Well, a hung parliament it is, and British politicians are getting ready to enter unknown and potentially dangerous territory: coalition negotiations.
The real problem here is not that the party leaders don’t want to negotiate, but that nobody has any idea of how to do it gracefully. The poor things are quite out of their depth and try to hide their uncertainty by proceeding at breakneck speed.
So here’s some advice from a political observer from a country where coalitions and negotiations are not such much the norm but rather the fundamental revealed truth about all things political.
I will also project Dutch constitutional practice on the British situation, because the whole point of that practice is handling situations much, much more complicated than the relatively trivial three-way problem the Brits are so upset about.
But first, a little flashback.
Exactly what went wrong for the LibDems? It was a classic case of large party contraction. An economically strained climate is not the right time for political experimentation. Better stick with the devil you know. Don’t vote for the smaller parties.
I see it happening here in Holland. The elections polls show voters are moving towards the three big parties, left-wing social-democratic PvdA, centrist christian-democratic CDA, and right-wing liberal VVD. The others, including Wilders, are deflating.
Actually, large party contraction happens all the time in the UK, due to the electoral system. It’s so normal that it isn’t even noticed — until a third party does much better than usual in the polls. And then voters decide to play safe anyway at the last possible moment.
So parliament is hung, and negotiations have started.
I’m fundamentally sympathetic to the notion that the Tories take the initiative. They’re the largest party, after all — both vote-wise and seat-wise. (That one would go without the other is fundamentally alien and somehow distasteful to my mind.)
So Tory-LibDem negotiations are perfectly appropriate.
It seems that Clegg is well to the right of his base, while Cameron is distinctly to the left of his base. That makes it easier for the two party leaders to strike a deal, and afterwards they can both wield the national interest as a stick to get their base to agree.
This is as it should be. Leaders being more moderate than rank and file is one of the cornerstones of Dutch coalition politics.
As to Brown claiming the negotiation initiative due to him being in office, although it seems to be a correct interpretation of the British constitution it’s not really proper behaviour as far as I’m concerned. He’s just lost an election, after all.
Apparently, the UK lacks the concept of a “demissionary government” — a government that continues to run the country while elections and coalition negotiations take place.
The Balkenende IV government fell in February and new elections were called for June, but Balkenende is still prime minister and still runs daily affairs. The only thing he cannot do is propose “controversial” laws — which, unfortunately, includes major economic initiatives.
This state of affairs will continue to exist until a new government has been formed after careful, proper coalition negotiations — probably somewhere in August or September.
That seems like a long time when the serious economic situation demands quick and efficent action. Still, look at it from the other side. Serious economic issues have to be solved, and the nature of the solution is a classic left-right political issue.
Even better, the voters will shortly speak and return a new parliament to deal with the issues. What’s more natural than parliamentary leaders representing their voters the best they can by solving the issues through negotiation?
Granted, the Dutch system is slow, maybe too slow. But the British system is far, far too hasty. Everybody has to be done right now; no time for deliberation or negotiation.
It seems the Tories want a deal to be struck on Sunday, or the City might go jittery on Monday and terribly important financial stuff might start to go down, causing consternation in the ranks of ... well ... the Tories.
Translation: the City is rooting for the Tories and is giving aid and comfort by putting pressure on the other parties.
Point is, you can’t form a coalition in three days. We Dutch commonly reserve three months for this delicate process, and that’s with a century of experience. Although you might argue that three months is rather slow, three days is definitely too fast. These things take time. Especially when they’re unknown and secretly considered somewhat distasteful.
The new government will have to take a lot of impopular decisions about the economy. On the other hand, precedent suggests that a hung parliament leads to new elections pretty soon. Elections, moreover, in which the voters will draw to the big two parties even more than they already did.
So in theory a government that has just taken very impopular decisions must defend itself for new general elections that will disproportionally hurt the LibDems. Which is exactly the party that both Tories and Labour try to woo now.
