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Can’t get there from here?

Posted on May 08, 2010 by

So did we win, or what?

Because the aim was a hung parliament, and we got just about the hung-est parliament possible. The Tories need the Lib Dems to form a majority, Labour needs nearly everyone to form a majority, and the smallest parties could yet have the crucial say. Wow, that's hung. But what now?

The parties who will determine what happens over the next few days (or weeks) have varying agendas, and the simplest way of illustrating what those agendas are and why is with this diagram:

The chart shows exactly why the two main parties are so terrified of the UK having a proper electoral system which actually reflects the balance of voters. The current First Past The Post method vastly over-represents the big two, in this particular instance handing the Tories an extra 71 seats which their actual votes don't merit, and Labour an extra 70. Most of those come from the Lib Dems, who get 92 seats fewer than their votes should have earned.

(The effect is magnified by the phenomenon of tactical voting, in which people who actually want to vote for one party vote for another one, because they live in a "safe" constituency where there's no chance of anyone but the big two winning and so they vote for the one they dislike the least in order to keep the other one out.)

Because the two big parties like this system just fine – as it favours them so remarkably unfairly – the chance to change it via democratic means comes along once in a generation, if that. This year is one of those opportunities, which means  that – even if it doesn't look like it – the country is at this very moment engaged in a power struggle that's as dramatic and potentially revolutionary as has ever been seen in these islands.

So what are the various parties trying to achieve?


Above all else, the Tories don't want to serve in a minority OR coalition government. They've waited through 13 years of Labour, and as far as they're concerned it's simply their turn to wield 100% power over the unfortunate inhabitants of the UK on the basis of barely one-third of the vote, as Labour have been doing since 2005 when they secured an absolute majority with the lowest winning share of the vote ever (just 35.3%).

Furthermore, the issues that matter most to both Tory MPs and Tory voters are Europe and immigration, precisely the two things that a Lib Dem coalition partner would throw a great big spanner into the works of. As far as most Tories are concerned, governing with the Lib Dems isn't governing at all.

The Tories have one huge advantage over Labour and the Lib Dems – money. They poured cash into campaigning in marginal seats this year, thanks to wealthy donors like Lord Ashcroft, and it paid dividends, helping them to win many seats that people didn't expect them to. And the crucial thing is, they can afford to do it again.

The other two main parties can't. Labour is stoney broke, and this campaign stretched its resources to their absolute limit. The Lib Dems simply never had any money in the first place, and already have to campaign on a shoestring. Having to fight another election within months would be a financial catastrophe to both of them, and the result would almost certainly be a further swing to the Tories and a clear majority.

That's the background which informs Cameron's reluctant and half-hearted overtures to the Lib Dems yesterday. While professing to seek unity, he basically offered them nothing, demanded that the Tory manifesto be implemented almost in its entirety, and tried to fob them off with a useless talking shop on electoral reform rather than action.

(The Lib Dems are unlikely to fall for this, having been burned once before when Tony Blair promised them the same thing in 1997, then kicked the resulting report off a tall building.)

By offering the Lib Dems so little, and doing it so publicly, Cameron knows perfectly well he's making it almost impossible for Nick Clegg to accept this deal even if he wanted to. He might as well have saved the nation some valuable airtime by walking on stage, saying "Hey Clegg! We want you to come and be our bitch" and walking off again.

The Tories' main goal during the hung-parliament discussions is to bring about another election as soon as possible, because they believe, probably rightly, that it will return them a workable majority, either by themselves or with their lapdog Ulster Unionists.

The vital thing for them, then, is simply to look as if they're genuinely trying to put a coalition together (which they're not, unless Clegg IS so amazingly gullible or craven that he'll hand them one without PR), so that the electorate will blame the Lib Dems when it fails, and punish them rather than the Tories for forcing the country to the ballot box again.

