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COMMENT: THE UK ELECTION RESULTS [WITH UPDATE]

 

By Andrew Jack

LONDON, 10 MAY 2010 — There are no riots or large-scale demonstrations, even though many younger and less solid democracies around the world have done better jobs of ensuring all those eligible could cast their votes in elections. 

Thousands of voters turned away with the evening closure last Thursday of voting stations — still relying on antiquated paper ballot sheets and sometimes outdated lists of voters — could yet weaken (though hardly undermine) the legitimacy of the result. 

There is no great panic or palpable nervousness, even if there are few historical precedents and considerable financial as well as political implications that will be triggered by whatever comes next.

For now, there are few signs of any constitutional crisis. But the stakes remain high following last week’s election, which left the UK with a "hung parliament", and locked the political parties into intense negotiations.

The "party of power", Labour, is hanging on for now, with its prime minister Gordon Brown lingering in No. 10 Downing Street although under his leadership it came second by both the number of seats and the popular vote.

The Conservatives remain in waiting. They won the largest share of votes and seats, but ran a lacklustre campaign that failed to make the case to vote for it rather than against the return of Labour. They cannot govern alone.

That gives disproportionate "kingmaker" power to the minority parties led by the Liberal Democrats. Combined with the Conservatives, they could form a ruling coalition — or offer pragmatic vote-by-vote support.

Yet, despite a strong surge in opinion polls, the LibDems can hardly claim a clear mandate. Their share of the popular vote barely changed in third place, and they lost seats overall.

That undermines their suggestion of popular support for their central ideological demand: the reform of the voting system from "first past the post" to "proportional representation."

Ideologically, they are closer to the Labour party, which — in a panic as its support slid in recent months — offered some concessions towards a more proportional system in a new parliament. 

Yet by any measure of political support under their own ideal or the current system, the LibDems have to concede that the Conservatives were more popular than Labour, and should be their first port of call for any coalition.

The problem is that the Conservatives are firmly opposed to proportional representation, and will find it difficult to identify common ground on other measures including over Europe (the LibDems are far more positive) or an independent nuclear deterrent (the opposite).

Equally, the LibDems own tough internal party accountability means that Nick Clegg, the leader, may have a difficult time in keeping his own MPs and militants aligned on a single course.

In short, the people have spoken, but not all who wanted to managed to vote; and what they said was very unclear. 

The only compensation is that, after the predominance of two big parties dominating political debate for three decades, this election will require broader dialogue between the different factions. 

At a time when very significant budget cuts are inevitable to help tackle the country’s deficits, greater accountability, parliamentary debate and the need to forge cross-party consensus may be no bad thing. But it is not something in which the British governance system has much experience. 

As for the international repercussions of the UK elections, the situation is just as ambiguous - but unlikely to lead to any rapid and radical change. 

From opposition, the Lib Dems unlike the Conservatives could claim the moral high ground of consistent criticism of the war in Iraq, opposing it from the start. They also have attacked the UK's "subservient" position to the United States in foreign policy and proved more critical of Israel. Their call to re-examine the country's independent nuclear deterrent with Trident could spark a re-think of international defence policy.

But once with some semblance of power — even in the event they would hold sway on foreign policy in a coalition — such Lib Dem stances could well soften.

The Conservatives historically have always been more suspicious of the EU and defended the UK's "special relationship" with the US Radical change in a government that they lead in the United States or the Middle East seems unlikely.

UPDATE: GORDON BROWN TO STEP DOWN AS PRIME MINISTER

Gordon Brown's resignation marks a fresh escalation in an increasingly desperate courting match for the Lib Dems, just as the Conservatives offered a referendum on electoral reform.

Brown's departure was a precondition for Clegg's cooperation, but would still mark a high risk option for the Lib Dems, given in part Labour's minority result and the fragile nature of any "progressive coalition" which would require a combination with almost all other minority parties.

Andrew Jack is a senior journalist at the Financial Times and the author of Inside Putin's Russia: Can There Be Reform Without Democracy? (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004, 2007). He is also a member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque.com and last wrote on David Hare’s latest play, The Power of Yes at the Lyttelton, National Theatre, London.

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