What if they held an election and everyone lost?

So the exit polls released at 10:00 last night, which appeared a bit implausible at the time, seem to have been about right. The Conservatives are likely to be just over 300, Labour between 250 and 260, and the LibDems under 60. Is it possible for every party to lose an election–every major party that is?

Presumably David Cameron has been closely studying Stephen Harper, and will try to do as much as he can with a plurality of seats, treading carefully while also daring the opposition to vote down bills deemed to be matters of “confidence” and force a new election. On the other hand, Gordon Brown remains PM and indications are he will try to make a deal with Nick Clegg and the LibDems. Clegg appeared to throw cold water on the idea earlier this morning, reiterating his statement during the campaign that a party that has the most seats and votes should be given a chance. Of course, a chance is not a guarantee; his statement appeared to leave open other possibilities if he does not like what Cameron has to say to him.

Then again, maybe Cameron won’t have much to say to Clegg. It looks to me as if the small regional parties are the only real “winners.” Cameron may talk to them first about gaining at least their abstention on a budget and Queen’s Speech. I am not sure that deals between one national party and a set of regional parties would be very good for British democracy. Maybe it’s even the worst possible outcome, other than Labour having come third in votes and first in seats, as several projections a couple of weeks ago implied. On the other hand, Spanish democracy works relatively well with a big national party dealing selectively with regional parties. Maybe that’s the real “doing something different” that will come out of this election. The price demanded by such parties, such as the Northern Ireland DUP, might not be very high for a national plurality party to pay–concessions on budgets and authority for the regional governments, for example.* Of course, the current economic situation might make even the relatively low price too high to pay, at least politically.

Another winner is the Green Party. Even if they have only one seat (Brighton Pavilion), Caroline Lucas, currently an MEP, will be the first UK Green MP. That’s one more seat for the potential “progressive coalition” that Brown would like to stitch together. Such a coalition would have more seats than the Tories (apparently), and a majority of the votes. But would it be progressive or regressive? It would be a coalition centered on two parties that took substantial steps back in seat totals (though the Liberal Democrats apparently gained about a percentage point in votes on their 2005 share). And it, too, would need to deal with regional parties.

Another possibility might be a formal opposition agreement between Labour and the Liberal Democrats to serve as an alternative government-in-waiting, and which would try to legislate some of its priorities over the heads of the Conservatives, while letting Cameron’s team put in place (and pay the expected political price for) most of its budget plans. Electoral reform via an opposition majority? That would be a strange and interesting outcome! Not that I am predicting or betting on it…

We will not know right away who will be PM, but the safe money remains on Cameron as head of a single-party minority cabinet.

Update (9 May, 11 a.m. UK time): Later in the day, Friday, Cameron implied he would pursue a formal coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Talks are ongoing as of Sunday, though it will remain a difficult agreement to pull off.


* In a surprise, the First Minister of Northern Ireland (and Westminster MP), Peter Robinson, lost his East Belfast seat. (Presumably much to do with the sensational scandal that surrounded the “Swish Family Robinson” in recent months.)

4 thoughts on “What if they held an election and everyone lost?

  1. “Is it possible for every party to lose an election – every major party that is?”

    It has happened. Mogens N. Petersen once wrote a book chapter about the Danish 1973 election called “The Defeat of All Parties” – all five parties represented in the 1971 lost massively. The 1970s were pretty messy.

    UK is slightly different because the Conservatives have made a win in vote share but not enough to win a majority in seats. And yes: In a historical perspective 36% of the vote is an unimpressive performance. But maybe winning more than 35% is very, very hard in Western Europe (including Germany) these days?

  2. Britain has serious financial and cultural problems, which were created or worsened by the long period of Labour government AND the long prior period of Conservative government.

    The Liberal Democrats at least offer a genuine alternative, but the problem is that their parties on Europe and immigration are unpopular. And I’m not sure if we can blame the voters here. On Europe, we are asking the voters to vote for a party that wants Britain to join the Euro right at the moment when the Greek crisis has exposed all the flaws in the project (the immigration issue is more complicated, but though I have reservations about the anti-immigration consensus among the electorate I don’t think its crazy).

    So they are in a situation where just about any result of the election would have been bad. Voters have reason to be distrust all three major parties (though the Lib Dems a bit less than the others). It was an interesting election but not a happy election. Maybe the closest historical parellel is 1974.

  3. Also, I think the debates had a big impact, but not the way pundits thought at the time.

    During the last parliament the Liberal Democrats went through two leadership meltdowns. The last time this happened to them, in the 1970s, they suffered a 5% drop in their popular vote in the next election and it was considered a good result for them because they could have lost more. Also, I think Clegg was a poor choice as a leader compared to Huhne, the latter’s background and policy preferences made him more likely to connect with the average voter, and he was relatively strong on the environment which is becoming a more important issue, especially for the UK which has more to lose than most countries if climate change and energy shortages actually happen.

    The Liberal revival after 1962 tended to take place outside of Labour’s industrial heartlands, so there are lots of Conservative – Lib Dem marginals compared with the number of Liberal -Labour marginals. I ran the calculations through the Electoral Calculus site, and any sizable Conservative advance was likely to deprive the Liberals of alot of seats. Drop the Liberal vote by 5% and they go back to their 1980s or even 1970s levels of seats. Likewise, it was difficult to see how the Conservatives could get a majority without taking back at least two dozen of the seats they lost to the Lib Dems in the 1990s.

    And there was the chance of voters being sick enough of Labour to move in large numbers of the Tories just to preclude any possibility of Labour returning due to a split vote or a coalition, similar to the stampede from the New Democrats to the Liberals in Canada in 1993.

    And the Liberal Democrats did lose seats to the Conservatives. But not as many as I thought they were going to as recently as two months ago. The post-debate bounce for Clegg was never going to result in a significant advance for the Liberal Democrats because their strategic situation was actually quite weak. But it may have saved them from some serious losses. I think the media overstates the effects of these debates but they probably swing 3% to 4% of the vote.

    Proposing the debate was a major mistake on the part of Cameron. I think he thought Brown would turn it down.

  4. Ed, the Euro and european federalism were unpopular in the UK long before the present crisis. I dont think the UK can throw stones though-after the Greek refinancing, they are now the champions of Europe in deficits. Worst thing is, they may have no choice but to maintain the deficit in the short term-they cant export their way out of the crisis like the Germans might, for example, and they are still heavily dependent on the financial industry, whi h has the sword of damocles hanging over its head.

    All in all, even a majority govt would have problems-and Tory party unity is I think overstated as it is. Outright success might have helped solder the cracks, but they are already showing. Perhaps thats Camerons interest in a formal agreement-a minority govt might be as much at risk from his right wing as the unreliability of any minor party partners. So the attraction for a more padded majority, I guess.

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