Kingmaker, Reformer Or Patsy?


Since this article was published yesterday, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has announced that he plans to resign as leader of the Labour Party, probably by September, improving Labour’s chances of gaining the support of the Liberal Democrats to form government.

A race too close to call, campaign gaffes that will go down in history, a potential constitutional crisis post-election and the rise of a third force on the British political scene — what else could a political obsessive want out of an election?

How about not knowing who the Prime Minister is going to be four days after the poll?

As a flurry of talks continues and well dressed men are filmed jumping out of cars and rushing into historic London buildings, people are none the wiser as to what government will result from this fascinating election. The Liberal Democrats with their 57 seats offer both main parties a chance at power, however unstable that might turn out in a hung parliament.

If you add their 57 seats to the Conservatives’ 307, you have a narrow majority of nearly 40 seats in the 650 seat House of Commons. Governments have governed with such a small majority before but as the last Conservative prime minister, John Major, found, it makes for difficult governing with backbenchers more able to rebel on issues of importance to them.

But adding the two together appears increasingly difficult. That’s because the Liberal Democrat party, which traces its origins back to the Liberal Party that governed Britain at the start of World War I, has one cherished dream. And it’s the one dream that the Conservatives can’t make come true: electoral reform. The party has called for it since the 1920s and this may be their best chance to achieve it — but almost certainly not with the Conservatives.

Electoral reform as proposed by the Liberal Democrats is the stuff of Conservative party nightmares as it will allow the smaller parties, and especially the Liberal Democrats, to more accurately reflect their share of the votes in future parliaments. Given that the combined polling numbers of the Liberal Democrats and Labour total around 60 per cent consistently in modern times, the chance of a centre-left "progressive coalition" between the two really disturbs the Conservatives and a new electoral system makes it much more possible. The Conservatives argue the current system produces strong decisive governments rather than "talkfest" coalition governments with all their attendant wheeling and dealing.

So even in these desperate times, the most that Conservative leader David Cameron has offered Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg is an inquiry into electoral reform. This is much the same as Tony Blair did in 1997 — with his Liberal Democrat friend and former Labour luminary, Roy Jenkins, chairing the inquiry. The 1998 Jenkins report was not acted on but it’s widely argued that the existence of his report nullifies the need for a new inquiry. Perhaps predictably the report called for a form of proportional representation to better reflect the will of the British people as well as serious reforms to the unelected House of Lords.

Well may Jenkins have recommended proportional representation. In the 1983 election won by the Conservatives’ Margaret Thatcher, Jenkins stood for the Liberal Democrats (known then as the Social Democrat-Liberal alliance). His party polled just 700,000 (or 2 per cent of the national vote) less than Labour did — yet the British electoral system delivered 209 seats to Labour and only 23 to the Liberal Democrats.

What about in this election? Twenty three per cent of the electors voted Liberal Democrat on the day but that delivered less than 9 per cent of the seats in Parliament. Is it any wonder then that leader Nick Clegg’s popular predecessor, Charles Kennedy, urged Clegg to focus on electoral reform above all else in his talks with the main parties?

And given that the Conservatives can’t offer this, Clegg may have to turn to the dreaded Gordon Brown and Labour.

I say dreaded because Clegg fears the electoral backlash should any deal see Brown remain Prime Minister. He is not popular and Labour’s election results reflected that. Labour have offered the Liberal Democrats a referendum on electoral reform but Brown must go before then for Clegg to be comfortable. Brown has indicated that he will go in due course, which, given the history of his obsessive relationship with power, is a huge concession. One Labour backbencher has already publicly called for him to go. Indeed sources told The Guardian that members of Brown’s cabinet have secretly asked the Liberal Democrats to make Brown’s departure a deal breaker in any negotiations with Labour — incredible stuff. It’s the only possible way forward that they can see.

But this option still remains difficult for Clegg, not least because when you add Labour and Lib Dem seats together you don’t get an outright majority, meaning minor parties will need to be herded on to the same platform as well.

It should be remembered that should this situation drag on, there is no written constitution in Britain so all is dictated by convention and history. There is an abiding wish from Buckingham Palace that Queen Elizabeth, now 84, not be drawn into any crisis. In the aftermath of the 1929 election and during the pound sterling crisis of 1931, her grandfather, King George V, did influence events but King George was in general far more interventionist in the affairs of state than Queen Elizabeth is.

If the Liberal Democrats fail to agree with either the Conservatives or Labour, Cameron may attempt to govern without a coalition in a minority government. This would make another election in the next year a good deal more likely as happened in 1974 in similar circumstances. It’s already likely in any case. Canada, which has Britain’s voting system, has had minority governments ruling since 2004, so it is possible it will happen. Indeed, Labour in Britain governed as a minority government for a good part of its 1974–79 term, but it had a very difficult time of it. The stories of sick Labour MPs being ferried to Westminster in ambulances from their hospital beds to enforce the Government’s razor thin majority are now the stuff of legend.

Whatever happens, the 2010 election will be regarded as a "seachange" election. Way back in 1979 — the last British "seachange" election — beleaguered Labour prime minister Jim Callaghan, beset by strikes and a struggling economy, gloomily told an adviser before the poll:

"There are times perhaps once every 30 years, when there is a seachange in politics. It then does not matter what you say or do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves. I suspect there is now such a seachange and it is for Mrs. Thatcher."

The canny Welshman was spot on with that prediction. It is 30 years later and the prospects of change in Britain are very real. There is an urge for electoral, parliamentary and financial sector reform.

If talks do result in a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats as kingmakers, just remember it’s worked before. Seventy years ago today — as Hitler unleashed his might on France, Belgium and the Netherlands — in London, Winston Churchill was appointed prime minister of a coalition government. Just yesterday British troops were marching in Red Square, Moscow to commemorate the 1945 victory that Churchill played a large part in achieving.

So coalition governments in times of emergency in Britain can work. With the financial markets ready to strike at any sign of instability and an electorate in uproar at both banks and politicians, it certainly is again time  for some such solution.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.