Friday, May 07, 2010

When Father Says Turn, We All Turn.

It is 9.30 in the morning and as we were up watching the election results until 4.00am you mustn't expect too keen an analysis of what has happened at this stage. Equally, as nobody seems to know what has happened, you must not turn to me in the hope of enlightenment. However, a number of people from around the world have been asking me questions about the rather quaint British electoral system, and the following questions and answers are my contribution to the cesspool of human misunderstanding.

Who has won the British General Election? I have no idea and neither does anyone else. At this precise moment the Conservative Party have 290 Parliamentary seats, the Labour Party 247, the Liberal Democrats 51, and others (the kind of political equivalent of a packet of Bassetts Liquorice Allsorts) 27. There are 34 seats still to declare, but the predications are that no party will have an overall majority.

What is a Hung Parliament? A House of Commons where no single political party can command a majority of votes against all others. Hung Parliaments are rare in the British political system (the last one which immediately followed an election was in 1974) because the voting system - first past the post rather than proportional representation - favours the two "main" parties, the Conservatives and Labour.

What will happen now?  The British Constitution is always difficult to interpret because it doesn't exist - it is merely a collection of precedents and traditions - but the sitting Prime Minister need only offer his resignation if he cannot command a majority in the House and consequently loses a vote of confidence. Gordon Brown may well try to stay in office by seeking either a formal or an informal deal with some of the smaller political groupings in order to avoid losing such a vote. There again, he my fall on his sword and the tradition then calls for the Queen to send for someone else to try and form a Government.  The whole system is very antiquated and unclear and may (or may not) conclude with someone kissing her hand and becoming Prime Minister.

Will there be another General Election? The answer almost certainly is "yes" but there will be an attempt first of all for someone to try and govern as a minority government. They will remain in power until they lose that first critical vote and then that particular Government will fall. Even then, the Queen could ask someone else to try and form a Government, but sooner or later there will be another General Election, probably before the year is out.

Will the next election be under a new electoral system?  Unlikely. There is growing support for movement towards electoral reform but it is unlikely that a major change to electoral practices could be agreed upon in the time available and with the current balanced state of the parties. The Conservatives remain skeptical about electoral reform, although the main defense of the current system - it means you get majority governments - seems to have evaporated before our eyes.

Why do the British vote on Thursdays?  No reason other than tradition. And like many traditions it does not stretch back to time immemorial, but simply to the 1930s. There is likely to be a strong movement for change to electoral practices following this election after chaotic scenes at a number of polling stations and confusion over the precise meaning of electoral law.

Why have people voted the way they have? I don't have any greater insight than anyone else, but my guess is that there is a genuine desire for confusion out there. The political system has been shaken up and following all the scandals and disillusionment, this is what many people wanted. And, in a sense, this has been a triumph for politics in that for the first time in years people are talking about politics again. The voter turn-out yesterday is likely to be significantly up on recent years and that could easily be carried forward to a second election. If nothing else, that isn't a bad result.

The illustration is of a vintage postcard I bought the other day which dates back to 1906. The rather nice thing about it is that you can interpret it in any way you want to.


  1. Excellent precis Alan. Our elections are exactly the same as we too embrace the Westminster system as a loyal colony but in the event of a minority win, won't the Tories align themselves with a lesser party in order to gain a majority? That's what our liberals do. They rule as a coalition with the National (country) party. The only diff? Our elections are compulsory votes and there's so little difference between the major parties that frankly . . we don't give a toss!

  2. Baino : Interesting comment. Everyone is being very careful about making alliances at the moment because there are no alliances that could result in a good, enduring majority. So less than 12 hours after the close of the polls, everyone is already looking at the consequences of their actions at the next poll - which they expect to be soon. Interesting about compulsory voting.

  3. Great synopsis, Alan. Methinks, I am duly enlightened. So, everyone is waiting for the Prime Minister to react, and for the Queen to kiss someone's hand? And then it's all "Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, won't you join the dance?"

    The Canadian news here been showing scenes of hundreds of people turned away from the polls in some places because of the huge turn-out and inadequate facilities.

  4. it will be interesting to see where things go from here...

  5. Well, it's even more complicated than I thought before reading your post here! It will be very interesting to see what happens in the next few days!

    If you need my big X in the sky to help your vote, I'll blow it your way! :)

  6. Uh-oh. Limbo land. Hang in there, Alan. Hope you and yours get it all sorted out soon, my friend.

    Your post card reminds me of that song from my childhood "Ten in the Bed".

  7. Yikes! That certainly is a messy way to run a country. I hope the impetus to institute a change in the election system gets moving soon!

  8. I turned in at 03.00, Alan. The result had been so widely predicted for weeks, if not months, that I'd have been a little disappointed if there had been an outright winner. But the fun really starts when the deals get discussed. Will Clegg go for a Tory tryst, with senior MPs taking Cabinet roles? Or will he go for a Labour 'love in', with promises of the electoral reform his party has craved for 90 years?

    Thanks for such an excellent post.

  9. Oo, you see, I seek enlightenment, and I find it. Often in this blog. Is there ever a chance that we will live in a truly democratic society? I figure the answer is a big fat NO.

  10. Kabb : Oooo. Enlightenment comes, not from the answers we are given but from the questions we ask. Given the views of many of our fellow citizens, would we really want to live in a truly democratic society?

  11. It is a sad state of affairs isn't it. Not many people vote for a party they believe in anymore, instead, they vote against those they do not want in. Its a process of elimination.

    You might like this link.

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  13. Sitting in Trinidad and unable to vote because I've lived outside of the UK for more than 15 years, I watched the BBC and finally turned in at around 5am UK time. This morning I came to the conclusion that 'we' still have an antiquated voting system. It's ludicrous that thousands were unable to vote, that polling stations were understaffed and some running out of ballot papers blaming a huge turn out of students who did not bring their ballot papers with them! I thought that sort of thing only happened where I live. It doesn't seem possible that the officers got it so wrong - lines of people outside polling stations long after voting had closed. I believe that in Leeds they allowed people to come into the building as once inside, they could still vote even though time 'had been called'.

    No doubt as I write there are talks going on behind closed doors. GB will do his utmost to stay in power.

    Frightening, absolutely frightening. What a fiasco but thank you for putting up this blog which is so reader friendly.

  14. Thank you Alan for explaining the murky process that is politics and voting in the UK. I'll see what happens from this point forward. There was a blurb on the radio here which said hung parliament but offered no explanation...I'd have thought the purpose of broadcasting that would have been to provide some explanation...shows what I know...

    Happy Weekend!

  15. Yes, thanks for the explanation! I will tune in tomorrow to see if there's been any change.

  16. England is coming to sound more like Canada all the time.

    Minorities governments are a way of life here.

  17. Anonymous3:49 PM

    Que Sera Sera, my friend... let's sing it with Doris Day! Smiles!
    :) The Bach


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