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May 17, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Did Tories win British election?

Unlike the world of sports, where contests usually take place between two teams, or in some sort of clearly structured playoff system or individual tournament, in politics it's often hard to say who really "won." For one thing, you can never be quite certain who is on whose side, and for another, the competition itself never really ends. That is why it's hard to assess the meaning of the big electoral gains registered by the Conservative Party in Great Britain. It's hard to deny that the 91 seat loss in the House of Commons was a stern repudiation of the Labour Party under the stewardship of past Prime Minister Gordon Brown, but it's not at all clear that the 97-seat gain by the Tories (Conservatives) under new Prime Minister David Cameron signifies a public endorsement of their agenda. Just as in America, many Britons are angry at the poor economy, and voters everywhere are prone to lash out at the incumbents, whether they really understand the underlying issues or not.

Without a majority (326 seats our of 650) in the House of Commons, the Conservatives had to make a deal with the Liberal Democrats, who agreed to a power-sharing arrangement. It took a few days for all this to be sorted out, as Gordon Brown toyed with the idea of clinging to power, or stepping aside and letting another Labour leader retain power by making a bargain with minor parties, but it didn't work out. The period of uncertainty lasted three or four days, and it was one of those rare situations where the opinion of the Queen of England might have had a decisive effect on the nation's government.

And so, this will be the first coalition government in Britain since the early 1970s, which was also a time of deep economic crisis. The big problem is that Britain has a large third party, and several minor parties (Northern Irish and Scottish Nationalist, mostly) that siphon away votes from the Big Two, so it's sometimes hard to get a majority of seats in Parliament. Because Britain has a winner-take-all single-member district electoral system (as we do in the U.S.), there is a built-in disadvantage for minor parties, who rarely have much chance to win seats. It is astonishing that the Liberal Democrats have more than 20% support nationwide, even though they hold fewer than 10% of the seats. That is a sign of deep dissatisfaction with the Big Two parties. Cameron picked a bad time to become P.M., as the European economy is is crisis mode, and working people everywhere are tired of having their lifestyles degraded via budgetary austerity measures. He says the 2010 election marks a "historic and seismic shift" in British politics (see BBC), but it remains to be seen whether he can stay in control of the political forces that have been unleashed. Cameron will have to make some tough choices, and he will need the support of the Liberal Democratic Party to get anything passed in the House of Commons, so it's really up to them how long Cameron lasts.

It was five years ago, in May 2005, that Tony Blair led his Labour Party to a third consecutive electoral victory, in spite of mounting public displeasure over his policy of supporting the U.S. war effort in Iraq. It was almost inevitable that Blair would have to step aside and let Brown take over, but Tony is still young, so if Cameron can't get much done, perhaps there will be a resurgence of support for moderate leftists like Blair once again.

For Americans, the big question is what this means for trans-Atlantic relations. President Obama has dropped heavy hints that he no longer considers there to be a "special relationship" between London and Washington. So how will the right-leaning government in the U.K. deal with the left-leaning government in the U.S.? Interestingly, the new foreign secretary, William Hague, seems to pursuing virtually the same foreign policy agenda that the previous Labour government was doing. See Andrew Sullivan. It's another reminder that foreign policy tends to be marked by far more continuity than domestic policy, notwithstanding changes of party control.

On a personal note, I wish that this election had taken place a bit earlier, so that we could have discussed in my Government classes. It's a rare opportunity for Americans to get to understand the parliamentary system that prevails in Europe and in certain other parts of the world.

Decision 2010: U.K.

Year Labour Liberal Democrats Conservatives Others
Seats Vote % Seats Vote % Seats Vote % Seats Vote %
2010 258 29.0% 57 23.0% 306 36.1% 28 12%
change -91 -6.2% -5 +1.0% +97 +3.8% -1
2005 329 37% 51 24% 159 32% ? ?

SOURCE: BBC. NOTE: Discrepancies between the 2010, 2005, and the net change figures reflect off-year by-elections, party switches, etc.

And so, I have updated the Foreign leaders page, including the name of David Cameron as the new P.M. I've been reformatting a lot of the background information pages lately, so this was an opportune time for a content update, as was the case with the recent Supreme Court nomination Elena Kagan.

That makes three more political background information pages that I have updated:

And more yet to come!

The Euro crisis

In Europe right now, there is a very delicate situation in trying to maintain the Euro and prevent a financial panic. Talks between the E.U. and the Greek government over a bailout have made progress, but the crisis isn't over yet. Those striking workers in Athens know they are holding the continental economy hostage, which is why they are being so "unreasonable" in their demands that no cuts in public salaries or pension benefits be made. Even the most tight-fisted governments such as Germany (under Chancellor Angela Merkel) would probably chip in for a modest-scale bailout rather than risk a spreading wave of industrial bankruptcies. It's the downside of continental economic integration. I have been a "Euro-skeptic" for many years, so this is no surprise to me at all. But for the time being, I'd be willing to bet that pride will force the leaders of Europe to make extreme sacrifices of their own people's well-being just to save the Euro, even though it is in a strictly utilitarian sense, irrational. C'est la vie.

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 18 May 2010, 1: 30 AM

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