Liberals is readily apparent in the abrupt narrowing of the Labour and "Lib" shares in 1983. But equally remarkable is Labour's gradual recovery of its lost ground over the following three elections, before its decline under the Blair and Brown premierships.

The Tory trend over the past 60 years shows three phases, with a postwar plateau at 38-39% in 1951-59, a remarkably consistent 32% or so in 1964-92 broken only by the defeat of October 1974, and then a precipitous drop (worse even than Labour's in 1983) to the fifth or more of recent years.

Of the three principal parties, that leaves the Liberals/Alliance/SLD's/LibDems: the rise from the early 1950s is quite remarkable. But what's paradoxical is that apart from the gains of February 1974 and 1983 (in the latter case mostly down to Labour's split rather than new Liberal votes), the party’s share fell at each election from 1966 to 2001.

The chart shows the rise of the SNP and Plaid Cymru in the decade to 1974 and of the “other” parties a quarter-century later, with 2010 marking the best year for groupings other than the big three. But the greatest recent advance remains that of the non-voters, who had they been a single party look like they’d have lost every election from 1924 to 1997, but would have won every one since 2001.

A look at combinations of the principal parties reveals some interesting features. The two largest parties' share of votes relative to the whole electorate fell fairly steadily from its 1951 peak of 80% (itself well above the 65% average over 1922-97), its decline to a mere 43-44% at the last two elections punctuated only by a slight recovery in 1966 and more marked bounces in 1979, 1987 and 1992.

The combined Conservative-Liberal share peaked at around half in 1922-31 and 1983-92 but averaged only 41-42% in 1935-79 and declined abruptly to around a third in 1997-2005 before recovering to 40% in 2010.

The greatest overall stability is shown by the combined Labour-"Lib" share: except in the aftermath of the 1931 Labour split and Liberal collapse, the two parties' vote remained remarkably steady at around 41-42% of the electorate over the whole of 1922-97: despite the intervening plunge in overall turnout their appeal showed similar constancy at 35-36% in 2001-10.

What does it all mean? The most alarming feature is that of the 37 percentage point loss of the two leading parties since their peak, most appears to represent voters lost entirely to the electoral system. Most of the remainder has gone to the Liberals, but half of the five million voters lost to the electoral system in 1997-2001 have yet to return. Had non-voters been a party, they'd have lost every election in 1924-97 but won every one since.

The relatively steady "Lab+Lib" rating seems to lend some support to Labour and left Liberal claims for the persistence of a natural "centre-left" constituency, though it must be added that while the two parties' fortunes seem closely linked, they're inversely linked. Labour's loss is LibDems' gain, and vice versa.

Can the same be said of today's governing "centre-right" coalition? To a degree, if we adjust for the exceptional period after 1981 when the Liberal-SDP vote includes a large component that might be considered historically Labour. But to the extent that the decisive fault-line determining election outcomes appears to lie at the Labour/LibDem margin, it may be said that national contests have tended to be decided by shifts between this notional "centre+right" on the one hand and Labour on the other.

That said, since 1981 it’s the LibDem and Labour votes that have tended to move in opposite directions at each election. The implication is that LibDems’ greatest opportunities – and vulnerabilities – lie on the left. That means that they need to be very wary of becoming too closely identified with their new coalition partners: you don't appeal to voters on the left by being seen as a party of the right.

That’s not a case against coalition, but rather a reason to be cautious in adopting a stridently anti-Labour tone – easier said than done when they’re the newly-dethroned Opposition and still smarting and it’s their job to throw everything they’ve got at you, but sometimes you have to be a little thick-skinned if you want to get ahead or even hold your own.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

A lesson from history

The admirable Liberal Democrat History Group website offers this timely reminder of the risks of getting too close to your coalition partners:

In 1918, it was generally felt that there was little difference between the main parties and the horror of war had made traditional party warfare seem insignificant. The prospect of fusing the Conservative and Liberal parties together was therefore one that attracted some support from certain quarters. The New Members Group, which comprised of newly elected younger members such as Oswald Moseley, were particularly drawn to the idea following their gruesome and humbling experience on the battlefield. Key figures such as Christopher Addison and Winston Churchill also favoured a less partisan course and Churchill famously addressed the New Members Group at the Criterion Restaurant in July 1919.

