That UK election, in full: a guide for the perplexed

ANDREW COYNE’s quick guide to the leaders, the bargaining positions, and the stakes

Three days after the British election, the situation is as murky as ever, with three parties negotiating over possible power-sharing agreements and any number of factions within each party weighing in with their views. Meanwhile, the party leaders, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, are struggling to maintain control of their parties after an election that it is widely agreed all three lost. Here’s a quick guide to the leaders, the bargaining positions, and the stakes:

– Brown: the biggest loser in the election, the one whose position is most exposed, and therefore the one most desperate to make a deal. He’s in a position to offer a referendum on electoral reform to the Lib Dems to stay in power, where Cameron is not, since reform would probably not hurt Labour as much as it would the Conservatives. But many members of his own party want him out, as evidently does Clegg. How long could such a rickety “coalition of the losers,” propped up by a ragtag band of nationalist parties, stay in power? And if Brown were replaced at its helm? Then instead of a Prime Minister who had just lost an election, Britain would have one who had not even contested it.

– Cameron: the closest thing to a winner of the election, the only one to increase his seat count, and by the largest number of seats for any Conservative leader since 1931, he is nevertheless in a curiously weakened position, having fallen short of the majority that seemed within reach before the campaign. Cameron’s Tories took the biggest hit from Clegg’s rise after the first debate, and his failure to deliver a majority, having watered down or played down the more Thatcherite policies of his predecessors, has emboldened his critics within the party. He therefore has limited room to manoeuvre in negotiating with the Lib Dems, most particularly on the issue of electoral reform, which most Tories believe would end of their party’s hopes of ever governing again.

– Clegg: the surprise loser, having dominated the middle part of the campaign, he was unable to deliver the votes on election day that most polls said his party was headed for. He is wary of a deal with Labour, yet is limited in his ability to deliver his party in negotiations with the Tories — not only by the suspicions of his party’s left wing, whose natural affinity is more with Labour, but by party rules requiring him to obtain the membership’s approval. On the other hand, a deal with the Tories is more likely to hold, and comes with less peril of offending public opinion. He probably cannot get electoral reform from the Tories, but can get some of his party’s platform enacted, plus some juicy cabinet posts.

So: does Clegg roll the dice on Labour’s promise of a referendum on electoral reform, one that could permanently transform the Lib Dems electoral chances, at the cost of propping up a party that has just been roundly rejected at the polls? Or does he take the safer, more limited route of a coalition with the Conservatives, at the cost of passing on perhaps the best shot he will ever have at electoral reform?

Answer: probably neither. The risks of a deal with Labour are too great. And there is likely too much opposition within both the Conservative and Lib Dem parties to a formal coalition, especially given their differences over electoral reform. Clegg will be mindful of the history of coalition governments: the smaller partner rarely emerges the better for it. For their part, many Tories would prefer to strike off on their own with a minority government, Canadian-style, calculating that the option of a Labour-LibDem coalition is safely off the table. Some Tories would even prefer the party remain in opposition, reasoning that any coalition of the other two parties would inevitably fail, amid much unseeemly horsetrading and acrimony, making them look steadfast and principled by comparison.

But the most probable outcome is a limited electoral pact known as “confidence and supply.” In exchange for some relatively minor concessions on policy, the Lib Dems would agree to support the Conservatives (or at least not vote against them) on supply (money) bills and on confidence motions — that is, they would not support any move to bring the government down, for some fixed interval. That allows both parties to keep a respectable distance from each other, while ensuring a period of stable government, of the kind needed to tackle the country’s mounting fiscal crisis and calm financial markets.

Anyway, we’ll know soon enough — possibly as early as this morning.

UPDATE: Gordon Brown has just taken one for the team, offering to stand down as Labour leader by September. Formal talks are now to begin on a Lib-Lab coalition. Presumably this improves Lib Dems’ negotiating position with the Conservatives, though only if a) it’s perceived they would actually go through with it, and b) it is not anticipated to be a disaster. How will the Conservatives respond?

UPPERDATE: The Conservatives have offered a referendum on the so-called Alternative Vote, which is something short of proportional representation, though it is an improvement on the present system. Voters mark their ballots in order of preference, rather than an x; if no one has a majority on the basis of first choices, then the last-place candidate is knocked out, and their second choices are distributed amongst the remaining candidates; this continues through successive rounds until one candidate crosses the 50% threshold. It’s like the Single Transferable Vote, on which British Columbians voted last year, only with single-member ridings rather than multiple. So whoever wins the riding at least can claim the support of a majority of voters, rather than a mere plurality, as under first-past-the-post. But they still get 100% of the representation, which is why it’s not a proportional system.

Labour, for their part, are apparently promising to implement AV without a referendum, arguing that it is not so substantial a change as to justify a referendum.

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