(The only other option for Cameron is to concede an early referendum on PR as the price of Lib Dem support, then count on persuading the nation to vote against it, by fair means or foul. But that's incredibly high-risk, and he'd have a hard time getting his own party to accept such a deal.)



The Labour Party can't quite believe it still has a chance of clinging onto power. Just a few months ago the opinion polls were indicating a massive swing to a Tory landslide, but the desperate policy of printing £200bn in imaginary money bought Labour just enough time to make the economy's pulse flicker briefly back to life at the right moment.

They still expected to lose, and their disbelief at still being in the game was reflected in Brown's proposal to the Lib Dems, in which he basically offered them anything they wanted if they'd support his party rather than Cameron's. A full-blown referendum on proper proportional representation (not the dismal Alternative Vote fudge that Brown was proposing before the election) was placed very prominently on the table, something which most Lib Dem MPs and voters would probably bite Brown's hand off for in an instant.

The main stumbling block for Clegg is likely to be Brown himself, who he can't stand. (The vicious response that supporting the unpopular  PM would provoke from the overwhelmingly right-wing press, which is already furious that voters haven't returned a Tory majority, wouldn't help either.) But numerous Labour sources have already been carefully nudging into the public arena the likelihood that the PM will resign as soon as is decent in the event of a deal with the Lib Dems.

Labour's best hope of staying in power is an agreement (probably secret, but maybe even in public) whereby the Lib Dems will support them long enough to pass the PR referendum bill, at which point Brown will resign and a new election will be called, presumably under PR.

(The gamble there, of course, being the assumption that the electorate will have voted for it in the referendum.)

The outcome of that election would likely be a parliament in which Labour and the Lib Dems could command a secure centre-left (ish) progressive majority, because between them the two parties garnered almost FIVE MILLION more votes than the Tories. (Although you wouldn't know it from reading the newspapers or watching TV, the UK electorate as a whole is considerably more left-wing than any of its major parties.)

This would freeze the Tories permanently out of power unless they shifted their policies sufficiently in the future as to tempt the Lib Dems to switch partners, an outcome which works in favour of both the Lib Dems and Labour.



Nick Clegg is probably the most right-wing leader of the Lib Dems in the party's history, and may well be instinctively inclined to do a deal with David Cameron. However, the party's constitution obliges him to obtain the support of 75% of its MPs for any agreement, and the Lib Dems' membership (including MPs) is broadly speaking far more sympathetic to the idea of working with Labour than getting into bed with the Tories.

 So Clegg has to choose between three options.


 (i) Support the Tories. What happens under this coalition? Loads of unpopular cuts. How does it help the Lib Dems to be associated with those? If the cuts put the country back in recession, the Lib Dems get much of the blame for making the Tories kings. If the cuts solve the deficit problem, the Tories will get the credit because they're Tory policies, and at the next election people say "Well, the Tories were right, they obviously know their stuff, so we don't need the Lib Dems now".

Either way they're out in the cold, and in an electoral system that's now even more biased against them. (Because the Tories main plan for political reform is to fiddle constituency boundaries – as part of their policy of reducing the number of MPs and making all constituencies of equal size – so that they're even more unfair to the other parties.)

 (ii) Do nothing. Reject both offers, sit back, let the Tories make unpopular cuts in a minority administration, then when the recession's back by the end of the year, pull the rug from under the now-hated government in a no-confidence motion and hope to get returned in a better position for an alliance with Labour – which by then will be led by someone less toxic (and probably more liberal) than Brown.

The problem with that strategy is that voters will say "We voted Lib Dem last time and they just sat on their arses and did nothing. I'm not wasting my vote on them again", everyone goes back to the big two and they're left back in the dark ages of <20% support and about a dozen MPs.

 (iii) Try to make it work with Labour. As we've already seen, Brown is so desperate he'll give them pretty much anything they want, so there's scope for short-term gains as well as the cherished goal of PR. While the PR bill goes through (with the willing support of the nationalists and SDLP giving it a majority), the interim coalition as discussed above could continue with the current economic stimulus policies – whether they're the right thing or not, they'll avoid pissing people off with brutal cuts for a few months.