Lloyd George's agent, Freddie Guest, was also a major supporter of the idea and regularly briefed his political master on the issue. The concept of establishing a new centre party was one that particularly appealed to Lloyd George, given that he lacked his own secure political position having become estranged from most of his Liberal colleagues during the course of the war. Aware that he could not remain at the head of a coalition government forever and having burnt his bridges with the Liberal Party, the prospect of taking his own supporters into a more long-term alliance with moderate Tories became one that enthused Lloyd George. Moreover, the prospect seemed achievable, given that key Tories such as Austen Chamberlain and Arthur Balfour were supporting the idea by the spring of 1920.

Just before the end of 1919, a number of Coalition Liberals and senior Tories gathered at Lord Birkenhead's house to discuss a fusion between the two groups in order to resist the growing threat of socialism, as Labour gained increasing support at the polls. The prospect of a five to ten year programme for government was discussed and Birkenhead himself began touting support for the idea in the pages of the Weekly Dispatch.

A draft manifesto was produced, with Fisher acting on behalf of the Liberals and Birkenhead and Robert Horne putting forward the Conservative case. Negotiators even discussed a name for the new group, with Lloyd George favouring the adoption of the United Reform Party. By the beginning of 1920 the manifesto was complete and on 16 March, Lloyd George presented his plans to the Coalition Liberal Ministers, two days before the Tory leaders were due to deliver their plans to their colleagues. However, Lloyd George had grossly over-estimated the extent to which his colleagues would support the plans, which were rejected by both Coalition Liberal Ministers and backbenchers alike. According to Geoffrey Searle this rejection was fuelled more by accident than design; Lloyd George fatally presenting fusion as a purely negative reaction to socialism, which alarmed those Coalition Liberals who were reluctant to finally abandon their Liberal roots.

As a result, the opportunity to overhaul the existing political system passed. Although this allowed Lloyd George to re-unite with his former Liberal colleagues at a later date, Liberalism would never again be the powerful ideological force that it had once been and the Liberals would soon emerge as the third party in a newly aligned two-party system.

It's a relevant lesson for today's Liberal Democrats: constrained from attacking their Conservative partners in government, their inclination will be to concentrate their fire against the Labour Party as it enters a long period in Opposition. But to do so risks alienating both left-leaning Liberals and potentially sympathetic Labour supporters, wrecking the party's long-stated dreams of a realignment incorporating the latter and perhaps even jeopardising its own independence and cohesion. Nobody said this was going to be easy. Navigating through the perils of coalition could be harder than the leadership ever imagined in concluding last week's deal.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

First Coalition measure to fall?

Barely two days into David Cameron's premiership, this blog confidently predicts which will be the first proposed measure to be abandoned by his Conservative-Liberal Democrat (or as he generously calls it, "Liberal Democrat-Conservative") coalition ministry.

As part of their May 11 agreement to govern jointly, and in line with Liberal Democrats' preference for fixed-term Parliaments, the two parties agreed to secure the deal for the full five years of the new House of Commons by undertaking to provide for premature dissolution of the legislature (in other words, an early election) only if 55% or more of MPs vote in favour. Historically the decision to go to the country for a fresh mandate has effectively been the preserve of the Prime Minister, though dissolution is formally the act of the reigning monarch, who may enjoy some discretion in the matter in exceptional circumstances.

The proposed provision is intended to lock the two coalition parties into co-operating for the whole period of their pact. Their reasoning is that in the event of a parting of the ways, neither the Tories nor all other parties combined (including Liberal Democrats) will be able to seek a new majority at the polls, as neither rival bloc could get the 55% in the House of Commons. Since neither can thus "cut and run", each will have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo which alone guarantees each a role in a government enjoying a large majority.

So far, so good. The problem is that should the coalition break down despite its leaders' best efforts and the two parties find themselves on opposite sides of the House, no party on either side would be able to assemble much beyond the barest of majorities. Should some of the smaller parties oppose a successor Administration on key votes while refusing to support its opponents in an alternative governing majority, government business could grind to a halt. And with neither prospective governing bloc able to approach the 55% needed to call a fresh election, in the absence of agreement across the House there would be no way out of the deadlock without effectively nullifying the proposed requirement.

