Friday, May 07, 2010

Brits: The Morning After

Brits: The Morning After

Or rather the afternoon after, as negotiations went on hold for a couple hours sleep for all involved.

To get you up to speed, the last* result was declared a couple hours ago. (The * is because one seat will have a late election; that's how they do it when a candidate dies.)

The hung parliament appears to be a UK politics junkie's wet dream, just like old American political journalists still fantasize about brokered conventions. With 326** seats needed for a majority, here's how the seats shake out:

Conservative 306 (gain of 97)
Labour 258 (-91)
Liberal Democrat 57 (-5)
Democratic Unionist Party 8 (Northern Ireland hardline Protestant, -1)
Scottish National Party 6 (no change)
Sinn Fein 5 (hardline Northern Ireland republican, no change)
Plaid Cymru 3 (Welsh independence, gain of one)
Social Democratic & Labour Party 3 (moderate Northern Ireland republican, no change)
Green 1 (same as our Greens, first ever seat)
Alliance Party 1 (Northern Ireland non-sectarian, first ever seat)
Independent 1 (northern Ireland moderate protestant)

The ** is for Northern Ireland's Sinn Fein. They don't actually take their seats (Irish Republicans don't swear allegiance to the English Queen) so in reality 645 MPs will be seated. So in a pinch one could argue that 323 is a majority--which may matter.

The Liberal Democrats, despite losing seats when they were expected to make double digit gains, are the kingmakers. The law says the incumbent prime minister gets first crack at building a coalition, but the Lib Dem leader says the Conservatives, having won the most seats, should try to form the government.

Complicating matters: the Lib Dems price is electoral reform, so that they can win seats in proportion to their votes. Conservative leader Cameron is willing to discuss it but probably won't be able to sell it to his members. The offer on the table seems to be: the Tories will give the Lib Dems a referendum or a study on the electoral system issue, but will actively oppose it. Doesn't sound like a very generous offer.

Labour is more willing, and probably more able, to make that deal, but there's another condition being floated: someone other than Gordon Brown as prime minister. Ideologically, the Lib Dems are closer to Labour than to the Tories, but Liberal Leader Nick Clegg hates Brown. Plus, the "Gordon Brown has been rejected" argument has some currency. Remember, he took over in mid-term, vice present style, from Tony Blair and was elevated unopposed to party leader, so this was his first big electoral test.

Even if Labour (under Brown or someone else) and the Liberals do ally, 258 plus 57 only adds up to 315. At that point they could try to stumble along, issue by issue, as long as they can. Add six Scots Nats (Conservatives won only one Scottish seat making SNP a very unlikely Tory ally) and the three from Northern Ireland's SDLP, a historic Labour ally, and you get 324 -- a one seat majority when you subtract those five abstentionist Sinn Fein members.

The Tories, too, could try to stumble along with a minority government. The eight Democratic Unionists gets them to 314; almost exactly equal to Labour plus Lib Dem. (Subtract one because the Speaker, who happens to be a Tory, doesn't vote and by tradition is not opposed by the other big parties. Usually that one seat is insignificant, but not today.) They won't gain the Northern Ireland independent; her break with the old Ulster Unionist Party was explicitly over their alliance with the Tories.

All this disproportionately magnifies the importance of those various shades of Green and Plaid (think of them as the favorite son candidates in the brokered convention), both in forming the government and, later, in bringing a government down. Not to mention that one delayed vote and the possibility of special elections ("by-elections") if results are challenged in places that had voting irregularities. (The closest race appears to have been a four vote win; but that's a Sinn Fein seat so it has no impact on the coalition-building.)

So it's hardball all around. My bet is that the Times' prediction is the best: "the only certainty is another general election." They had two eight months apart in 1974.

From the source:
  • Telegraph
  • BBC
  • Times
  • Guardian
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