In that election, implementing PR should prove popular with voters and increase the vote for both partners. But even if the Lib Dem support  were instead to suddenly collapse in half for some reason, under a proportional system they'd still end up with far more MPs than they have now, and in a political system that pretty much ensures they always hold a share of power. The Lib Dems basically can't lose once they get PR.


So it's pretty obvious which course holds the greatest prize for the Lib Dems. Unless Clegg gets tempted by the shiny bauble of being Home Secretary or something in a Con-Lib coalition (and can get that urge past 75% of his party), coming to an arrangement with Labour basically offers the Lib Dems everything they've ever strived for.

The hitch, of course, is that any Lab-Lib pact doesn't add up to a majority, and also needs the support of just about every other unaligned party in the Commons to form a government in the first place. The SDLP's three MPs already take the Labour whip, so they shouldn't be much of a problem. And the SNP and Plaid Cymru are extremely supportive of PR, which would likely give them both far more seats and influence, so it shouldn't be too tricky to get them onboard in the interim government either, even if all bets were off after that single issue was dealt with.

Those parties supply an extra 12 MPs, which takes the total to 327 and provides a small margin of error (as the five Sinn Fein MPs don't take their seats, meaning the actual number required for a majority is 323. But the danger is that it only needs two rogue MPs somewhere in the coalition to make trouble for everything to be scuppered.

That's quite a long shot, however. The SNP and Plaid have such a large vested interest in getting PR through that they'd probably agree to support the bill without even demanding any concessions. The same goes for the Lib Dems and Labour (whose handful of diehard FPTP supporters will be whipped to within an inch of their lives), so the only potential banana-skin is the SDLP, who aren't discriminated against by FPTP and therefore might try to extract something in return for their backing.

But PR is so much in the Lib Dems' permanent interests, and Labour's temporary ones, that almost any price the SDLP could plausibly demand would be worth paying to secure it. And in such a way might the United Kingdom achieve a democratic revolution as radical as anything ever brought about with guns and bombs.

The only man who can screw it up is Nick Clegg. Keep your eyes fixed on him.

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32 to “Can’t get there from here?”

  1. Derek

    We're going to have a Lib-Con alliance arent we? Or conservative minority government. It's always the worst option right?

  2. RevStu

    Neither of those actually make any rational sense, for reasons detailed above. Critically, they don't make much sense for the Tories, let alone the Lib Dems. Unless Clegg REALLY bends over and takes it, a Lib Dem partnership would just be an irritant to the Tories, preventing them from doing the stuff they really want to do on Europe and immigration, which – let's not forget – are the things Tory voters care most about.

    In fact, I might go and edit something to that effect into the piece.

  3. RevStu

    PS WoSblog associate J Walker perceptively points out that the term "Lib-Con" paints a misleading image of the balance of power. The correct term for Britain in such a scenario, he notes, would be to describe us as a "Con-Dem Nation"…

  4. Dean

    While it's only one MP, I can see the Greens backing the PR plan too.

  5. RevStu

    Yup. And probably the Alliance one as well, which adds a small measure of additional security.

  6. Tom Camfield

    You missed the BNP from the graph, 13 seats instead of 0. I've found that a lot of people would rather have a broken system than let the far right in.

  7. Tom Camfield

    (I would rather we fixed the system.)

  8. RevStu

    The BNP would have no power under PR. The number of MPs they might get would be greatly reduced for a whole raft of reasons, not least that there'd be less need for people to resort to them as a protest vote.

  9. Ricky

    I really hope you're right Stu. Malcolm seems to agree with you anyway:

  10. joncfc

    Another excellent post stu, as for the party funding though, surely if labour and the lib-dems were as peniless as you say, all they would need to do is change legislation to allow party funding by taxation and in return have an outright ban private funding. 
    The way i see it, id be happy to fund the monster raving loony party if it meant no more moneybags from belize swaying the vote and also the unions could go back to safeguarding workers rights rather than funding a party which for the most part doesnt give a toss about them.