The fundamental problem here is that as it stands, the proposal makes an early election impossible in precisely the circumstances when it's most needed - that is, when no convincing majority can be found for anything. In an evenly-divided Commons, it's a sure bet that should one side favour an election as offering it the chance for more seats, the other will calculate that it's in its interest to stick with the current Parliament and dig in its heels. That's why the 55% requirement is at odds with the very stable government its architects claim to seek.

It's a sloppy proposal, born of two parties' keenness to cement their alliance by pledging their commitment to long-term collaboration. Their agreement not to seek an early dissolution in the absence of an unlikely degree of parliamentary backing is entirely legitimate as an arrangement between them. But in proposing to make their mutual undertaking binding on all parties (probably through a "binding resolution" of the Commons) and then, worse still, to incorporate it in legislation applying to future Parliaments, the coalition partners have confused political expediency with constitutional desirability.

The proposal has already been questioned on grounds of both workability and constitutionality. It does appear to have been drawn up in the heat of the moment as a mutual assurance of good faith between two parties concluding a compact unfamiliar in UK politics. As permanent legislation or even as a resolution deemed to bind the present Parliament, it could prove at best problematical, at worst profoundly dangerous. The governing parties have enough on their plate without fighting on such questionable ground. They should accept that they've already gone to remarkable lengths to pledge themselves to each other, and leave it at that.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Best laid plans?

David Cameron has spent much of the day fleshing out his new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government following his appointment as Prime Minister in the wake of Gordon Brown's resignation. Of the principal appointments, George Osborne becomes Chancellor of the Exchequer, former Tory leader William Hague Foreign Secretary and former Chancellor Ken Clarke (briefly tipped to get his old post back) Justice Secretary. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg will as Deputy Prime Minister have responsibility for reforms to the political system, while his party's Treasury spokesman Vince Cable goes to a Department of Business shorn of its higher education role (and in fact looking suspiciously like the one we had until eleven months ago). Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith is expected to be appointed Work and Pensions Secretary, apparently as a concession to the party's right wing. Commentators have noted the unexpectedly generous allocation of Cabinet posts to the junior governing party, in line with Mr Cameron's pledge of a "proper and full coalition".

Of still greater interest is the agreement between the two coalition partners. Much of its content had already seeped into the public domain, but the full seven-page document is remarkable as a record of the parties' undertakings not to mere voters whose whims can notoriously be sidestepped, but rather to each other. As a blueprint for government it's very much an outline, understandably amid circumstances of economic uncertainty and an unexpected inter-party arrangement. As a statement of what the parties have agreed and what each has conceded, it makes revealing reading. Gone for the duration are LibDem hopes of Proportional Representation, along with Conservative plans to raise the Inheritance Tax threshold to £1 million. Tories will get both their £17bn renewal of the Trident nuclear missile programme and £6bn of controversial government spending cuts this year (approved today in a surprising statement by Bank of England governor Mervyn King), and have even saddled a LibDem Treasury minister with the task of identifying where the latter money's to come from. Gains for low-paid workers from raising the Income Tax threshold in Line with LibDem policy seem likely to be offset in part by higher employee National Insurance contributions (though employers have been spared such an increase in payouts), but there's to be a restoration of the link between the basic state pension and average earnings, again offset by an earlier start in raising the pensionable age.

All this is only a start. Conservatives are determined to reduce the large annual government fiscal deficit occasioned by the recession and 2008 bank bailout, and to reduce the projected cumulative national debt far below its expected level of £1.4 trillion in 2014. Reconciling the resulting austerity measures and likely increases in indirect taxes with the Liberal Democrats' social policy agenda will be an uphill task. Labour politicians are already claiming an influx to their party of grassroots LibDem defectors horrified by Tuesday's deal: the majority of the party will doubtless follow its MPs and Federal Executive in supporting their leaders' coalition venture, but the electoral stakes remain high.

