The hung parliament will be a huge hangover, warns Eric Walberg
Britain is poised for a long period of political instability as it enters its first coalition government since WWII, when the wartime unity government was led by Winston Churchill with Labour in tow. There was an almost identical situation to the current hung parliament in February 1974, when the Conservatives tried to form a coalition with the Liberal Party, but balked at the demand for electoral reform to allow proportional representation, and Labour was able to cobble together enough votes to survive a few months and win a snap election that year, as it turned out, the last Labour government before the advent of Thatcher.Now it is another Conservative-led coalition with the Liberal Democrats, a coalition in itself founded in 1988 by disaffected centrist Labourites and the remnants of the Liberal Party. Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg will be Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s deputy and the Lib Dems will have five cabinet posts.
Britain’s creaking first-past-the-post constituency system unfairly distributed the votes of a confused electorate, a third of whom voted for the Conservatives, slightly less for Labour and slightly less again for the Lib Dems, leaving an electoral map with 306, 258 and 57 seats respectively to the parties. While a Labour-LD coalition would have made more sense, representing well over half the people, this would have fallen short of a parliamentary majority at 315 out of 649 seats. Scottish Nationalists, Northern Ireland MPs and a lone Green could hardly be counted on. With the writing on the wall, Gordon Brown resigned and an hour later handed the reins of power to David Cameron.
A smooth, 43-year-old politician, Cameron is public school graduate and son of a stockbroker, married to the daughter of a viscount. He has distanced himself from Margaret Thatcher’s ideological, divisive style, calling for a “compassionate Conservatism” and is considered a pragmatist, a traditional small “c” conservative. He inherited a party that many Britons still don’t trust, as reflected in the sharp drop in its ratings as the day of voter reckoning approached, despite the deep unpopularity of Labour. His pseudo-aristocratic manner and thinking are in contrast to Thatcher, whose father was a grocer, and who shrilly turned the Conservative Party into a vehicle of neoliberalism, destroying Britain’s post-WWII collectivist heritage. She was finally ousted but it was too late for her party, and after a short interregnum under the nondescript John Major, the Conservatives began their Long March, their 13 years of exile.
Cameron appears to be a quick learner, having disowned those Conservative MPs implicated in recent financial scandals, and talking the environmental talk. But like other European rightwing leaders, he is determined to restrict immigration and cut social spending severely. How the Lib Dems will be able to support such measures is hard to understand. Like their ill-fated Liberal predecessors, their bottom line is a referendum on proportional representation. But will their unholy alliance last long enough to secure their prize? And will they be so discredited by their association with the Conservatives that the electorate will turn away from them decisively?
No one is happy with the election results or the prospects of a coalition government. A statement by forlorn former Labour MP John McFall says it all: “The result of this election is that we are all losers.” As for his own party, the collapse of Labour’s support stems from Tony Blair’s disastrous support of the Iraq war and financial scandals that followed, leaving voters indifferent or angry and disillusioned. Just as Margaret Thatcher was toppled by her party colleagues for destroying the Conservative Party in 1990, Tony Blair was pushed out in 2007, leaving Brown the hopeless task of trying to salvage “New Labour”.
The results eerily parallel simultaneous elections in Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia, where the ideological equivalents all acted out virtually identical roles, with the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats slumping, the Free Democrats holding the balance of power, the difference being that the Greens garnered 12 per cent and the genuine socialists, Die Linke, broke through the 5 per cent minimum to gain representation in the state for the first time. Like Britain’s parliament, Germany’s upper house is now “hung”. At some point, the British will surely follow their continental brothers in challenging the bankrupt policies of the main centrist parties. The Lib Dem quest for proportional reprensentation, if successful, will help.