After clinging to power until almost the very last possible day, Gordon Brown finally called an election that took place on Thursday, 6th May. In Britain, the sitting Prime Minister can call an election pretty much whenever he/she wants between the time he/she is elected and five years to the day of the election.
Prime Ministers who believe they’re in a strong position have been known to call one well before the end of their five year term. The one that’s most memorable for me was when Margaret Thatcher called one soon after winning the Falklands War.
Under the parliamentary system of government that they have, the British electorate doesn’t vote for a candidate, as they do in the United States. Instead, they vote for a party. The total number of seats in a general election is 650; and so the winner must get 326 in order to form a majority government.
For the first time since 1974, no party has been able to secure a majority. In fact, ballot papers are still being counted, or recounted where the results have been particularly close. The network projections based on exit polls give the Conservatives 306, Labour 261; Liberal Democrats 55, and others 28, hence the hung parliament.
So. Now what happens? The constitution says that the sitting prime minister, in this case Gordon Brown, has first refusal to try to form a coalition government. But, he has secured seven percent less of the vote than the David Cameron, the Leader of the Conservative Party. The leaders of the three main parties are already positioning themselves. One thing is certain, either Brown or Cameron will have to negotiate with the Liberal Democrats.
What will each leader have to agree to in order to get their support? The policy the Lib Dems have been pushing for is proportional representation (PR) – a system in which every party gets a proportion of the seat according to the percentage of their popular vote within a given constituency. Under the current system, referred to as “first past the post,” the candidate who wins the most votes wins the seat, while the other candidates win nothing.
On the face of it, PR sounds like a good idea. Why shouldn’t the electorate have greater representation in government? Principally, because such a system would not give it to them. The reason is that every party would then have seats, even the bizarre and extreme ones. The Monster-Raving Looney Party, founded by Screaming Lord Sutch is one example. One of its most recent candidates is named Mad Cow Girl. What, if any, respect do you think the rest of the world would give to a country who had people such as this in their government?
Another problem, is that it would make it even more difficult for one party to achieve a majority, or even a working coalition. The government would be so fragmented that only one or two MPs would need to change their minds about some obscure issue, and another election would have to be called. This has been the case in Italy. There have been more national elections than years since the end of the Second World War. Democracy is a great principle of government, but it loses it affect if people spend most of their time voting and the government spends most of its time campaigning.
One of the really extraordinary things I’ve heard during this post-election period is the appeal by candidates from all three sides for their leaders should do what’s best for the country. Presumably they mean that since the electorate failed to do what was best for their respective parties, that the country is a good second choice. The mantra in British politics, for as long as I can remember, has been party first.
No doubt, there will be naysayers in this respect; but the fact that each party has a Whip – someone who is willing to apply one, two or three lines, as they’re referred to – to enforce a vote for the party line demonstrates beyond doubt that when MPs vote on a bill, the policy of their party takes precedence over anything else. And that includes their country.