Britain's roller coaster ride

The 2010 British General Election has been a rollercoaster ride for the British people and politicians of all parties from Lands End to John O’Groats. No one could have forseen when the Queen formally dissolved Parliament on April 12th the ups and downs for all three major political parties and above all the level of engagement and interest across the nation in the election. Most of the country including your correspondent was up late into the night as seats were won and lost with no obvious pattern and was still left wondering at 6am-who has actually won? We know now that we have a hung Parliament and Conservative leader David Cameron, now with the largest number of seats and votes, is in negotiations with Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg. Let's hope they can do a deal. I don’t think I can face this again in a few months time.

At the beginning of the campaign, the conventional wisdom was that as a result of the expenses crisis in 2009, the economic crisis and opposition to the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the British were highly alienated and fed up with politics and the political class. There were serious fears that the low turnout of 61.4 percent in the 2005 elections would be followed in 2010 by an even lower turnout. There were also fears a low turnout might let in a host of extremist parties, in particular the British National Party led by Nick Griffin.

The other piece of conventional wisdom was that the Conservative Party was close in a number of polls to its key 40 percent poll target. If Conservative Leader David Cameron were able to maintain this momentum over the three-week campaign, then he would be able to cruise into Downing Street with an overall majority of seats in the House of Commons.

The conventional wisdom proved entirely wrong. First, the innovation of TV debates between the three main party leaders enormously boosted the traditional "third party," the Liberal Democrats. The TV exposure it gave the Liberal's leader, Nick Clegg, and his attractive approach to political debate, watched by over 9 million people, led to an enormous 9 percent poll rise in Liberal support.

This caused panic in both Conservative and Labour ranks. The Conservatives feared that key Liberal target seats would no longer fall to them, and hundreds of thousands of Labour voters would switch to the Liberals rather than them, denying Conservative's a victory in a swathe of seats across the country. Even more alarming for Labour was that the polls after the first debate began to show them pushed into third place - and possible political extinction.

Meanwhile, Cleggmania gripped the country. The media hailed a breakthrough, columinists started talking of Liberal governments and female university students swooned at every Clegg appearance. Mid-campaign, the biggest public meetings and the biggest media scrum were not found with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, or David Cameron as Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, but with Liberal leader Nick Clegg.

In the subsequent two TV debates, both Cameron and Brown performed much better. Still, however, they were both faced with a significant rise in Liberal support, and it remained unclear till the final days of the campaign whether Labour would fall to third place.

The Clegg bubble began to deflate somewhat as the Conservative media held the Liberals' feet to the fire. The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph, The Sun and to some extent The Times went after the Liberals. Some of this questioning was entirely justified, such as whether the UK should proceed with upgrading Trident nuclear submarine fleet; Liberal enthusiasm for the Euro and a proposed anmnesty for illegal immigrants. Some of it was not. The most minor episodes of Clegg’s life were dragged up and twisted into distorted and dark smears. For instance a speech in 2002 on Britian's fraught relationship with the EU, was twisted into a an argument that Clegg was anti-British. These were pure smear tactics. To some extent, they backfired, as they led to a massive ironic Twitter campaign, nickcleggsfault, where everything was blamed on poor Mr. Clegg: from AIDS to the eruption of the Icelandic volcano.

While the Liberal bubble began to burst, media concern turned to Labour’s dangerously low poll ratings. In many of the dozen or so daily poll ratings Labour was coming in consistently third. Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown did not help himself by being recorded calling a solid Labour voter, Mrs Gillian Duffy, "a bigoted woman" an open microphone after early exchanging pleasantries with her. The picture of Gordon Brown slumped into a radio studio listening to a recording of his words about Mrs. Duffy was undoubtedly the lowest moment of the Labour campaign.

At this point, close to the end of the election, Labour really began to fear the wheels were coming off. There was real concern in Labour campaign headquarters that following the "bigotgate" incident, the core Labour vote would desert in droves. Gordon Brown, looking on the edge of a major defeat pulled himself together to keep on going. In the last few days of the campaign, he appeared to find his voice, and gave some of his most articulate and passionate performances. Labour also pushed out a powerful message to its core voters to come out on election day and stop an overwhelming Tory victory.

The last polls before election day showed Labour firmly back in second place and with a small surge. The Conservatives on 36-37 percent, Labour around 28-29 percent and the Liberals on 27-26 percent.

The final seat tally shows the Conservatives have fallen 19 seats short of an outright majority of 1 on 307 seats; Labour has 258 seats and the Liberal Democrats with 57 seats have not even matched their pre-election total of 63 seats. In percentage terms, the Conservatives obtained 36 percent of the vote; Labour 29.1 percent and the Liberal Democrats 23 percent. Turnout reached a high of 65.1 percent.

Now in Moscow you may well say-what happened to Cleggmania? How can they have only got 57 seats after all that good press and TV exposure? And what about the poll ratings? Part of the answer is the "first past the post" system. In the British system, we have single member constituencies and the candidate with the largest number of votes wins. When there are only two parties really competing for power it works really well. However, when you have a third party with a significant vote, and particularly where that vote is spread out thinly across the country, the Liberals will come second in lots of places but not actually win many seats.

This does not however explain the gap between Cleggmania and high poll ratings. The last one before election day gave the Liberals 26 percen of the vote, enough to see them home and dry, even with the existing election system, with at least 80 seats.

There are a number of explanations activists, political commentators and political scientists believe damaged the Liberal poll position in the closing days of the campaign. The first is that the Liberal vote was very soft. So while voters were enthused with Clegg’s performances, when it came to choosing a government, they stuck to Labour or Conservative. A second factor is policy. Once the media had highlighted policies such as granting an amnesty to illegal immigration and support for eventual Euro membership, many voters began to think twice. A third factor may well be Clegg’s decision in mid-campaign to talk about terms if Parliament was hung, that distracted the media away from his fresh ‘anti-politics’ message. A fourth probable factor was the impact of the negative media operation run by the Conservative press.

It would be also possible at first sight to criticize David Cameron. He was up against Gordon Brown, who is, to put it politely, not the world’s best political campaigner. Labour has been running the country for 13 years and Brown has presided over the economic crisis. Given the situation, some people think Cameron should have delivered a landslide.

In fact, David Cameron has almost delivered a landslide. In terms of the number of seats taken, the Conservatives have scored their greatest victory since 1931. The point is that it is necessary to look where the Conservatives have come from. The Conservatives, after three defeats by Labour, only had 210 seats in the House of Commons. It is a herculean task for the Conservatives to obtain a majority in one Parliament. In 1983, Labour fell to its own lowest post-war, modern seat count of 208 seats. It then took Labour three elections to get back into government. David Cameron has almost got back to majority government in one election.

What happens next is unclear. Hung Parliaments where no party has an overall majority occur rarely in the British political system and the politicians are not used to the compromises of coalition politics.

As I write, David Cameron has offered Nick Clegg ‘a big open comprehensive offer’ on developing a programme for government. The two leaders are now discussing terms. This may not lead to much more than an agreement not to bring the Conservatives down on a vote of confidence. If that happens we are likely to be repeating this election experience again in a few months time with Cameron pleading with the country for an overall majority.

However, there are two reasons why some form of stable coalition is possible. First, the state of the economy. The country needs a government with the necessary legitimacy to deal with the £163 billion ($239 billion) budget deficit. A Conservative-Liberal coalition would have that legitimacy. Secondly, none of the parties have any money to fight a second election soon. Poverty if nothing else may bind Clegg and Cameron together.

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