To make matters worse, the LibDems also hold the key to succesful government — and will be held accountable for any failure to produce it in case new elections are held within the year.
The LibDems must get something worthwhile in return for coalition participation. Electoral reform? Something else? I don’t know, but I do know there’s no way these delicate negotiations can be finished in three days.
The LibDems’ other option would be supporting the Tories (either a minority government or a formal coalition) no matter what so that new elections can be postponed. In other words, becoming the Tories’ most loyal and obedient slave in order to save some seats.
The LibDems are in deep, deep trouble. Trouble you can’t solve in three bloody days.
So the negotiations are going to take a lot longer, or new elections will be held pretty soon, and the LibDems will go down even more.
So Clegg might have to play for time, even if that makes him more impopular. There is no easy way out of this one ... unless the Tories play fair and want a genuine coalition. Precedent suggests this might not be the case.
Labour would do exactly the same, by the way, except that it can’t right now. It’s how the two parties of a two-party system treat the third party.
I don’t think this wouldn’t work in the Netherlands. All voters would immediately see a Tory-LibDem coalition as obvious, and would punish both impartially if the negotiations went wrong. This sort of stuff is part of your job as a politician, so you better measure up.
But that’s under proportional representation, where you can vote for two to four parties without venturing too far outside your political niche. It just doesn’t work that way in a First Past the Post system.
Electoral reform might offer a way out, and the LibDems will certainly demand it. What I plain don’t know, however, is how much the average Brit in the street cares about electoral reform. If the answer is “not bloody much” the Tories will survive saying No.
What would a proportional election look like?
Just for fun I took the 2005 and 2010 election results and treated them as if they had been held under the Dutch system, with the entire country forming one huge constituency, and with a one-seat electoral threshold.
Of course these results are totally un-representative of a true election outcome under some form of proportional representations.
For starters, I don’t think the smaller parties such as UKIP and the Greens participated in many constituencies, so they are underrepresented in the table. In addition, many who now vote strategically would vote for their true party of choice under PR.
I’d say about 50-100 seats over and above what’s shown in the table would move from the three large parties to the smaller ones in case full PR were introduced.
Coalition governments will become the norm. Better start practicing. Lesson 1: take more than three bloody days.
Finally, the BNP. Some British friends have outspoken opinions on them, and would prefer them not to enter parliament, which would inevitably happen under proportional representation.
Point is, you can’t solve this problem by excluding it. Been there, done that, and it just isn’t worth the trouble. If you marginalise Griffin, you’ll end up with a Fortuyn or a Wilders. And I can assure you that Wilders has taken populist nuisancism (is that a word? now it is) to heights that Griffin can only dream of, up to and including the House of Lords.
Better to get it out in the open, debate the issue openly, and know how many people feel that way.
Bigotgate was the classic example of modern social-democratic leadership being in complete state of disconnect with traditional social-democratic voters. We basically saw Brown turning a decent Labour supporter into someone who just might vote BNP-ish next time.
These people aren’t racists, they’re legitimately worried. But you can turn them into racists by ignoring their worries. Ask the Dutch social-democratic leaders about it.
I’ll have to tell you the sad and sordid story of the Dutch extreme right one day. It started just like this: a social-democratic party completely unconcerned with legitimate worries of their traditional electorate, and a decent but misguided wish to keep the bigots out of parliament no matter what. It backfired. Rather dramatically.
Let the BNP get elected, let them have their shout, and let the voters figure out that what they’re proposing is no solution. It takes quite a bit of time, but it works in the long run.
At least, I think it’s starting to work against Wilders at home. His cardinal mistake? He refused to negotiate properly and reached his decision to sulk in an outrageously short time of only two weeks.
Patience is a virtue. I wonder if the Brits learn it this time.
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This is the political blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer, in Amsterdam. It’s a hobby blog where he follows Dutch politics for the benefit of those twelve foreigners that are interested in such matters, as well as his Dutch readers.