  11. RevStu

    I think changing the funding rules at this point might be seen by the electorate as a little TOO blatantly opportunistic. I'm also not sure a public still raw from the expenses scandal would look kindly on being taxed to pay for electioneering while their public services were being slashed. But it'd certainly be on the cards in the future.

  12. xbendystevex

    I'd like to think that all politicians have it in the backs of their minds that they need to get a deal done quickly, just in case the public notice that we could get along reasonably well without any of them.

    Yeah I know it's unrealistic, but I can dream.

  13. David

    Y'know, I've read pretty much every article the BBC have put up on this in recent days, but this is the first article which really tells it how it is.
    An interesting read, thanks.

  14. xbendystevex

    Oh and that's an excellent video choice too.

  15. AJ

    The tension is killing me. The media's obvious bias against anything but a Tory majority (some clearly feeling angry that even a coalition would have to happen) is not unsurprising, but still saddening. I always fear the influence they may wield over the electorate. Some of the stuff printed in the papers and seen on TV so far was awful.
    I hope we get a chance to tackle the issue of funding too, at least later on after we get PR.

  16. Lenny

    Another question is whether the voting public actually want electoral reform, which is further complicated by voting demographics.
    If the "baby boomer" generation doesn't want change, then Clegg may well be barking up the wrong tree because any referendum on PR is likely to be defeated.
    In that case Cameron can offer pretty much anything he wants in order to appease Clegg, in the comfortable knowledge that the Lib Dem's biggest priority isn't the same as the "country's".

  17. AJ

    PR should appeal to those who feel compelled to do 'tactical voting', those who feel they have their vote wasted or no voice because of safe seats or because they don't live in marginals and those who want to vote for smaller parties but don't think there is any point because of the way things are stacked against them. Quite a broad spectrum.
    I'd like to at least see a referendum on it. Hopefully the positive word can be spread on the idea, although I'd imagine there will be a media and Tory funded blitz on the 'horrors' of it.

  18. RevStu

    @ Lenny: But the only way of reliably finding that out is to have a referendum.

  19. Lenny

    @ RevStu: Very true. But to speculate a little further I wonder, if either a Con-Dem or a Lab-Lib referendum does emerge, how it will be framed. 
    My suspicion is that it will be fudged towards failure. Whether by demanding an unrealistically high turnout, by setting the "yes" threshold  to 50% (or higher) or some other jiggery-pokery, the cynic in me isn't expecting it to be fair or square although the illusion of "fairness" is almost certain to be guaranteed.
    But I'm not sure we'll get there anyway. My prediction is that Clegg will do a deal with Cameron. Things will tick over until Parliament goes on in its summer recess. The summer will be punctuated by wrangling over which PR system we should have and by the time Autumn comes along, there'll be another General Election which will install a majority Conservative Government. Not what I, you or anyone else wants (or should want) but I think it's an inevitability.
    @ AJ: I agree with what you say, but I'm not sure the "average" voter thinks about such things to any depth.

  20. Grant

    I honestly can't believe Nick Clegg is still even thinking about a Lib-Con pact. Your analysis is absolutely correct, RevStu.
    This situation reminds me of what happened in Australia 12 years ago. An unpopular right-wing government wanted to bring in an unpopular VAT. The Australian Democrats party had the balance of power. The Democrats were almost indistinguishable from the Lib Dems, both in policy and support – they were mainly voted for by centre left voters who thought Labour was corrupt or not in favour of civil liberties.
    Anyway, the slightly right-of-the-party leader of the Democrats did a deal with the Liberals (extracting almost zero concessions) because she felt that the Liberals had a right to govern. Sound familiar?
    With the benefit of 12 years we can see how it turned out for the Democrats. From having 10.8% of the vote in 1996, and the balance of power, at the last election in 2007 they got 1.3% and basically don't exist any more.
    I predict a similar scenario for the Lib Dems (complete with multiple changes of leader) if there's a Con-Lib government.

