Well, the British voters have spoken at the end of a tumultuous election campaign. The problem is that politicians and pundits alike are unsure of what exactly they said. Five days after the polls closed on 6 May, Britons are still unsure of who will be the next prime minister, and what the shape of the ruling coalition will be.
In the wake of Gordon Brown`s dramatic offer to step down as the Labour leader, there is fury in the Conservative camp over this attempt to outflank their party. “A very Labour coup” trumpeted the right-leaning Daily Telegraph in a banner headline. Clearly, the Tories are upset at the prospect of being left out in the cold despite securing the highest number of seats. But their 306 seats are 17 short of securing a majority in parliament, and hence their desperate efforts to woo the Liberal Democrats.
Amid all this feverish speculation and frenzied negotiations, spare a thought for poor Nick Clegg. Although his Liberal Democrats fared poorly after a number of pre-election polls put them ahead of Labour, they find themselves in the spotlight with the poisoned chalice of kingmakers thrust into their reluctant hands.
Clegg`s problem is that if he does a deal with the Conservatives, he will be pilloried by the left wing of his party. Indeed, most Liberal Democrats cringe at the thought of being in the same bed as the Tories. However, if the party forms a partnership with Labour, together with a handful of smaller left-leaning parties, this will be widely perceived as a coalition of losers, and lack legitimacy.
Nevertheless, the fact is that the majority of the British electorate voted for progressive parties, giving Labour 30 per cent and the Lib Dems 23pc, while the Conservatives got 36pc. Thus it could be argued – as Labour leaders are doing – that voters have rejected the Tories. But some Labour members are of the view that this was a good election to lose, and their party should sit it out in the opposition while David Cameron handles the unpopular task of making sweeping cuts in public spending in order to lower the ballooning national debt.
As the political wheeling dealing goes on, the markets are getting jittery, with pressure mounting on the pound and on British bonds. For Clegg, the big prize is securing agreement from his coalition partner – whoever it is – to push through electoral reforms leading to proportional representation. The result of this election underlines how unfair the present first-past-the-post system can be with nearly a quarter of the votes, the Lib Dems have ended up with less than a tenth of Parliamentary seats. The two major parties are reluctant to make the kind of change Clegg wants as the present system suits them. Although Labour has long talked about reforming the present system, it did nothing to bring about change in its 13 years in power.
Thus far, the Conservatives have offered the Lib Dems a referendum on alternative voting (AV) that falls short of proportional representation (PR), but reserve the right to campaign against it. Labour, on the other hand, is offering immediate legislation to introduce AV, while holding a referendum on PR. And to make the deal acceptable to Clegg, Gordon Brown has agreed to step down as the Lib Dem leader had made it plain that he would be unable to work with the defeated and discredited Labour PM.
Clegg finds himself in the uncomfortable position of being wooed by two ardent suitors. There are clear pros and cons to both options. After being ignored for years by mainstream politicians, the media and the public, it must be a scary feeling to be constantly in the spotlight. Had this been Pakistan, there would be rumours flying about, citing the millions paid into Clegg`s Swiss bank account. Here, most observers agree that the Lib Dem leader has acted honourably, first entering into talks with the Tories who had secured the biggest number of seats. However, when news leaked out that he had also entered secret negotiations with Labour, there was considerable indignation in Tory ranks.
The ongoing squabbling underlines the polarisation in British politics the great divide is between the Conservatives and the progressive parties. This is reflected in the rural areas controlled by the Tories, while Labour has its strength in the urban centres where its support comes from the working class and left-wing professionals. Nevertheless, Conservative gains reflect the party`s growing acceptance among the middle class. In addition, 13 years of Labour rule has disenchanted many of its traditional supporters.
The unprecedented TV debates among the three party leaders catapulted the Lib Dems into public recognition, and gave them an opportunity to show that they were a responsible, mature party, and not a bunch of green, tree-hugging socialists. But in the last week of the campaign, the party`s popularity dipped due to the concerted attacks launched by both Labour and the Conservatives against Lib Dem policies on defence and immigration. Nick Clegg did himself no good by speculating on coalition possibilities before the election, thereby giving the impression that he was already seeing himself as a kingmaker.
Two slogans in the dying days of the campaign were “Vote Clegg, get Cameron”, and “Vote Clegg, get Brown”. Both damaged the Lib Dems as voters sitting on the fence were scared of helping either mainstream leader. The turnout was so high in certain polling stations that they ran out of ballot papers. There were widespread reports of voters queuing for hours and then having the doors closed at 10 pm, still unable to cast their ballots. In many countries, there would have been riots and allegations of rigging had such a situation developed.
By the time you read this, it is entirely possible that a coalition might have been formed. The danger is that, given the vastly different expectations and goals the major parties have, the coalition will be unstable and subject to arm-twisting and outright blackmail. A third option is that the Conservatives are invited to form a minority government with the tacit consent of the other parties. But the minute the government takes an unpopular step, the opposition can gang up to bring it down. This is being called `the nuclear option` as the collapse of a government and fresh elections would make the electorate angry, and they would punish those perceived as being responsible for dragging them back to the polls.
Whatever lies ahead, it is clear that British politics is entering uncharted waters.