Helpful hints for the BBC and anyone else who doesn’t understand British electoral process and current coalition arguments
Given that someone at the BBC appears to have flicked the Universal Stupid Switch and engaged the Screw Impartiality Field, and with the right-wing press now in a total frenzy over the possible collapse of a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition, here are some handy helpful hints for anyone who thinks this is all so unfair:
- The United Kingdom is not a presidential system. This country does not and has never elected a Prime Minister. We elect MPs, who form voting blocs, and those blocs then form the government. Typically, one of the senior members of the biggest party becomes Prime Minister. Sometimes this person is known before the election and sometimes not. Regarding Gordon Brown specifically, he was returned after the 2010 election with one of the biggest majorities in the UK, and so the only ‘election’ for him that mattered was not only sound but also extremely solid.
- Our head of state is the Queen, not the Prime Minister. And she’s unelected, natch.
- The Tories did not ‘win’ the election. The only way one could conceivably say a party ‘won’ a British election was if it got a majority of the vote and/or a majority of the seats in the Commons. The Tories got neither. They got the most votes (although by a smaller margin than people seem to think, because most people aren’t bothering to, you know, read the figures), but that’s all. That’s not, under the UK system, a ‘win’.
- The Tories do not have a mandate to govern. The Tories seem to think it’s terribly unfair that they’re not already running the country, but the unwritten constitution of the UK deems that they should not even have first dibs in trying to form a government. As Prime Minister, it’s actually Brown who could have had first crack at forming a government, unless he’d resigned. That he didn’t was an astonishingly sly political manoeuvre from Brown. The Liberal Democrats were able to fulfil a campaign promise (talk first to whichever party got the most seats), and the Tories showed their hand, which Labour could then better.
- Clegg isn’t two-faced. The Daily Mail today unsubtly calls Clegg two-faced due to him having the audacity to speak to Labour and the Tories. He only said he would talk to the Tories first (against tradition—see point 4), not that he’d definitely do a deal with them. In fact, it would be utterly irresponsible and undemocratic for the Liberal Democrats to not speak to Labour and weigh up the options. Also, ignore the Tory press’s chants of the Liberal Democrats being self-serving regarding the PR red-line. PR threatens the Tories, hence why the Murdoch machine is spooked. It would be far harder for the Tories to get into power under a PR system (although not impossible if the party modernised a little). From a UK standpoint, though, PR will return MPs more in line with what you voted for, which should be the aim of a modern democracy.
- The Tories have not offered the Liberal Democrats anything worth a damn regarding electoral reform. It’s clear from news reports that until Brown said he’d quit later this year the Tories had offered the Liberal Democrats nothing on electoral reform. They’ve now offered a referendum on AV, a system that would change the balance of the Commons, but not by a great deal. It’s not proportional representation, and it can in some cases actually boost seat numbers for larger parties. To that end, this isn’t compromise by the Tories—it’s a gamble that the public will get angry at the Liberal Democrats for not accepting it, because the public doesn’t realise the offer is worthless.
- Labour has offered the Liberal Democrats something worth a damn regarding electoral reform. Labour’s offered AV not as a referendum, but as a bill, which should get through the Commons with the help of other minority parties. They’re then offering a referendum on PR, which, presumably, would enable us to move from AV to AV+ or STV. I would expect any Lab/Lib ‘contract’ to ensure there’s no Labour-wide anti-PR campaign.
- A Lab/Lib coalition wouldn’t necessarily fail. The numbers are such that a Con/Lib coalition would be strong if everyone followed the whip, but it’s clear that unless the Liberal Democrats were contractually obliged to follow all Tory policy, that wouldn’t happen. A Lab/Lib coalition would have the backing of ‘partner’ parties from Northern Ireland, and you can bet the SNP would back things it’s interested in and just ignore those it’s against, in order to ensure PR happens. Yes, the coalition would find it tougher to get things through, but it wouldn’t be impossible (see the SNP in Scotland, ruling as a minority, but still getting things done). And if PR happens, the coalition could call a snap election and be returned with a much more solid number of seats, even if its vote-share dropped. The pity here is that Labour’s apparently too arrogant and stupid to work with the SNP, which would ensure a larger working majority. The more things change…
- A Lab/Lib coalition would have the backing of the majority of the electorate. 52% voted for these parties. It would therefore be the only recent government to govern with a majority backing. By contrast, the Labour party secured just 35% of the vote in 2005, and 41% in 2001. In fact, unless I’m mistaken, the last government with an electoral majority was the short-lived Lab/Lib coalition in 1974 (56%), and the last time any single party was elected with the backing of the majority of the electorate was in 1931, when the Conservatives grabbed a huge 55% on their own.
- What’s happening now is what should be happening. We are talking about the future of our country. We shouldn’t be hoping things would be sorted over a weekend. Even in countries that have had coalitions for decades, it still takes days of negotiation after an election to figure out the way forward. With new coalitions, the process can take weeks, but that’s to ensure things will work and that they will be stable. This is important for the United Kingdom, so, please, the media and the moaners, just let our politicians get on with it. Better that they take a week to get things right than rush into an agreement and screw everything up.