  21. RevStu

    @ Lenny: the obvious trick for the Tories would be to offer a multi-option referendum, offering the choice between the status quo and two or three different kinds of PR, attempting to split the reform vote.

  22. AJ

    I think the worst of all scenarios, a Con-Lib is going to happen. That's the vibe on the BBC site and news media.

  23. RevStu

    The news media are almost all viciously Tory-biased, so they would say that. Indeed, they're engaged in a massive campaign to try to make it happen. But they don't get to decide, and fortunately neither does Clegg.

  24. Grant

    It doesn't matter what the Tories offer. For what it's worth I think they may even offer a referendum on PR in a couple of years time. However it'll never happen.
    Here's another prediction. The Tories will make  agenerous offer to the Lib Dems and the Lib Dems will accept. Wide spread disenchantment from Lib Dem supporters will follow, but Cameron will become PM.
    Fast forward a couple of months time. The Tories are well ahead in the polls, and they introduce their budget. After "looking at the books" they announce that Labour fucked the country, and it'll have to be much worse than they said last time. Lib Dems can't vote for this budget, so an election is called to give the country "stability". Result: Conservative win. Or, very unlikely, Labour win. In both cases the Lib Dem vote is massively down.
    It really, really doesn't matter what deal Clegg gets from the Tories. And if the Lib Dem MPs are stupid enough to think that acting in the "national interest" will save them, then they won't deserve the votes they'll never get again.

  25. Tom Camfield

    @ Stu
    Re: BNP
    The BNP vote share could also increase as one would assume that PR would allow them to contest through party lists nationwide. At the moment many constituencies do not have the opportunity to vote BNP at all. Also more people would vote for them if they thought it would count for anything. Plus, protest votes wouldn't end overnight.
    Unless there really is a massive difference between Britain and Europe, PR could easily open the doors for the far right, see, well, almost every European country for examples*:,,711990,00.html
    Notice that the countries with FPTP, Greece and Britain, have no far right party in their parliament. The only other country without them is Germany, which has FPTP and PR, but the PR only kicks in once you have 5% of the vote, which, one imagines, helps keep fringe groups down.
    I want PR, so I want everyone to be prepared for the kind of scaremongering you'll hear. If someone is worried, tell them that a vote for the German system would allow change, but seems to keep the far right out. It's probably best to do that than to argue that it won't be a problem.
    PR for the people!
    * See also: London and the British European elections, both PR, both elected BNP members.

  26. RevStu

    Valid points, but remember, they only apply to one election. The acid test of the BNP is what happens after they've been elected for a term. So far, in almost all councils, they're revealed as useless idiots and they get voted right back out.

    And as I've said, it wouldn't really matter anyway. Nobody would dare do any deals with their MPs, no matter what the policy.

  27. Prue

    The most tragic aspect of this result is that democracy has essentially been hijacked by funding considerations. (read Skint vs. Cashcroft)
    Even if the Lib Dems managed to form a relatively stable coalition with the CONservatives (which I can't see happening anyhow – it's the equivalent of forcing dinosaurs to breed with iPhones) and were able to initiate the process for a referendum on PR, we know – for a fact – that Cameron would simply charge against electoral reform with his vast financial resources and there is NOTHING any of the other parties will be able to do about it.
    I'd like (believe me, I really would) to believe that the electorate would answer a referendum on PR with a resounding YES! but given the sheer weight of the financial and press-backing that Cameron commands, the other parties' campaigning would essentially be rendered redundant ;_; ;_; ;_;
    Enjoyed reading the post though 🙂
    P.S. Did anyone else see the sheer, bewildering happiness on Cleggy's face when he addressed the crowd of protesters today? His eyes practically welled up, as though he was thinking "THESE are my people!" Oddly endearing, don't you think? ^_^

  28. M

    The lib dems push for STV, not full PR.  The link to constituencies is important.  The BNP could possibly get some of the five seats in a new larger constituency, but only if people who now vote UKIP or Conservative put the BNP first in their preferences.
    But this is an issue with Alternative Vote, not PR.

