Monday was not a great day for British democracy. Up until 5:00 p.m. London time, it looked as if Britain was to be governed by David Cameron’s Conservatives — comfortably the largest party following last week’s general election yet just short of an overall majority — with the support of Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, who finished third.
That all changed when Gordon Brown announced he was stepping down as prime minister. Brown fell on his sword in a desperate bid to scupper any deal between the Tories and Lib Dems. A Labour-Lib Dem coalition suddenly became a possibility.
However, widespread outrage at the prospect of a “coalition of the losers” appears to have made the parties think twice. Clegg’s people are still talking to the Tories, and a minority Tory administration with limited Lib Dem support remains the most likely outcome. If, as reports suggest, the coup attempt fails, Britain’s two left-of-center parties will have sullied themselves further in the eyes of the electorate while gaining nothing.
Whatever happens in the next few days, yesterday’s events were an affront to the 29 million Britons who voted last Thursday. Brown was effectively forced from office by Clegg, whose party won less than a quarter of the vote and has 57 out of 650 MPs. Clegg had made it clear that he wouldn’t be able to work with Labour while Brown remained the leader, and Brown’s party, no strangers to putting power before principle, was happy to sacrifice him.
But Brown isn’t going just yet — he had one last gift to bestow on his benighted subjects. He said he would stay around long enough to try and form a “progressive coalition” with the Lib Dems, before making way for a new leader who will be chosen by Labour’s union backers and spin doctors, and not the British people. Under the British system political parties are fully entitled to choose their leaders, but the public don’t take kindly to having prime ministers foisted on them by the party in power.
As part of the deal, Labour offered the Lib Dems reform of the voting system, replacing the current “first-past-the-post” system with some form of proportional representation (PR) which would ensure that the votes of smaller parties would more fairly translate into numbers of MPs.
Such a system would also undermine the link between MPs and their constituents, and ensure that the kind of backroom dealing and subterfuge in which Labour and the Lib Dems have been engaged would become a permanent feature of British politics. The Conservatives have offered the Lib Dems a referendum on the issue, although they oppose PR and would campaign against it.
Clegg, you may remember, shot to fame in the first of the televised leaders debates. His Obama-like paean to “change” gave the Lib Dems a boost in the polls, but had the unfortunate side-effect of causing voters to actually look at their left-wing policies. Far from changing the face of British politics, they ended up losing seats.
So it’s ironic that, despite their failure, the Lib Dems now hold the balance of power. And Clegg has made the most of his position, attempting to hold the country to ransom over voting reform — an issue which is far from a pressing concern for most of the British public, and one which should be considered soberly and in a spirit of cross-party co-operation, not used as bait in pursuit of a short-term political fix.
A weeks ago Clegg was the golden boy of British politics; now he seems like just another cynical and scheming politician. And the events of the past 24 hours have given the public a nasty taste of what to expect should his beloved PR ever be introduced.
Brown comes out of this equally poorly. The arrogance and dishonesty of his resignation speech befitted his short and undistinguished term in office. He talked about “stable and principled government” and “the national interest.” But any arrangement between Labour and the Lib Dems would not be stable, would be the polar opposite of principled, and most certainly would not be in the national interest.
Unlike a less-formal Conservative-Lib arrangement, a Labour-Lib Dem coalition still wouldn’t command an overall majority in the House of Commons, and would have to include Scottish and Welsh separatists and other minority parties.
Such a pact would be poorly suited to delivering the deep cuts to public services needed to reduce the national debt, particularly with key Labour ministers neglecting their duties to campaign for the leadership. The favorite, Foreign Secretary and Blair clone David Miliband, is likely to face a bitter struggle against challengers from the left of the party.
A coalition of the losers would likely fall apart sooner rather than later, paving the way for a second election. If Cameron does indeed become PM with Lib Dem support, Britain is still likely to be heading back to the polling booths later this year. But Cameron’s behavior and tone since election night have been responsible and statesmanlike, and will stand him in good stead.
It shouldn’t, however, have come to this.
Even if Cameron is installed in 10 Downing Street by the end of the week, many in his party are far from happy. Cameron delivered big gains both in terms of vote share and MPs, but running against a government that had been in power for 13 years and was led by an unpopular prime minister in a dire economic climate? He should have done better.
The key charge against Cameron and his clique of advisers is that in the process of trying to make his party electable again they cast aside core Tory policies on immigration and Europe and lost touch with traditional Tory voters. Tellingly, analysis of the results shows that had the Tories not lost votes in key marginals to the anti-EU, tough-on-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), they would likely have won an overall majority.
Inevitably, pundits in the U.S. are analyzing the results in the context of the U.S. political scene and are trying to draw lessons for the November midterms. But comparisons are mostly useless. There’s no single UK issue which might generate mass opposition in the way health care has. Neither do we have the same conflicts over the size of government or over federalism versus states’ rights.
But that’s not stopping lefties like E.J. Dionne from making mischief by suggesting that Republicans need to embrace Cameronesque centrism to succeed in November. Democrats would love to see the Republicans, like the Tories, detached from their base but failing to win over enough independents. However the polls, and the success of the tea party movement, suggest neither will happen.
Republicans have woken up to the fact that moderation is not an option when you’re in a battle with extremists; it’s a lesson the Tories need to learn, and fast.
There is, however, one factor which Republicans might want to take note of: Labour, with the help of large amounts of cash from its union paymasters, was able to get out the working class (blue collar) vote in northern cites where the Conservatives were targeting seats.
The relationship between Labour and the white working class in particular (although fewer and fewer of them are actually working these days) is similar to that between U.S. Democrats and black voters: when they’re not ignoring or abusing them, they’re exploiting them. But come election time they’re cajoled and frightened into the voting booth by dire warnings of what the other side will do to them.
It’s entirely fitting that the abiding memory of Brown’s first and last election campaign as PM will be his calling an archetypal working-class voter a bigot. His remarks revealed his utter contempt for the ordinary men and women who have helped to keep Brown and his colleagues in power for 13 years — and still, they voted for him in droves.
There’s certainly a lesson for U.S. conservatives there: if the left stays in office for long enough, no matter how badly they govern they’re extremely hard to get rid of.