Monday, 10 May 2010

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.

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