One curiosity of the arrangement is that the two-party alliance is to last for a full Parliament, with the next election due on 5 May 2015 and quinquennial elections to follow, and with a majority of 55% of the Commons required for an early dissolution. This last device is designed to reassure Liberal Democrat MPs that their larger and far richer partner won't scrap the deal at a moment favourable to it and seek a mandate to rule alone, though its suitability as a permanent constitutional mechanism may be questioned. Oddly, though, it emerged today that the two parties will continue to campaign independently, putting up rival candidates against one another at by-elections: this will probably entail some loss of seats after the government's initial honeymoon period, but that is unlikely to threaten its survival. What it means for the Liberal Democrats remains to be seen.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Better late...

"Dave new world", declares tomorrow's Sun with blistering originality.

Remember where you heard it first.

Dave new world

So we're to have a Cameron government, even though its composition seems as yet uncertain. There have already been inevitable grumblings - ironically from the very media that wanted him out immediately - that the outgoing premier's abrupt departure may have left his rival in the lurch given that Liberal Democrats have yet to ratify their deal with the Conservatives. It's true that we could have done with a more leisurely transfer, but the pressure on the Prime Minister to go even before an alternative Administration was ready had reached ludicrous proportions.

Commentators anticipate a full Tory-LibDem coalition rather than the alternative scenario of a Conservarive-only minority government with Liberal Democrat support on confidence votes. This should be greeted with a collective sigh of relief from all who hope not to see a repeat of the Conservative excesses of the 1980s. As head of a coalition government, Mr Cameron will have to take his allies' views into account on day-to-day policy matters rather than going it alone and presenting the Commons with the choice of "back me or sack me", as under the "confidence and supply" option.

The new government will command a healthy majority of 83 over all other parties in a House reduced to 645 by the absence of the five Sinn Fein representatives. This should be enough to override likely rebellions on either the Tory right or the LibDem left - a luxury unavailable to the proposed alternative of a Liberal-Labour-Nationalist "progressive alliance".

Numerically, the Conservative-LibDem bloc will be strong. But ideologically, it faces formidable challenges. Liberal Democrat supporters largely consider themselves heirs to the non-socialist progressive centre-left, a stance far removed from core Tory philosophy. Mr Cameron has done much to smooth Conservatism's rough edges, and may well be the nearest to a "One Nation" Tory electable by his backbenchers since the party's abrupt move to more hard-line ideological stance under Mrs Thatcher. But Tory values remain fundamentally at odds with LibDem notions of "social justice".

That said, a Cameron-Clegg alliance can be workable. It won't be easy. Conservatives will have to abandon some of their cherished ideals of minimising the tax burden on the more affluent classes who they see as the nation's economic drivers. LibDems have already had to accept that Proportional Representation in parliamentary elections - their goal for decades - will be off the agenda for the duration. They are reported to have extracted an agreement to pursue an increase in the income-tax threshold, but that will be phased in as government finances permit, and may not be achieved within the lifetime of the present Parliament. On the key question of whether to slash £6bn from public spending this year or next, when the economy may be better placed to survive such a measure, the Tories seem to have had their way, provided there's no marked economic deterioration beforehand. But further savage cuts may come later rather than sooner, which cannot but be favourable to the country's growth prospects in the next 18 difficult months.

The greater risk is faced by Liberal Democrat leaders: if they fail to act as a brake on full-blooded Conservative social policy they may yet face a ferocious backlash from their own voters at the next election. Their party is already poorly-placed financially to contest another contest, and their hope must be that they can restrain their partners' impulses sufficiently - and for long enough - to position themselves as the party which tamed the Tory beast and delivered financial stability without concentrating the costs on the least advantaged. If they fail to deliver that, Labour will be the big winners, fighting not one but two parties tainted by their support for a government of cuts at the expense of the poor.

Nutty quote of the day

"It's exactly what Mugabe did you know, he lost the election and scrabbled to hold onto power."
- Malcolm Rifkind, former Conservative Foreign Secretary, speaking of Labour's May 9-11 discussions with the Liberal Democrats on a possible new government

Monday, 10 May 2010

A sad day for democracy

Gordon Brown's decision to resign represents a sad day for British politics. A leader who actually did surprisingly well electorally given the disastrous state of the economy he'd presided over has been driven out not by his party but by the imagined ire of an electorate of whom only 36% voted for his only serious challenger. If Mr Brown was so hated by the electorate as some of his enemies insist, the premiership would be David Cameron's without the latter having to seek deals with a party whose grassroots largely hate everything he stands for. This should have been if not a Conservative landslide, at least a comfortable win: that it wasn't disproves much of the case for the outgoing Prime Minister's alleged toxicity as a political asset.

