The Day After
I wasn’t planning to stay up last night watching the General Election results come in, but in the end I stuck with it until about 3am, basically hoping to understand what was going on. Even by that hour there didn’t seem to be a particularly clear pattern emerging, so off I went. I had a revision lecture this morning as well as a lot of other things so I didn’t fancy an all night sitting.
Whenever there’s a General Election I always pay attention to constituencies I used to live in to see how things are changing. Broxtowe (the constituency that contains Beeston, where I used to live when I worked at Nottingham University) changed hands from Labour to the Conservatives. It had been a Conservative marginal in 1997 when it was won during the New Labour landslide. It seemed fairly typical for seats like that to revert to what they were pre-Blair. Brighton – remarkably – returned Britains first ever Green Party MP. Bethnal Green returned to the Labour fold after a flirtation with George Galloway’s Respect party.
Meanwhile here in Cardiff the results were as mixed as elsewhere. My own constituency, Cardiff West, stayed Labour, as did Cardiff South (and Penarth). The Vale of Glamorgan reverted to its pre-1997 Tory hue, unsurprisingly. The Labour candidate in Cardiff North was the wife of former Welsh Assembly leader Rhodri Morgan and it was a definite surprise to see that seat turn blue too. Cardiff Central remained Liberal Democrat.
As it has turned out the exit polls got it just about right, with the Conservative Party leading the popular vote (36%) and number of seats (306), but not enough to make an overall majority. Labour (28%, 258 seats) and Liberal Democrats (23%, 57 seats) between them have a majority of the votes cast but don’t have enough seats to form a coalition. It’s a well and truly hung Parliament and we look set for days of discussions to see what kind of agreement can be reached between which parties. Gordon Brown remains Prime Minister until some kind of resolution is reached. We live in interesting times.
Although the election results were extremely interesting by virtue of their puzzlingly inhomogeneous variation across the country, they really amount to little more than a sideshow compared with the spreading panic on international markets. The markets fell sharply, not because of the hung parliament but as part of a worldwide panic over the knock-on effect of the Greece and Portugal sovereign debt problems. The contagion could be very dangerous if Greece can’t convince traders that it’s not going to default and in an attempt to do so its government has put together a severe austerity package. Cue violent unrest. The Greeks live in even more interesting times than us.
I’m not going to pretend that I have the slightest clue how either of these things will pan out, but I’m not very optimistic about the forthcoming months. I hope I’m wrong. We’ll see.
The other thing that struck me was the story of people being unable to vote because of long queues at the polling stations near 10pm when they closed. At first I wasn’t at all sympathetic. Polls are open from 7am until 10pm, so there’s no need to turn up with only 5 minutes remaining. However, it then emerged that some polling stations couldn’t cope with the large turnout and people had been queuing for hours by the time the doors closed. The turnout was 65% nationally, higher than last time but by no means ridiculously high. In fact I think it’s a shame the usual turnout isn’t very much higher than this. However, turnout seems to have been much higher in certain wards and the staff unprepared for the demand, sometimes with insufficient ballot papers and sometimes with out-of-date copies of the electoral register. I don’t mind saying that I found this level of incompetence deeply shaming. We can’t afford to be so careless with our democratic system. It doesn’t matter if only a few hundred people were affected. It’s the principle that matters.
Over the next few days there’ll be a lot of discussion about electoral reform. Perhaps the fact that our current electoral system seems to be showing signs of neglect might generate some impetus for change, quite apart from the scandals of MPs fiddling their expenses. I’ve always been on the fence over proportional representation. Our system is absurd in some respects, delivering huge majorities in the Commons to parties with only a modest share of the popular vote. On the other hand our country is so divided that it’s not obvious what the short-term consequences of changing to PR would be. It seems likely, for one thing, that fringe parties such as the neo-fascist BNP would actually be represented in Westminster. I find that a repulsive prospect, but putting up with people you can’t abide is one of the consequences of democracy.
I have an open mind on electoral reform and I’d like to hear the arguments for and against different systems of PR aired properly. Presumably the Liberal Democrats will want a referendum on this as part of the price of their support in a coalition, so no doubt there’ll be a lot of chat about this.