  29. Wb

    Nice post, well written but I can't help but think it's wishful thinking.
    Why? Maths.
    The maths simply does not work to do this, and to argue for it will lead to the disillusion of Lib Dem voters
    Some maths
    Conservatives: 307 
    Labour: 258 
    Lib Dems: 57 
    Democratic Unionists: 8 
    SNP: 6 
    Sinn Fein: 5 
    Plaid Cymru: 3 
    SDLP: 3 
    Green: 1 
    Alliance: 1 
    Hermon: 1

    So, if we take off SF from the total we have 645. meaning you need 323 to win a confidence vote. SDLP takes Labour whip, Alliance Lib Dem. So
    Lab + LibD + SDLP + Alliance = 258+57 +3+1 =319 
    Add on Hermon as a probable 320. 3 short. Buy off the Green, 2 short.

    Labour and SNP couldn't formally be in a coalition. Even if they were the SNP don't vote on English matters and so no hope there.
    Even if we add on Plaid Cymru and so get to 324, what are the odds on Labour being able to whip through its entire corpus on a platform of PR?
    Absolutely zero.
    The reason for failure to take steps towards PR for 13 years was not that there is majority of Labour MPs who favoured it who were a bit shy and retiring. Ben Bradshaw & Peter Hain are the only major figures in favour, and even if the SNP came into it, 4 Labour MPs voting could screw the whole thing.
    And, it's a a confidence motion. And, you have to trust Labour to not blow up in a brutal tribal knife fight before the referendum is passed, and the PR bill actioned.
    Remember, Labour have the most to lose from PR – their tribal strongholds will be vulnerable (e.g. in Scotland, where 19% of people voted tory and got 1 MP), their automatic buggins turns at power are gone, and the left of their party will be under real pressure from the Greens for share of the vote. Even though Brown is crazily desperate to hang on regardless, plenty of people will take Polly Toynbee's advice to "retreat and grow strong in opposition".
    No, Lib/Lab's only point is as a negotiating position for Clegg with the Tories. Hate to say it, but get used to Cameron being PM and stop undermining Clegg by suggesting he has some realistic alternative to an accommodation with Cameron.

  30. RevStu

    "Labour and SNP couldn't formally be in a coalition. Even if they were the SNP don't vote on English matters and so no hope there."

    This is a UK matter, not an exclusively English one, which is what the SNP don't vote on. They and Plaid have explicitly said they're prepared to work with a Lib-Lab alliance for the moment.

    Labour will not “grow strong in opposition”. The Tories will gerrymander their new reduced Commons to ensure Labour is locked out. PR guarantees Labour the lion’s share of power pretty much in perpetuity. That’s an easy choice.

  31. Tom Camfield

    @ Prue
    Back when Kennedy and Campbell were in charge, the Libs were on the left, but then there was a change of leadership, Huhne was the candidate on the left, Clegg on the right. Clegg got in (he may be against Trident now, but he supported it back at his leadership election). When he started his political career he was also considering joining the Tory party before he decided the Lib Dems were a better choice. I therefore doubt Clegg has any particular revulsion towards linking up with the Tories.
    In good news, recent polls suggest that people do want to change to PR. To quote The Times "By nearly five to one, 62% to 13%, people said they favoured a more proportional system of voting."

  32. John M

    There are others who could screw it up, though – Labour MPs. There might well be plenty who would simply not refuse to vote for PR, regarding themselves as Turkeys asked for vote for Christmas.

    But I hope you're right – there's still hope, despite the media shit storm (and whoever is responsible for the Sun headline "Squatter" should be shot, unless that's deemed too painless for them).

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