Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Tories' 3/8 mandate

In the next chapter of Adventures in Inexpert Blogging, we turn to British politics.

I do not understand the moral high dudgeon of various Brit observers contemplating the possibility of a Liberal-Labour coalition -- which flared briefly as a live possibility when Gordon Brown resigned on Monday (his personality and perhaps track record had apparently impeded prior talks).  Here's Alex Massie in today's Times (New York):
...looking back, it was touch and go. On Monday evening it seemed as though Mr. Brown’s audacious, last-gasp maneuver might work. Although Mr. Clegg had suggested that the Conservatives’ plurality in last Thursday’s vote gave them the first right to form a government, Mr. Brown revealed on Monday that the Liberal Democrats were courting Labour.

Then, a seemingly endless parade of Labour ministers appeared on television insisting that, despite losing 91 seats in the House of Commons and getting two million votes fewer than the Conservatives, they had not actually lost the election. Like Monty Python’s Black Knight, they claimed defeat was “only a flesh wound” and nothing serious enough to require a change of government.

And so the electorate was asked to contemplate the extraordinary spectacle of a Labour-Liberal Democrat “Losers’ Alliance.” While constitutionally permissible, such an arrangement can’t be squared with any residual British sense of fair play. More pertinent, it wouldn’t even have commanded a majority in the House of Commons, and would have had to purchase the support of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parties.

Fortunately, sanity prevailed. Talks with Labour broke down...
To those steeped in the norms of British politics (especially Tories), perhaps a Lib-Lab coalition would have seemed like an end run. There seems to be an expectation that the single party with the most votes, whether or not it wins a majority,  has not only first dibs on forming a government but a moral right to form one, barring extraordinary circumstances. 
Indeed, resistance to Britain adopting the European system of proportional representation seems to be based on avoiding the fragile and/or fractious coalitions of other parliamentary systems. Perhaps an alliance of the second- and third-place parties evokes such coalition politics more than a first-second alliance. Moreover, there is a degree of policy overlap between the Tories and Liberal Democrats that are unimaginable between the major parties in the U.S. today. Massie:
...while the parties inhabit opposite wings of the political spectrum, they have a surprising amount in common. On civil liberties, tax reform, education reform and decentralizing the political system — the keystones of the Tories’ “Big Society” package — they share a philosophical commitment that puts the individual before the state and a political belief in the value of Edmund Burke’s “little platoons”: families, neighborhood associations, charities, churches and the like.

But needless to say, a Lib-Lab coalition would not have required proportional representation -- it would have been a natural alliance within the current system, as the two parties are closer ideologically than either is to the Tories.  The notion that an electorate in which only 37% voted Tory would have its will thwarted by a union of ideological cousins that together won more than 60% of the vote  seems perverse.

Set beside Massie's postmortem Gideon Rachman's read in the immediate aftermath of Brown's resignation:
Clegg and his cohorts are now opening formal talks with Labour. But, of course, that could just be a gambit to try to force a better offer out of the Tories. David Cameron must have been visualising himself in Downing Street within days. Now he has to face the prospect that it might never happen. Worse, the whole Conservative Party is suddenly facing the prospect of electoral oblivion. If a Lib-Lab coalition is formed and manages to push through electoral reform that could end the prospect of the Conservatives ever governing on their own again. For, as the Lib-Lab advocates keep insisting, there does seem to be a natural anti-Conservative majority in Britain. Between them Labour and the Lib Dems got 15m votes in the recent election, compared to 10m for the Tories.

The key phrase here is "natural anti-Conservative majority."  Three eighths of the electorate doth not a mandate make.

In the end it would seem that the system worked. There was a competitive three-way negotiation. Each party pursued its interest, and one would hope the interest of the country. But a different result would not have been an affront to voters -- as far as this outsider can tell.

UPDATE: I should have read Clive Crook before posting:
Meanwhile, in any event, this will be an unnatural alliance. One Liberal Democrat of my acquaintance tells me that it may split the party. Few Lib Dems have been waiting in the wilderness all these years to serve as junior partners in a Tory-led coalition. As I mentioned before, many of the party's policies are to the left of Labour's. The message that Brown and Mandelson have been broadcasting in the past day or two about a progressive alliance was disingenuous, no doubt, but not wrong. Labour and the Lib Dems are much closer than Tories and Lib Dems.
It's interesting to see Brit journalists, who sometimes seem a tad ESL in their dealings with U.S. politics, navigate the nuances on their home ground.

Further update: a pox upon me for creating this post ass-backwards.  Here's Jonathan Bernstein, pivoting off Chait, on the question of Brit majorities and majorities generally:

There is no "correct" democratic answer to the quandry: Labour surely lost the election, the Lib-Dems surely didn't win it, and yet combined they surely do have more seats (and received far more votes) than the Conservative Party by itself. 

To me, this is an excellent argument for a system that forces compromise before the election (that is, by building two large, coalition-type parties) and after the government is formed (by using a system of separated institutions sharing powers), instead of a multiparty system that forces compromise after the election and a parliamentary system that readily enacts whatever the resulting government wants.  But whether you agree with me or not about that, what it does help to make clear is that any majorities in large nations are constructed, not natural, just as James Madison realized -- which means, in my opinion, being careful about how much authority one gives to those majorities.
All majorities are constructed. See Madison. Alas, it's back to the day job...

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