A welcome uncertainty, a shameful chaos. That is what Britain woke up to after the strangest election night in living memory. The chaos is as simple to describe as it is hard to justify. Thousands of people waited in vain to vote but couldn’t because pollings stations were under-staffed or ran out of ballot papers.
That would disgrace a country learning about free elections after decades of totalitarian rule. If it happened in Afghanistan or Ukraine, British election observers would tut-tut in disapproval. It is shameful in the country that likes to think of itself as the epitome of parliamentary democracy. Nothing better could epitomise the overpaid, underworked, out-of-touch public sector created by Labour than the useless electoral officer in Sheffield who said “I’m not blaming anybody”. What he failed to realise was this: we were blaming him.
Failure to run and to reform public services properly, despite showering them with money, is one reason that Labour has lost so many seats. But it has not lost office automatically. The Conservatives have won, but not by enough to gain power straightaway. And the Liberal Democrats have failed to make their hoped-for breakthrough, but won enough seats for their voters’ wishes to matter more than ever.
Sure that means uncertainty, of a kind that is unfamiliar in Britain and harder to explain to outsiders. We are used to simple results. We have two parties, Labour and the Conservatives. One wins, the other loses. Minor parties such as the Liberal Democrats may poll quite well, but their votes don’t count.
That system was perhaps defensible in the days when the two main parties won 90% of the vote between them. But it doesn’t fit a system in which the electorate is split three ways. In this election, the Liberal Democrats won nearly a quarter of the votes and gained less than a tenth of the seats.
The first big question is whether Labour will be able to hang on by offering the Lib Dems a shift to a fair voting system. That could even include Gordon Brown resigning as Labour leader, making way for another prime minister. If that fails, then it will be time for the Conservatives to try—perhaps with a formal arrangement with the Liberal Democrats, perhaps in a minority government. The Conservatives had a good night—they pushed up their overall share of the vote to more than 36%. But their claims to have a convincing mandate sounded hollow. They made tremendous gains in the easy seats—but failed to win the difficult ones that would have given them a majority in the 326-member lower house of parliament.
Anywhere else in Europe, this kind of uncertainty is normal. Election results alone do not determine the government: that comes only after negotiations between the parties. Mostly, whichever government forms has the backing of a majority of the voters. That is something that Britain has not enjoyed since 1955 (even Margaret Thatcher’s greatest Conservative victory in 1983 came with just 44% of the vote)
In Britain, we are not used to this. The result comes in the midst of a huge economic crisis. The markets are unhappy. They want a government that can repair Britain’s shattered public finances. Our deficit at 12% of GDP, is likely to be bigger than Greece’s this year. We have to borrow billions of pounds every week. Who will lend it to us? Given the scale of spending cuts and tax rises ahead, some politicians may wonder if now is a good time to be in opposition, not government. Whichever government takes office is unlikely to last its full five-year term.
Yet for all that the uncertainty is welcome, because it brings the chance of a change in Britain’s outdated electoral system. This no longer delivers the one thing it is supposed to deliver: a clear result. It was always a scandal that votes for the smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats piled up uselessly in third place in our first-past-the-post constituencies. Now the scandal is intolerable. For the first time in my lifetime, there is a real chance of that system changing.