Welcome to the election which everyone lost. The voters have returned with a verdict of “none of the above”.
- Labour have done as badly as they did in 1983, so they’re kidding themselves to say it’s anything other than a massive defeat. No way can Gordon Brown expect to stay in office.
- The Tories have also lost. They were up against the most unpopular prime minister people can remember, in the middle of a recession, and 37% of the popular vote is the best they can manage. The verdict of the British people on them was “we don’t trust you guys with a majority, so we’re not going to give you one”.
- The Liberal Democrats never expecting to form a majority government, but their goal was to get a big enough wedge of MPs to be able to form a majority with either of the other two parties. That hasn’t happened, which is why they have also lost.
So now we’re in the post-election period while the parties investigate coalitions, and try to make deals. Commentators from countries with proportional voting (i.e. most countries) are bemused that so many people in Britain find this strange. We seem to have three options:
- A coalition (or some agreement short of a coalition) between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. While the parties are right to enter discussions, I doubt that they’ll be able to hammer out a deal that both parties will be able to accept. The ‘Orange Book’ faction of the Liberals and David Cameron’s moderates may have something in common, but there are a sizeable section of both parties who’d consider such a deal to be anathema.
- A minority Tory government, perhaps doing ad-hoc deals to get certain legislation through. At the moment I think this is most likely option, although it’s likely to end in a second election within a year.
- A Lib/Lab coalition. Sadly I think this is a non-starter; the numbers simply do not add up. They’ll be well short of a working majority, and nobody really wants to cut shady pork-barrel deals with the Scottish Nationalists or Democratic Unionists.
- A grand coalition of all three parties as government of national unity, with David Cameron as Prime Minister. Possibly the least likely of all, and only justified if the problems with the economy are really as serious as some of the more apocalyptic commentators are suggesting.
Whatever happens next, we’re going to be living in interesting times. There’s been a lot of talk about electoral reform during and after this election. Whether or not parties can work together successfully when no one party has a majority will be one test of whether or not both the British people and their politicians can deal with the results of an electoral system which would never give an overwhelming majority to a single party.