For all his failures to reverse the economic vulnerabilities accumulated over the past three decades, history will pass a far kinder verdict on Brown than some of the frothing vitriol spouted by his less rational critics. He'll leave Labour if not in government - an almost incredible thought mere days ago - at least well-placed to come back from Opposition after a spell of Conservative-imposed cuts backed by the only other major national party claiming centre-left credentials. After a disastrous premiership and an almost equally disastrous election campaign he did astonishingly well to even be in contention, if only for days. For that his party should be grateful to him.

Spot the winner

So we're still in the dark as to which parties will govern Britain after the tied May 6 general election. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has had discussions with both Conservative leader David Cameron, now head of the largest party in Parliament, and Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, now heading a caretaker government until the composition of a new Administration is determined.

To the uncertainty inevitably surrounding a hung Parliament is added British (or at least English) unfamiliarity with the situation: not since February 1974 have voters returned a House of Commons in which no party commanded a majority (though governing parties lost their overall majority through by-election losses or defections in 1977 and 1996). On top of that, there's the pressing issue of the nation's finances, compounded in the past week by uncertainties about the future of the Eurozone following the Greek crisis and fears of possibly having to similarly bail out the Portuguese, Spanish and perhaps Italian governments.

Not surprisingly, there have been expressions of impatience with the duration of the talks (principally between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats) on assembling a new parliamentary majority, a routine happening on the Continent but one not seen at Westminster since the "Lib-Lab Pact" of March 1977. Sections of the media demand that Mr Brown should leave office immediately, even though there's no majority leader to replace him until a deal is finalised between two or more parties. Liberal Democrat supporters remain divided over whether to support the Conservatives as the larger party, or join with Labour with whom many feel a closer affinity on social policy issues. Some Conservatives argue that their party should go it alone and form a minority government in the hope that it can govern with the support or abstention of others on a case-by-case basis as individual measures come before the House.

Much has been written of the Parliamentary arithmetic which makes a Conservative-Liberal Democrat bloc by far the stronger arrangement, at least on paper. Of 650 MP's (including one Conservative still to be returned in a May 27 by-election), only 645 will take their seats, Northern Ireland's five Sinn Fein representatives traditionally refusing to take the oath of office. Of the 645 who will sit, the Conservatives will have 307 (including the Speaker, with a casting vote only to be used in the event of a tie), Labour 258, Liberal Democrats 57 and smaller parties 23 (Democratic Unionist Party 8, Scottish National Party 6, Plaid Cymru 3, Social Democratic & Labour Party 3, Alliance Party 1, Green 1 and Independent Unionist 1).

A Conservative-Liberal Democrat bloc would have 364 seats to 281 for all other parties, a healthy numerical majority but one requiring much soul-searching in two parties with widely differing agendas. Liberal Democrats have made much in recent decades of their commitment to social justice, something in which they have more in common with Labour than a Conservative Party associated since the Thatcher era with rolling back the state and reducing welfare and social provision. On the key (for Liberal Democrats) issue of electoral reform, Labour offers far more than the Conservatives will be prepared to concede.

One problem for Mr Clegg is his pre-election undertaking in the event of a hung Parliament to seek a deal first with the party that won most seats and votes, a rash promise which he appears to have sidestepped by indeed talking first to Mr Cameron's Tories, but then engaging in less formal exchanges with Labour while the Conservative-Liberal Democrat negotiations remain ongoing. Some have condemned this as duplicitous, but given that a pact with the Conservatives could take a week or more to finalise, and might yet prove unacceptable to his own party, it would hardly be in anyone's interest for him not to explore possible alternative arrangements.

