Friday, May 21, 2010

The curious case of voting for no one

The gap between my writing this article and your reading it will be an interesting one. Right now, I am sitting in Belfast, watching the outworking of the 2010 British election as it swings from one potential outcome to another. By the time you read this article, however, the question of which poli- tical parties will be ruling the country will, more than likely, be resolved.

The 2010 election result in the UK, as everyone knows by now, produced a hung Parliament. This means that, of the 650 seats up for grabs, no single party managed to secure a majority of 326. The Conservative Party won 306, the Labour Party 258 and the Liberal Democrats 57. Faced with this scenario, either the Conservatives could have formed a minority government or at least two of the parties had to form a coalition to make an overall majority.

At the moment, that is while I write and not as you read, there is no coalition deal or minority government. The Liberal Democra- tic Party is locked in negotiations with the Conservative Party and the Labour Party.

The point I wish to make, however, does not concern my political soothsaying abilities (or lack thereof), or ultimately who gets into bed with whom, politically speaking, but rather concerns why Britain found itself in the curious predicament of a hung Parliament in the first place.

Clearly, no one really won the election. The coalition that is inevitably running the show as you read this article no doubt told the British electorate it has a mandate to govern, but the truth is this mandate exists only if the political parties in question work together. On one level, this is a ringing endorsement for consensus politics; on another, it points to the fact that the British public largely did not trust any one party to govern.

Given the recent history of British politics, this is not surprising. Tony Blair systematically undermined public confidence by driving home decisions that the majority did not support, such as the Iraq war. Gordon Brown was gifted the office of Prime Minister without an election, and dozens of MPs were shown to be systematically feathering their own nests during the expenses scandal. This has left many people in the country feeling profoundly distrustful of politicians, or, at the very least, the political parties they represent.

This distrust has even deeper historical roots. There obviously was a desire to do away with the Labour Party and Brown’s bumbling style of governance. But, equally, given the long shadow of Margaret Thatcher and the drastic impact her reign had on the poor in Britain, no one wanted to give the Conservatives an unfettered opportunity to dominate government either.

In Northern Ireland, the picture was similar. Although people continued to vote for the large parties like the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), at the same time, the people chose to decapitate some of the very same political parties. For example, the leader of the DUP, and First Minister of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson, who has been defend- ing himself over various financial and other scandals, lost his seat after holding it for three decades.

So, I do not know what the new coalition in the UK will look like, but I imagine it is in place by now. No single party will be able to legislate freely. Compromise will be the order of the day. This could prove to be the ‘third way’ Blair was always looking for or an unmitigated disaster as previous political enemies try to work together.

Either way, the people have spoken. The message is clear: if politicians want an unequi- vocal mandate, then they need to govern for the people and not for themselves. I wonder how long it will take for the South African electorate to figure that out.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, May 2010. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 21 May 2010.