Britain’s May 6 general election was different from previous elections both in the way the campaigns were conducted and in its final outcome.
The turnout was a respectable 65 percent, some 4 percent better than at the previous election in 2005. The electoral commission made insufficient arrangements for voting in some constituencies and some voters were turned away without voting when the polls closed.
With 36 percent of the votes cast the Conservatives took 306 seats, an increase of 96. The Labour Party with 29 percent of the votes took 258 seats, a loss of 91 seats. The Liberal Democrats slightly increased their share of the votes to 23 percent but only took 57 seats, a loss of 6 seats. Other parties such as the Scottish and Welsh nationalists and Northern Irish Parties took 28 seats, including one seat won by the Green Party.
Britain thus had a “hung parliament” where no single party has an overall majority. Labor Party leader Gordon Brown, who remained prime minister until he resigned May 11, tried to woo the Liberal Democrats into a coalition of the left, but such a “rainbow coalition” would have been dependent on the minor parties, whose parochial demands for funds would have been exorbitant. In the end Brown was forced to recognize that such a coalition would be unstable and would be regarded in the country as a sordid bid to remain in power despite Labour’s defeat at the polls.
A coalition of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats was the only combination that could command a majority. Britain now therefore has a coalition government led by Prime Minister David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party, and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg as his deputy.
Up to late on May 11 it was not clear that such a coalition could be achieved. It required willingness on the part of both parties — many of whose members were opposed to many of the policies advocated by the other party — to compromise and work together. Some Liberal Democrats are ideologically closer to Labour than to the Conservatives and the Conservative Party still includes rightwing Thatcherites.
But it was clear to Cameron and Clegg that at a time when Britain faces a serious economic situation the electorate would not forgive them for playing politics. They accepted the challenge and negotiators for both parties worked hard to work out pragmatic policy compromises and agree on the allocation of portfolios.
The election had been different from previous contests. A large number of members of the former House of Commons had been tainted by the expenses scandal and decided not to stand for re-election. Over a third of the members in the new House of Commons are new to Westminster and have much to learn about politics and procedure. Britain, although it has around half of the population of Japan, has 650 individual seats where “the first past the post” electoral system applies.
For the first time in a general election in Britain, three 90-minute electoral debates between the leaders of the three parties were held on television. In the first of these debates Lib Dem leader Clegg, hitherto hardly known, achieved a considerable success and the media began to speak of Clegg-mania. In the second two debates Cameron’s performance improved while Brown showed himself as wooden and repetitive.
This was a presidential-style election and personalities began to become increasingly important. Brown emphasized his experience and the achievements of his government and some undecided voters had doubts about the inexperience of the Conservative and Liberal Democratic party leaders who promised change. But Brown had alienated many Labour Party supporters and helped to ensure his party’s electoral defeat.
The tasks facing the new coalition government are enormous. Despite the apparent willingness and determination on the part of both parties and their leaders to make the coalition work, it will be far from easy to achieve continuing consensus.
The first problem will be how and where to make the cuts needed in public expenditure. In principle all are agreed that this is a top priority but “the devil will be in the detail.” The two parties have different views on taxation. While both parties have made concessions over the policies announced in their manifestos, there seem likely to be acrimony over the application and timing of cuts and tax changes.
Both parties agree that politics must be cleaned up and the Conservatives have reluctantly agreed to a referendum on voting reform, but the Lib Dem demand for some form of proportional representation is anathema to many members of the Conservative Party who believe that the present first-past-the-post system of voting is the only one that can ensure stable government. It may be easier to achieve other political reforms, including perhaps agreement on a largely elected upper house to replace the House of Lords.
Another area of disagreement is that of relations with Europe where the Conservatives verge on the Euro-skeptic while the Liberal Democrats tend to be pro-EU. The Greek financial crisis has convinced most Lib Dems that Britain should not join the single currency in the next few years.
On defense, the parties disagree on the need to replace the Trident nuclear-missile system. The manifestos of the two parties also contain significant differences in many other policy areas and if the coalition is to survive and tackle the real problems Britain faces both parties will need to be pragmatic and willing to reach compromises.
Both parties do agree on many important issues, particularly the importance of doing away with Labour government laws and regulations that have infringed on personal liberty and rights.
The coalition has started well and it is very much in the interests of the British people that this experiment in coalition government succeed.
Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.