Yes, um, OK, the country has no government.
Well OK, it has a government of sorts. Gordon Brown is still the Prime Minister, and this is perfectly proper and constitutional. All day, David Cameron and Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg have been in meetings trying to see if they can come to some sort of agreement that would guarantee a stable government, either for six months, twelve months or a parliamentary term.
Left to their own devices this would be no problem at all. Cameron and Clegg are the same type of people, smooth technocrats, at odds with the true believers in their own party. Cameron, the old Etonian, Bullingdon Club member, who had slid effortlessly into the world of PR and the hinterland of Tory intellectual politics, and Clegg, the one-time young conservative and now ardent free-marketeer, have a great deal to talk about. They would both agree on a series of measures to combat the financial crisis enveloping both the UK and Europe, on foreign affairs, and a range of other matters.
But it’s those damn pesky parties they run that’s the problem.
Behind Cameron spreads a range of Tory MPs both Thatcherite in their attitude to public spending, and increasingly oriented by explicit Christianity in their social values (Anglicanism, the earlier version, is not Christianity. Anglicanism is a set of table manners, with a theology attached).
Behind Clegg is a party overwhelmingly composed of left liberals who would once have been part of the labour movement, driven out of it by Iraq, and Labour’s comprehensive attack on civil liberties in the last ten years.
Currently Cameron is sitting on 306 seats in a 650 seat parliament.*
Labour has 258, and the Lib-Dems a disappointing 57. The Scottish Nationalist Party has 7, Plaid Cymru (Welsh Nationalists) 3, the Greens (Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion) 1, the SDLP in N.Ireland 3, the Democratic Unionist Party X, N.Ireland independents 1 (a former Ulster Unionist Party member who didn’t want to ally with the Tories), and the Alliance (a post-sectarian N.Ireland party) 1.
Labour’s final share of the vote was 29%, the Conservatives 36%, the Lib-Dems 23%. The ludicrous nature of the parties when seats are compared with these percentages is well-established. Indeed everyone was a loser.
The Conservatives would have gained a solid majority if it wasn’t for the 900,000 votes flowing to UKIP, the Lib-Dems would have triumphed in a list system, Labour would have done better out of preferential voting, and so it goes. Yadidadida.
Nor is there any undisputed legitimacy for anyone to form a government. The Tories have the largest number of votes and seats, and should by that measure have the right to form a government but if you were to aggregate party votes on broadly similar platforms, then it would be arguably Labour/Lib-Dem/SNP/Cymru/SDLP/Green with around 60% of the total vote, versus the Conservatives (and maybe the DUP) on around 40%.
Yet on the other hand, one could suggest that there were alternative alignments if the Conservatives are sincere about rolling back Labour’s attack on civil liberties, then a Con-Lib-Dem alliance makes sense. And so on. And on top of that, there is the question of major party commitment to electoral reform. Neither Labour nor Tory want any of it, but Labour has been more amenable to the possibility in the past.
Should the Lib-Dem leadership manage to conclude some sort of deal with the Tories, they will then have to brave the party’s “triple lock” system. The gist of this is that should the parliamentary party agree to a major course of action by less than 75%, then this should go to first a special conference, then to a full poll of the party membership. Since the Lib-Dem membership is well to the left of the party’s leadership, both consultation with the base, and a lack of such will be a problem.
Discussion has already begun not only on a Con Lib-Dem deal, but also a possible Labour/Lib-Dem/minor parties deal, which doesn’t include Gordon Brown as PM, thus giving a fig leaf to the idea that the old discredited crowd haven’t been allowed back in. Rumours were that Clegg’s initial approach to Brown was so mired by the latter going off at him that it propelled Clegg closer to the Tories.
Who knows if true or not.
And there we are. Collective decision making seems impossible, radically different agendas are being run, and the man in the street will be the loser. Also, in the post-election negotiations, things ain’t so hot.
*However this number can be amended to several degrees. The five Sinn Fein MPs don’t take their seats. There’s a delayed election in Thirsk, due to the death of a candidate. The speaker doesn’t vote. So at the moment it’s 642 seats, requiring a majority of 322.