Saturday, May 15, 2010

electoral questions

From the depths of my May slumber I arose this afternoon to iron a gigantic heap of dress shirts, a task that I don't like but have to do on occasion because I'm too cheap to pay anyone to do it for me. To pass the time (and involuntarily extend it because my mind would wander and my hand slow down) I turned the radio to Any Questions, a political talk show with the potential for great hilarity and sometimes profound insight. The four panelists, veteran players in the ferocious arena of British politics recruited from across the spectrum, are deft at fending with words and masters of rhetoric warfare. The questions are posed by the audience (but preselected by the presenter) and the answers quick-witted but erudite. Personal attacks are notable for their complete absence. All but the bitterest debates end amicably. I turned up the volume and ironed away.

There was a bit of coincidence between what was said on the radio and why I haven't posted anything lately: My attention was held raptly by current affairs. From April 6, when the Prime Minister asked the Queen to dissolve parliament, to May 6, when the general election was held, the country was in a month-long spasm of frantic campaigning, televised debates (three of them), overanalyzed election manifestos, and hypothesized outcomes. Newspapers ran special issues, waxing loquaciously about the dawn of a new era. Commentaries were full of dreams and possibilities. After the financial crisis, the economic downturn, the expenses scandal and yet another five-year period when the English football team didn't win a thing, people were open for change, eager for new options and hungry to vote.

Britain has been a de-facto two-party democracy since the dark ages. For as long as people can remember, the choice has always been Labour or Conservatives. This time promised to be a bit different. The Liberal Party, which was strong before workers found their voice and gave it to Labour in the early 20th century, has been making a quiet comeback (as Liberal Democrats), winning seats in local elections and running a smooth though tiny parliamental operation, imbuing the opposition with spirit and substance and dominating many a public debate. The TV-broadcast leaders' debate gave them a huge boost in the eyes of the electorate, if you were to believe polls.

Then the election came, and most things went exactly as before. The two big parties dominated. A pandemonium of small parties, Scottish nationalists, Irish republicans and proud Welshist among them, gained a few seat here but didn't contribute to the national debate, nor was it their intent. The liberal hype deflated with a bang so loud it could be heard all the way to Cape Wrath. They got less than a quarter of the seats of either of the big two.

At this point, a bit of bitching about the British electoral system, which is messed up even by the standards of the day, is in order. It needs no emphasizing that the Lib Dems didn't meet the expectations that had burned brightly before the election. But they did all right; they increased their share of the popular vote from 22 to 23 percent. However, they're going to send six fewer delegates to Parliament (*).

How can you gain votes and lose seats? You can do so in Britain where overall share of votes does not matter. The only thing that matters is the number of constituencies a party wins. One could imagine the extreme case of a nationally very well placed party that comes second in every single constituency. It would very likely win the largest number of votes overall, but it would get exactly zero Members of Parliament. As politics was for the longest time dominated by two parties clearly separated regionally (Labour in the industrial heart of the country, Conservatives in the posh regions), this system became so entrenched that it wasn't even questioned. The parties in power had nothing to gain from change.

After this month's election, neither of the big parties commanded an outright majority. This sent the political establishment and the commentariat on the radio and in the papers into predicting any kind of doom imaginable. The soy-bean harvest will fail, the domestic real estate market collapse and the world come to a catastrophic end. All because either of the big parties needed a partner to govern effectively. The Lib Dems were the only possible partner, and after a few days of furious negotiations in both ways, a Conservative-Liberal coalition government was formed. It is the first coalition government since the second world war, and the British are not only very uncomfortable with the very idea but also profoundly ignorant of its ramifications.

I gathered that much from the answers at Any Questions. The Lib Dems were repeated scolded, much to the delight of a raucous audience, for collaborating in government with a party they don't completely agree with. How will you keep this point from your election manifesto, or that, was a recurring question. You sold out, said most panelists, failing to see that compromise is a coalition's strongest glue, and that it's better for a political party to be in government than to be outside it because it's easier to accomplish one's goals from a position of power and easier to get your points across. The Lib Dems, outside the narrow focus of the media and public for a long time, are acutely aware of this.

Three of the panelist were much taken by surprise and kept arguing against a wall of reason. More points were made, on this and other, related topics, and I made notes. But the post that had germinated in my head felt long enough already, and I stopped thinking about it. The show continued, and I kept ironing my shirts.

(*) After some careful massaging of the election data, I can report the following surprising numbers: The Lib Dems got 57 seats in Parliament from 6.8 million votes. This corresponds to one seat per 120,000 votes. Labour got 1.77 million votes more than the Lib Dems. This little bit extra gave them 201 additional seats, to the tune of 8800 votes per seat, a shocking discrepancy. Even if you don't look at differentials but at the total, how much a vote counts is still disturbingly large. Just a bit more than 33,000 votes get a Labour seat. A vote for Labour is thus nearly four times as valuable than one for the Lib Dems. I don't see the democratic value in this.

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