POLITICS APRIL 21, 2010
What, you ask, is going on? The honest answer is that no one in Britain really knows what is happening with our election. Just a few months ago, it was all very simple: Fiscal collapse and a much-loathed prime minister equals stonking victory for David Cameron's remodeled Conservative Party.
The next government will still have to survive an Era of No Money, and Gordon Brown is no more popular than he was last year, but everything else has changed and an election that once promised to be somewhat dull has become a deliciously unpredictable, even absurd, spectacle.
The first seeds that something odd and unusual might be growing came in the first week of the campaign, when polls reported surprisingly strong showings for the Liberal Democrats in key marginals. But it was last Thursday's televised debate that really allowed Nick Clegg, the young, hitherto little recognised Liberal Democrat leader to make a startling impression that has changed the election utterly.
Clegg devised a ploy that was devilishly cunning: He reminded viewers that, despite what they may have been told, it is not actually illegal or even socially embarrassing to vote for the Liberal Democrats.
Overnight, by virtue of not being one of, as he put it, the two "old parties" (itself a cheek since the Liberals' roots go back to Gladstone and beyond) Clegg's party leapt eight points in the polls.
One poll putting the Liberals--traditionally supported by roughly one in five voters--ahead of Labour seemed to be an amusing entertainment. But suddenly there were two, three, four, many polls agreeing that the Liberal Democrats were, pinch yourself, in second place. One even put them in the lead.
For the last five days, Britain has been waiting for two things: the Iclandic ash cloud to move on and the Liberal Democrats to come back down to earth. Neither shows any sign of happening.
All this poses a number of problems, not the least of which is that the nature of Britain's political system is such that the Liberals could "win" the election in terms of votes but actually come third in terms of seats won. The great virtue of the first-past-the-post system is its clarity in awarding victory; the problem is that this clarity depends upon there only being two viable parties. For the first time since Labour supplanted the old Liberal party in the 1920s, this is no longer the case.
So, yes, the party with the fewest votes could win the most seats, while the one with the most votes could end up with the fewest seats. And you thought the electoral college was odd? Labour support is narrow but deep, while the Lib Dems' vote is wide but thin. Out-of-date constituency boundaries also favour Labour.
The playing field is so tilted in Labour's favor, in fact, that if all three parties won 30 percent of the vote, Labour would win approximately 300 seats, the Conservatives roughly 200, and the Liberal Democrats around 100. This, you may agree, is a pretty quaint way to organize a twenty-first century democracy.
Then again, Britain remains a country in which descendents of royal mistresses are permitted seats in the legislature by virtue of the services their long-dead forbears rendered to long-dead tumescent kings and princes. So by that standard, the electoral system, rickety as it may be when there are more than two credible players, could be considered a mild improvement.
Anyway, you can see why reforming the voting system is an urgent, long-cherished Liberal Democrat ambition. In 2005, for instance, they won 22 percent of the vote but only 9 percent of seats. Labour, by contrast, scooped up 55 percent of seats on 35 percent of the votes. The Conservatives won 32 percent of the vote but just 30 percent of the seats. Put in these terms, the system seems eccentric, I agree.
Being traditionalists, the Tories are opposed to changing the way in which Britain plumps for its governments. Coincidentally, they fear that moving to a more proportional system would guarantee almost permanent left-of-center rule. Rarely do principle and self-interest come together in such happy fashion.
Until recently--that is, until Gordon Brown had a suspiciously convenient conversion--Labour was also opposed to assisting the Liberals. Desperate times demand desperate measures, however, and the noblest thing a politician can do is lay down his principles for his future. So Brown now believes in electoral reform and has offered the Liberals a referendum (and a fully elected House of Lords) at some unspecified date in the future.
This poses a ticklish problem for Clegg. How can he be an "agent of change" and prop up a discredited Labour government in the event of a hung parliament? The number of seats is the traditional measurement of success, and Britain's (unwritten) constitution dictates that in the event of a hung parliament in which no party enjoys an overall majority, the leader of the party with the most seats is invited by the Queen to try and form a government.
The Liberals could decide to be modern, however, and take the view that a party's share of the vote matters more than the number of seats won. This might open the door to a Tory-Liberal deal, even though more Lib Dem voters would rather sleep with Labour than the Conservatives. It is all very imponderable.
And who are the Liberal Democrats anyway? A rum bunch, frankly.
They're made up of a few classical liberal types and rather more bearded, sandal-wearing geography teachers, many of whom, the suspicion has always been, also knit their own yogurt. In American terms, then, they're a bizarro mash-up of New Hampshire and Vermont.
This is reflected in their manifesto: The Liberals want to raise tax allowances for the poor, cancel Britain's nuclear weapons, slash public spending, increase taxes for the rich, and embrace the European Union. Most importantly, they also insist that night buses taking drunken Britons back to their suburban homes should let passengers alight between stops.
These, then, may be the men and women who will decide the nature and make-up of the next British government. As I say, these are strange times.
A former Washington correspondent for The Scotsman, Alex Massie writes a blog for The Spectator.