So, here we are. The Big Day. #GE2010. Those of you outside these green and pleasant lands might not know there’s an election on and today is the day that Brits go to the polls, stick their cross in a box (could that sound any more dirty? Or is it just me) and pick a new government.
The thing is that this year, more than any other year for a long time, the prospect of a hung (or if you’re from the SNP or Plaid, a ‘balanced’) parliament looms over this election like a giant black rain cloud. Now, I accept that in some other countries, notably Germany, a hung parliament/coalition government works. But there are as many countries where it doesn’t. Italy and Israel anyone? It almost seems like they have to elect a government every other year because the current coalition has collapsed. And British history shows that the country has made its biggest strides when it has had a strong government with a healthy majority.
I suppose, given that I know many of the readers of this blog are from outside of the UK, I better just explain how the election of a government here works. Firstly, we elect members to the House of Commons only, not the House of Lords (the upper chamber). Secondly, we don’t actually elect a Prime Minister, we elect a Member to represent the local constituency using a ‘first past the post’ system. This of course, is what calls for the likes of the Liberal Democrats, Greens et al to claim the system is so unfair. First Past the Post tends to elect a Member from one of the two main parties, Labour and Conservative, with a smattering of LibDems that in no way reflects the national share of the vote.
The system is also biased towards the Labour Party. They need a lower overall national share of the vote to win a majority than the other parties because their core vote tends to be concentrated in large inner-cities where there is also a greater concentration of seats available. There are 650 seats in the House of Commons and each seat is supposed to represent roughly the same number of people living in each constituency, so because population density is greater in inner-cities, that’s why there are more seats in inner-cities too.
Is this system unfair like the LibDems and others claim? Yes. Without question. According to the BBC ‘seat' calculator’ if the current opinion poll numbers (don’t get me started about opinion polls) are accurate (they won’t be, they have a 3% margin of error either way so a 6% lead for one party could in fact be a 12% lead and still be within the MoE. Crazy) then Labour could end up with 42% of the seats for only 29% of the national vote, Tory’s would have the same 42% with 35% of the vote and the poor old LibDems would suffer only 12% of the seats for 26% of the vote – half of what they ‘deserve’.
Of course, all this is based on what’s happened in previous elections and I really do think we’re in for a shock of 1992 proportions or bigger when the results come out overnight. (For those that don’t know, the exit polls in 92 announced after the election closed predicted a Labour win for Neil Kinnock but were very, very wrong, with John Major’s Tories clinging to power)
But here’s the thing, the system as it is works. Look back at the last time we had a hung parliament in the UK. The election of February 1974 resulted in a Lib/Lab government under Harold Wilson that lasted until just October of that very same year.
Now compare that with the governments since that have commanded large majorities in the House of Commons – notably those of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, both of which had massive influence and changed the country radically.
Thatcher is without question the most divisive leader of the UK ever – with the possible exception of Oliver Cromwell who was, after all, responsible for the Civil War. But love her or loath her (and there is no in between, on one who lived under Thatcher can be described as being ambivalent towards her) there is no doubt that the Britain she left behind when forced from office by her own party was a totally different one from the one she inherited.
And while Tony was perhaps not quite as radical as Thatcher, he still oversaw massive changes in the way the country is run and the outlook of its people.
So I’m hoping that tonight we don’t end up with a ‘balanced’ parliament. I’m hoping there will be a clear and decisive victor. But I’m also hoping the result will shake things up a bit. I’m hoping that the electorate stick two fingers up to the media and pollsters who seem to have spent this past month telling us what a great political story it would be if there was a hung parliament. Yes, the media don’t really care who wins as long as they do, and they win by being able to stretch the story out for as long as possible.
I think tonight will be interesting. It may even be as dramatic as 1997. Who knows? It will, as they say, all become clear in the morning.