Two damaging wars, an economic crisis, a government that has served three terms in power, and an unpopular Prime Minister. If you wanted to create the circumstances for an opposition victory in the UK 2010 election you couldn’t do much better than this. Yet the Tories have been unable to win a clear victory in the way Labour did by a landslide in 1997 after 18 years of Conservative rule. In local elections on the same day as the national poll the Conservatives and LibDems lost ten or more councils while Labour gained at least a dozen. Labour has been written off many times in the past. And Britain has been seen as natural Conservative territory that social democracy has to fight to win every time. But, despite heavy losses for Labour nationally, this result doesn’t support such a thesis. One of the most striking things about the 2010 election is that the Conservatives, with an articulate young leader, failed to win more handsomely in circumstances about as propitious for them as it’s possible to get.
Turnout, a key issue for the health of British democracy, was up a bit and decent – 65%. At some polling stations queues snaked around street corners. Voters who couldn’t get in by the close of polls vented their spleen at election officials. But given the closeness of the parties in the polls and the much-discussed leaders’ debates on TV, it was noteworthy that turnout did not rise more. Expenses scandals may have played a part. Key things to find out are whether the 18-24 year olds who turned their noses up at the politicians last time failed to vote again, or whether first-time voters this time joined the ranks of non-participants in electoral politics. This age group is where antipathy to electoral politics has hit hardest. The prominence of issues such as climate change and war should have created a basis for greater electoral participation amongst the young. Data on their turnout will be crucial to understanding the future of British politics.
A small bit of history was made in Brighton. The Green Party won its first ever seat in the national parliament. Under a first past the post system, in what was often a Tory seat pre-1997, the local electorate returned a representative to the Commons from outside the mainstream. Her policies were about fairness as much as the environment and, in an all-female contest, her fiercest competition came from a Labour candidate with similar social justice concerns. This may be quorn country with its own demographic profile. But those who scorn the politics of social movements outside the establishment should take a second look. The labour movement started from such roots before it entered the political sphere. And Labour has now left quite a bit of space towards the egalitarian and green ends of parliamentary politics waiting to be filled. Reform of the voting system would make it easier for parties moving into this space to enter parliament. Other small parties did not achieve the same success. Business returned to normal in former Respect territory. The far right failed to win any seats. In Barking all 12 British National Party councillors were wiped from the political map. The danger of the far-right should not be underestimated. History has shown that race-hate needs just a foothold in democracy and the media to build more power. But this was a trouncing for the BNP. The UK Independence Party, who sound increasingly like the BNP with home counties accents, failed to make any extra ground.
Televised leaders debates, held for the first time and watched by many, suggested that the UK could move to a more volatile politics like the US where voters’ intentions chop and change and the outcome is less predictable. But voters’ willingness to shift to the LibDems’ Nick Clegg, expressed in polls, did not materialize. The election result was not wildly dissimilar to that predicted by many for weeks or months beforehand.
The outcome was a hung parliament where no party has a majority, the biggest party, the Conservatives, seeking LibDem support to make up the numbers. This produced some interesting discourses. One was that the lack of a clear result shows that politics, like society, is ‘broken’, a verdict that does not account for the fact that alternative electoral systems also do not produce clear majorities. Another is that the electorate ‘have told us’ that they do not want one party to rule. But this imposes a unitary personality on 30 million voters. The reality is that those voters were divided between different parties rather than united against any one of them ruling alone.
A result with no overall majority is common under Proportional Representation (PR) but less usual in First Past the Post systems like the UK’s. A different voting system was on the election agendas of both Labour and the LibDems, to produce a distribution of seats that better reflects the spread of votes. The party leaders looking for deals to secure a majority is a test for what a more proportional system would lead to. But majority-making deals prevent the sort of transparent, planned approach New Labour had in 1997, at least in economic and social policy. Instead it leads to policies decided one-by-one in post-election backroom negotiations. Who is to govern after the 2010 election is the decision of elites from the two or three main political parties, the most significant being those from the party with the least votes. Some agreed with Nick in the UK election. But only 23%. In coalition politics smaller parties wield influence out of proportion to their support. What is proportional in PR in terms of votes and seats can lead to disproportionality in government power. The voter gets a fairer say in their MP on election day; less so in the formation of government and policy when they wake up the day after.
Under a minority government the opposition can vote down government policies too often for it to stagger on. With such a government the bookies will be taking odds on another election in the near future. Between now and then the Conservatives will have either made hard decisions, or avoided them to keep up electoral support. Neither may go down well and voters could resent the government for instigating another election campaign so soon. At this election Labour and the LibDems took 52% of the vote, and centre-left and liberal parties took just over 50% of the seats. While Britain has often been seen as a naturally Conservative country it has also been said to be one where progressive anti-Conservative forces are divided by party but together make up a majority. Labour changing leader could add to the viability of this force at a second election in the near future.
The hung parliament raised some antiquated constitutional issues that rarely come to the fore when election results are clear. The head of state in the UK is a hereditary monarch. She calls on a party leader to form the government but she is not accountable to the people. Not only does the incumbent PM get to choose the election date, he or she is allowed to make the first attempt to form a government after polling day, even if s/he loses. Nick Clegg set the agenda for the shape of the next government by bypassing this convention and first approaching David Cameron. Gordon Brown did not try to hold Clegg to the rules. It’s unlikely the monarchy will be abolished but other constitutional oddities may get swept up in any future political reforms.
Another ongoing issue that has raised its head concerns the political geography of Britain. The South of the electoral map is drowning in blue, the North covered with red, with a similar split along rural-urban lines. These differences can’t be reduced to economic inequalities, but neither can they be divorced from them. Of course there are other complexities, areas where the LibDems are popular or there are nationalist parties. But some of the problems of this divide have returned. Scotland has 59 seats. In 2010 just one was won by a Tory and Labour’s vote north of the border increased, yielding 41 MPs. The Tories won only 8 of 40 seats in Wales. This sort of thing didn’t matter so much when there was a Labour government, and New Labour’s devolution of power ameliorated the situation. But now we are back with a Conservative government, and Scotland and Wales, as far as the UK parliament goes, are ruled by what is effectively an English party. This would repeat the Thatcher years where these two countries did not vote for the government they got landed with time after time.
Beyond the bubble of the UK election, power over what happens in Britain lies with unaccountable corporations and international finance as much as with elected politicians. Political turmoil and uncertainty in the UK does not compare to that on the streets of Greece. Our problems are on a different scale to the conflict and poverty across sub-Saharan Africa. 80% of the world’s population live in developing countries; two out of five people globally live on less than $2 dollars a day. The world is under threat from climate change and nuclear proliferation. At election time obligations to those beyond ourselves can disappear from the political radar. There is space for them to become part of politics again once the buzz of electoral intrigue has died down. Luke Martell, Reader in Sociology, University of Sussex. Luke is author of New Labour , Blair’s Britain , Ecology and Society and The Sociology of Globalization .