Election 2010 (part 7): Who’s in Charge Here?

The UK woke—well, those of us who slept—to confusion this morning. No party won a majority of the seats in parliament. We have the first hung parliament since 1974. What happens now?

Before I tackle that, I’d better report on how some of the campaigns I’ve been following in this blog panned out. In the country as a whole the Liberal Democrats, whose star rose dramatically after the first televised debate among the party leaders, didn’t live up to expectation. Nobody knows what gave the electorate cold feet. (Don’t worry about the mixed metaphors; you’re going to see a lot of them in this post. I’m considering offering a prize to the reader who finds the most metaphors in this thing.)

It might have been that the LibDem party leader didn’t do as well in the later debates; or perhaps after the first debate when people began to scrutinize LibDem policies they found that no matter how dynamic Nick Clegg seemed to be, they didn’t like what he stood for; or maybe the Conservatives and Labour succeeded in scaring people away from the LibDems with threats of economic disaster and a crashing stock market if one of the two old traditional parties didn’t win outright. In any case, both Liberal Democrats and Labour have fewer seats in Parliament now than they had going into the election, and the Conservatives, although they have no majority, have more.

In Salisbury, that means young Mr Radford, after having been given nearly 50:50 odds by some of the bookies, lost to his Conservative rival, 49% to 37%, with Labour a distant third. King Arthur pulled in 257 votes, or half a percent. He beat the Bible guy, but was beaten by the Green candidate, who had fewer votes than the BNP candidate, who had half as many votes as the UKIP candidate—and the UKIP lady only got 3%, so we’re talking in terms of very small numbers of votes here. (But congratulations go to the Green party, by the way, who did win one seat elsewhere in the country, the first they’ve ever had.)

You hear the phrase “lost his/her deposit” used over here to mean in general that someone has tried but fallen short of the mark; it comes from this kind of election. Everyone who stands (US: runs) has to pony up a £500 deposit, which they get back if they garner at least 5% of the votes. The also-ran candidates literally do lose their deposits, so King Arthur and all the rest, alas, are out of pocket.

STOP PRESS!! Just found that YouTube has a video of John Glen, the Conservative candidate who won the seat to be Salisbury’s next MP, singing the victory song about hoeing turnips. It’s in an old dialect, so he sings “turmut”, but that means turnip. Told you I didn’t make it up. Click here for the video. 

As for the Woking constituency, where I live—and don’t ask me why our little village outside Guildford isn’t in the Guildford constituency because I don’t know—the Tory won as expected, with the tiniest of majorities: 50.3%. And despite Miss Temple’s dark predictions, none of her rivals admitted to irregularities, none withdrew from the race. Her share came in at 44 votes, or one-tenth of 1%. To add insult to injury, the BBC website lists her party as the Magna Carta party—a mistake I made and which she corrected, because hers is the Magna Carta Conservation Party Great Britain; there is a Magna Carta party, but that’s a different group (which also had little success).

The other shocking result is how poorly prepared some polling stations were. Some people who had legitimately registered to vote found their names missing from the printouts used at the polls and so weren’t allowed to vote; one constituency turned away about 600 voters on that basis, which could have made a significant difference. Other polling stations ran out of ballot papers. But the biggest story was the number of polling stations that kept people waiting in queues (US: lines) so long that the polls closed before they could get in. Some have suggested that an unexpectedly large turnout swamped polling station resources, but other reports indicate the turnout was no larger than usual, in fact, given the recent introduction of postal voting (US: absentee ballots) polling stations actually served fewer voters than usual. An official interviewed by the BBC put the problems down to “localized incompetence”.

In some places, police were called to, er, encourage the disappointed voters to leave. Those who left, left angry. Already there are calls for a judicial review; apparently certain judges have the power to negate this election and say there has to be another one right away. Good thing we just make pencilled X’s on paper; you have to hold cheap elections if you might have to do them over again. Legal experts say that a judiical order for an immediate second election is extremely unlikely, although individuals who can prove that their human rights have been violated may be able to bring claims for damages. (That’s all we need.)

Even if it doesn’t come to a legal challenge, we might be looking at another election soon. It’s hard to explain what happens when no party has a majority, so I will refer you to this handy flowchart provided by the BBC.

The first thing to know is that Gordon Brown is still prime minister for the time being, and the government that was in place yesterday remains in place today. (That’s not supposed to happen; the UK doesn’t wait two months after the election for a swearing-in ceremony as the US does. The changeover should be pretty much immediate.) Apparently all of the cabinet ministers retained their Parliamentary seats, which simplifies things. Cabinet ministers such as the Secretaries of State for Defense, or for Trade and Industry, or for Employment could have been ousted by their rivals; that would have left significant gaps in the government unless Gordon Brown, at this point the lamest of lame ducks, should be allowed to name new cabinet members while the party leaders flounder toward a resolution.

What’s going on right now is significant horse trading. Gordon Brown started it at lunchtime, making a statement to the press indicating—between the lines, of course—that 1) he’s in charge, 2) he knows the Tories and LibDems are trying right this minute to do a deal that drops him like a hot rock, but 3) if that fails, he’s waiting for the phone to ring if the LibDem leader comes looking for a relationship on the rebound.

(Whatever happened to “no sex, please, we’re British”? This sex/romance terminology is endemic. Broadcasters want to know who will get into bed with whom. Cameron and Brown are both said to be wooing Clegg. Politicians have been said to bill and coo. These are not images on which I care to dwell.)

Each party leader is trying to “form a government”. Now, the US has its hanging chads and its issues about who’s actually registered to vote, but to an American, forming a government is something that happens automatically when we elect a president, no matter who is elected (and no matter whether it takes a questionable ruling from the Supreme Court to hand the winner the job). There may be gray areas in the election process, but a government springs into being once a winner is determined; nobody has “try to form” one.

So I had to ask a friend what it is to “try to form a government” in this context, and how you can tell whether you’ve done it successfully. If you’ve looked at the flowchart, you’ll see that as parties “try to form a government”, the chart branches depending upon whether they pull it off—but how do you know?

After much discussion, this is how I understand it: Party One, which has a lot of seats in Parliament but not a majority, tries to form a government by doing deals with Party Two (or more than one other party, but let’s keep it simple) such that Party One promises to support Party Two’s policies on certain issues, and promises to allow Party Two’s politicians to fill certain cabinet jobs, in exchange for Party Two’s promise of support for Party One’s policies and ministerial choices. This results in either a coalition government (Party One shares a lot of the power) or a minority government (Party One keeps a lot of the power). You know you’ve pulled it off if the parties left outside your pact concede.

So it all comes down to a staring competition; you have formed a government if you don’t blink first. It’s really, quite literally, a confidence trick. At the same time, it’s oddly elemental, in the same way—told you I’d be mixing metaphors—one lion on the African plain will challenge another for leadership of the pride. Which political animal can convince the others to back off? You can form a government if you can stare the other party down; you can form a government if you have the most convincing roar; you can form a government if you can get away with it.

Would love to sic King Arthur on them at this point. And if the parties cannot resolve the situation, then we’ll have another election anyway.

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