May 2010

All over bar the shooting

As I write, there are still 9 seats to be declared in the UK elections. The initial exit polls appear to have been roughly correct, but pretty much all previous polls over the past three weeks, as well as all the reflected media coverage appear to have been spectacularly wrong. I picture a good week of media self-analysis… in the media, of course… once the actual political outcome has been settled. How did we get it so wrong? they’ll ask themselves. And sell you their answers at 30p a copy. Or beam it into your home for the price of the licence fee — or more expensive still — a commercial advertisement.

And the thing they got so wrong, of course, was the insistence that it was a three horse race. It wasn’t. It’s not quite over yet, but one thing is very clear, Nick Clegg did not drag his party above the rank of also-ran. He may yet hold the balance of power, but it’ll be by default rather than because they genuinely increased their stature. Even their share of the popular vote has only risen by 1%. Admittedly that was from a pretty decent starting-point in terms of their recent history, but it’s hardly the line the public were being fed from the media. They’re actually down 5 seats at time of writing.

During last night’s election coverage, the likeable Prof Brian Cox showed up on Channel 4 and told the gathered electorate, gazing at our glowing rectangles, that they were “stupid”. We all sat there and laughed, and insisted it was “those other people” he was talking about, not us specifically. Yes indeed. Though let’s face it. If you’re one of the ten and a half million people who voted Tory, then you’re definitely one of the people he’s talking about.

Of course, he was actually being more general than that. Prof Cox was making a point about our collective decision-making and how it seems to have ended up firmly dedicated to self-destruction. Our seemingly cruel lack of self-awareness as a culture and our ten thousand year war against nature… externalising our collective schizophrenia into the wider ecology of mind. OK, so he didn’t use those exact words. I was translating into Batesonian.

Anyhoo, that proved to be the highlight of the election coverage… Prof Cox calling us all stupid.

But enough about the coverage, what about the outcome?

Well, that’s the thing… even with just 9 seats left to declare, we don’t know it yet. It appears that the media may have got that much right — the possibility of a hung parliament / minority government is a very real one. The Tories are going to end up the largest party, but far enough away from an overall majority to make things complicated. Oh, and just what the Welsh were thinking by making it easier on them, I’ll never know.

But of course, the real reason the Tories aren’t as far from an overall majority as was being predicted isn’t the appearance of more spots of blue on the map of Wales. Rather, it’s the failure of the Lib Dem swing to show up on cue. They were supposed to grab a bunch of seats from the Tories. But they didn’t. In fact they actually lost ground to the Tories overall. The opportunity to unseat Oliver Letwin in a real Lib Dem / Tory marginal was squandered. For that, the Lib Dems should publicly apologise. As should the people of Dorset West.

Meanwhile Labour also held their ground against the Lib Dems overall and didn’t lose as many seats to the Tories in the north as was being predicted. Certainly they’ve retained enough to allow Gordon Brown first shot at forming a government, constitutionally speaking. Though whether that’ll happen is anyone’s guess, with the Tories moving to declare victory even though lots of people are saying they have no legal right whatsoever to do so.

That kind of magical thinking can be very effective though. Ten and a half million tory voters all believing in a Conservative victory at the same time is the kind of thing that can manifest such a victory in reality. Especially when you have the Murdoch Press acting as a Great Unholy Sigil. The fact that far more people voted against the Tories than voted for them isn’t necessarily relevant either. If a sense of doubt creeps into them, as it surely must be doing if you’re a Lib Dem after the past three weeks of ecstatic preparation; and perhaps is also happening with many Labour voters who will view the loss of 90 seats and the body language of so many Labour MPs as signalling defeat.

So a minority Conservative government using the Ulster Unionists as additional muscle? The worst of all possible worlds? There’s a part of me that’s sadly unsurprised.

Alternatively we could technically see a rainbow coalition with a Lib-Lab pact recruiting the Scottish and Welsh nationalists, the SDLP and the incoming Green MP as a broad left coalition. Labour can promise the Lib Dems electoral reform in return for their support, but I’m not sure they’d be willing to offer the others what they’d demand.

Which reminds me… congratulations to Caroline Lucas, leader of the Green Party and new MP for Brighton Pavilion. I wish her well; it’ll be good to have a Green voice in parliament even if it’s likely to get drowned out most of the time.

Meanwhile there’s also the other possibility of Clegg bringing the Lib Dems into government with the Tories. The fact that this is even being discussed seriously by the Lib Dems is clear evidence that they are the deluded free-market capitalists that I suggested they might be. All the same, if they wrestle electoral reform out of the Tories in return for their support, they’ll still have been worth your vote. Possibly.

With 9 seats left to declare, the Tories have passed the 300 mark, but only just (302). Labour are on 256 with the Lib Dems at 56. So a Lib-Lab pact would bring them to 312 and clear of the Tories, though short of a majority. And even though Cameron will be trying to cast his “I have moral authority” spell upon the land, a look at the popular vote is revealing. Certainly it demonstrates the kind of distortions wrought by a First Past The Post electoral system.

With 23% of the overall vote, the Lib Dems won less than 9% of the seats (they should have about 148 seats if each vote was treated equally and proportionally). The Tories, on the other hand would drop about 70 seats, if representation was roughly proportional to the votes cast. You can see why they oppose electoral reform.

And even though Labour would also drop roughly the same number of seats, you can see why they wouldn’t be quite as unwilling to consider some kind of electoral reform… it’d be Labour that the Lib Dems would be more likely to deal with if both offered a working majority. And under PR, a Lib-Lab pact would have a clear majority (though not a massive one), while the Tories would have far less claim to ‘moral authority’ with not nearly enough MPs to form a stable minority government.

There’s still plenty of twists and turns to come. But my suspicion is that we’ll see David Cameron in 10 Downing Street by the end of the weeked. I was going to say “it’ll be funny to see how he deals with the economic crisis, resource depletion and climate change”. Except it won’t be funny. It’ll be fucking tragic.

Posted in: Opinion