By Andrew Jack
LONDON, 10 MAY 2010 There are no riots or large-scale
demonstrations, even though many younger and less solid democracies around
the world have done better jobs of ensuring all those eligible could cast
their votes in elections.
Thousands of voters turned away with the evening closure last Thursday
of voting stations still relying on antiquated paper ballot sheets and
sometimes outdated lists of voters could yet weaken (though hardly
undermine) the legitimacy of the result.
There is no great panic or palpable nervousness, even if there are few
historical precedents and considerable financial as well as political
implications that will be triggered by whatever comes next.
For now, there are few signs of any constitutional crisis. But the
stakes remain high following last weeks election, which left the UK with
a "hung parliament", and locked the political parties into intense
The "party of power", Labour, is hanging on for now, with its prime
minister Gordon Brown lingering in No. 10 Downing Street although under
his leadership it came second by both the number of seats and the popular
The Conservatives remain in waiting. They won the largest share of
votes and seats, but ran a lacklustre campaign that failed to make the
case to vote for it rather than against the return of Labour. They cannot
That gives disproportionate "kingmaker" power to the minority parties
led by the Liberal Democrats. Combined with the Conservatives, they could
form a ruling coalition or offer pragmatic vote-by-vote support.
Yet, despite a strong surge in opinion polls, the LibDems can hardly
claim a clear mandate. Their share of the popular vote barely changed in
third place, and they lost seats overall.
That undermines their suggestion of popular support for their central
ideological demand: the reform of the voting system from "first past the
post" to "proportional representation."
Ideologically, they are closer to the Labour party, which in a panic
as its support slid in recent months offered some concessions towards a
more proportional system in a new parliament.
Yet by any measure of political support under their own ideal or the
current system, the LibDems have to concede that the Conservatives were
more popular than Labour, and should be their first port of call for any
The problem is that the Conservatives are firmly opposed to
proportional representation, and will find it difficult to identify common
ground on other measures including over Europe (the LibDems are far more
positive) or an independent nuclear deterrent (the opposite).
Equally, the LibDems own tough internal party accountability means that
Nick Clegg, the leader, may have a difficult time in keeping his own MPs
and militants aligned on a single course.
In short, the people have spoken, but not all who wanted to managed to
vote; and what they said was very unclear.
The only compensation is that, after the predominance of two big
parties dominating political debate for three decades, this election will
require broader dialogue between the different factions.
At a time when very significant budget cuts are inevitable to help
tackle the countrys deficits, greater accountability, parliamentary
debate and the need to forge cross-party consensus may be no bad thing.
But it is not something in which the British governance system has much
As for the international repercussions of the UK elections, the
situation is just as ambiguous - but unlikely to lead to any rapid and
From opposition, the Lib Dems unlike the Conservatives could claim the
moral high ground of consistent criticism of the war in Iraq, opposing it
from the start. They also have attacked the UK's "subservient" position to
the United States in foreign policy and proved more critical of Israel.
Their call to re-examine the country's independent nuclear deterrent with
Trident could spark a re-think of international defence policy.
But once with some semblance of power even in the event they would
hold sway on foreign policy in a coalition such Lib Dem stances could
The Conservatives historically have always been more suspicious of the
EU and defended the UK's "special relationship" with the US Radical change
in a government that they lead in the United States or the Middle East
UPDATE: GORDON BROWN TO STEP DOWN AS PRIME
Gordon Brown's resignation marks a fresh escalation in an increasingly
desperate courting match for the Lib Dems, just as the Conservatives
offered a referendum on electoral reform.
Brown's departure was a precondition for Clegg's cooperation, but would
still mark a high risk option for the Lib Dems, given in part Labour's
minority result and the fragile nature of any "progressive coalition"
which would require a combination with almost all other minority
Andrew Jack is a senior journalist at the Financial Times and
the author of Inside Putin's Russia: Can There Be Reform Without
Democracy? (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004, 2007). He is also a
member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque.com and last wrote on
David Hares latest play, The
Power of Yes at the Lyttelton, National Theatre,
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