There is nothing as fascinating as a juncture where established procedures no longer seem to work. A case in point is the 1973 Danish general election where all existing parties were thoroughly whacked by the voters and five new parties won 30% of the vote (and of the seats in parliament). Political routines which had developed since 1920 had to be thrown out the window and the next six or so years were a pretty bumpy ride as voters and politicians tried to adjust to the new circumstances. Eventually, after a number of trial and errors, politicians in 1982 hit upon the minority coalition as the solution which combined a useful mix of stability and flexibility in a multidimensional political spectrum.
The voters in the UK similarly decided (if “voters” can actually “decide” anything – elections are the outcomes of millions of individual decisions) to pull a nasty trick on the parliamentary elite. Yes, the Conservatives noted a modest but not excessive win. Yes, Labour suffered a defeat but not a debilitating one, and the Liberal Democrats enjoyed the smallest of gains counted in votes and a marginal loss of seats.
Now, the parties face two problems: One short-to-mid-range and one long-range.
The mid-range problem has to do with the economic state of the UK which is complicated enough as it is.
The long-range problem is about constitutional reform, or to be more specific: A reform of the electoral system. The LibDems want some kind of proportional representation (apparently, some kind of AV is the most likely outcome), the Conservatives – in particular backbenchers and members of the party organisation – want to retain the status quo and Labour – well, Labour may be late converts to PR.
One frequent argument against introducing PR is that it will lead to instability and sinister back-room dealings between politicians, presumably moving influence from voters to parliament. The counter-argument is that no UK election since 1901 has resulted in any one party receiving a majority of the votes cast. Strictly speaking, every government since 1945 with the exception of those operating under the Lib-Lab pacts have operated against a popular majority. Parliamentary agency is a fundamental fact in any form of parliamentary government. The Conservatives have been the main beneficiaries for the last 65 years and so it is no surprise that the party organisation would prefer the world in general and Westminster in particular to stay as it was in 1945 (well, actually 1951 would be their year of choice).
This makes the prospect of a C-LD agreement (either in the form of a formal coalition government or a tolerated minority government) puzzling. In policy terms (in particular foreign policy and Europe, the nemesis of John Major and every subsequent Conservative leader) the Conservatives and the LibDems appear to have very little in common and in constitutional policy, they are polar opposites.
So how about Lab-LD? Even if the LibDems are closer to Labour in many areas, Labour never delivered on its loose promises of electoral reform – and let’s face it: Labour managed to hold on to power in 2001 and – crucially – 2005 thanks to FPTP – so there is a credibility issue here. And even more importantly, despite all talk of a rainbow coalition, Labour and the Liberal Democrats do not have a working majority in the new House of Commons. If there had been a majority, a Labour-Liberal Democrat deal would have been a no-brainer and the Conservative backbenchers would already be reaching for their knives.
But now look at the mess: The only viable coalition appears to be C-LD, but LD surrendering to the facts (provided those are the facts) would be a deadly strategy. On the other hand, David Cameron might look weak – especially in the eyes of the Norman Tebbits of the world – if he gave too large concessions.
The relatively weak performance of the Conservative Party in this election could be a blessing in disguise for David Cameron. Sure, a number of die-hards and right-wing newspapers would argue that the Conservatives should just sit out the storm, call a snap election in six months’ time and – whoopla! – the world is back in order and the lower classes know their place in society.
But Cameron could just as well argue that in the short term a coalition with the LibDems is a prerequisite for winning government office, and – hey, we have done business with the LibDems now, so electoral reform (but preferably in the most minimal of alternatives) could in fact help us in the long run. After all, the UK has now had two elections in a row where no party won more than 36% of the vote (okay, 36,1%, but still), despite FPTP. Maybe this kind of fragmentation is the reality of the 21st Century, and the political leader who is the first to realise this and act accordingly could have a big advantage.
Anyway, I foresee a great number of academic papers and books analysing the dilemmas faced by the parties and their strategies in the negotiating process as well as its eventual outcome (I would still put my money on some kind of C-LD deal). Plus endless gabbing by pundits, of course.
Oh, and the post-election process has been interesting in one particular way: Note how civil the politicians have been and that the negotiating process(es) actually appears to have been carried out in a quite professional way. Not a bad performance for a system used to single-party majorities.