Can an alternative arrangement be found? SNP leader Alex Salmond certainly thinks so, having offered a "progressive alliance" with Labour and LibDems, involving also the SNP's Plaid Cymru allies in Wales. Critics have suggested that a bloc of so many parties would be unworkable. Would it have a majority? Well, yes. Here are the relevant numbers:
Labour 258
SDLP (allied with Labour in the last Parliament) 3
Liberal Democrats 57
Alliance (Allied with the Liberal Democrats) 1
Plaid Cymru 3
Green 1
All other parties 316 (excluding Sinn Fein, who don't sit)

There is no ideal arrangement: A centre-left coalition would inevitably face difficulties if spending cuts threatened to impact on Scotland and Wales: Plaid Cymru has already requested more money for Wales, and the SNP would like more powers - and the budgets for them - transferred from Westminster to Edinburgh. But a left-of-centre government could at least prioritise concerns for social cohesion in making the cuts that most consider inevitable, and Labour and LibDems are united in opposing the immediate drastic reduction of government spending that many economists warn would abort Britain's incipient and still fragile recovery.

That hasn't stopped a large number of commentators from claiming that alliance with - or at least support for - Mr Cameron is the only proper course for Mr Clegg's party. 307 seats (16 short of an overall majority of sitting MPs) confers, it is suggested, some entitlement to govern, with or without a formal majority. In fact no such entitlement exists: constitutionally the premiership goes to whoever can command the confidence of Parliament. If Mr Cameron can do that, the office is his: until then it isn't. The "Cameron now!" chorus loses whatever legitimacy it might otherwise claim when you recall that the Conservatives received only 36% of the popular vote - more than Labour's 29%, admittedly, but hardly a ringing endorsement when Labour has presided over the worst economic downturn in decades. Consider instead the closeness of proclaimed Labour and Liberal Democrat social objectives, and the 52% for the two principal "centre-left" parties looks almost like a majority.

A possible Labour-LibDem pact is derided in pro-Conservative circles as a "coalition of losers". In fact the election produced no winners, neither numerically in parliamentary votes, nor morally in terms of a mandate to govern. The Liberal Democrats failed to achieve the gains they'd anticipated, falling well short of the 70-odd seats predicted by opinion poll projections, and even lost seats that they'd considered relatively safe. The Conservatives performed worse than expected against an unpopular government and a Prime Minister subject to unprecedented media venom. If anyone has cause for satisfaction, it's paradoxically Mr Brown, whose party lost its majority but remains strong in its heartlands and remains in contention for government, even if only by a whisker. A Tory-LibDem government will be a coalition of losers just as much as a Labour-LibDem one: it's the former pairing that did most disappointingly against a backdrop of "New Labour" failure.

There's no dream scenario for any party here: in order to govern and rein in the nation's growing debt, Conservatives will have to set aside some of their instinct to preserve the wellbeing of the better-off whom they see as essential to recovery; Labour faces the nightmare of having to run down cherished social provision when it's most needed; Liberal Democrats risk alienating some of their supporters whichever party they support in government; even Scots and Welsh Nationalists might extract key concessions for their parts of the UK, but they risk a voter backlash if they push for too much and wreck their own "progressive" coalition to the advantage of the Conservatives who remain overwhelmingly an English party still widely blamed elsewhere for Scottish and Welsh hardship in the 1980s.

Whoever ends up in government faces a formidable challenge: any party or combination of parties will find itself cutting social provision on which millions depend; any alliance will find its member parties disagreeing on social policy or spending priorities, even assuming that the EU project remains on hold rather than resurfacing to divide Tories from LibDems even if it doesn't rip apart the Conservatives as it did in the mid-1990s. And at the end of it all whoever's in charge risks a ferocious electoral backlash: the Conservatives for being prevented by reliance on their allies from delivering full-blooded Tory policies to their core supporters; Labour for imposing what its supporters used to call "Tory cuts", and the LibDems for either compromising their social values by allying with the Conservatives, or allegedly keeping a rejected Labour Party in office.

There are no winners among the parties. The real winners may for once be the rest of us, spared the worst excesses of Conservative dogma under a Cameron-Clegg alliance, or delivered more measured adjustment of the present fiscal mess under a Labour-LibDem pact. Whoever governs, we're less likely to see the kind of "shock therapy" that Mr Cameron's less enlightened colleagues would consider appropriate for those they consider undeserving of better, and for that the electorate should be congratulating itself.