Thursday’s British election produced no clear winner. The Conservatives won the most votes, but they are still 20 seats short of the 326 seats required for an overall majority in parliament. David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, and Gordon Brown, leader of the Labour Party, have both made overtures to the Liberal Democrats who hold the balance of power. It’s puzzling to think about how the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives would work together in a coalition, not least because coalitions are a rarity in Britain, but also because they have staunchly opposing views on the European Union and public expenditure.
I spoke with Jonathan Hopkin, senior lecturer in comparative politics, Department of Government, London School of Economics to get his take on this unusual election.
Lucy Kennedy: It looks like there’s going to be a hung parliament and no one party is going to win a majority. So what happens from here?
Jonathan Hopkin: Right, well, it’s sort of happening now because there needs to be some kind of agreement which would allow one of the party leaders to attempt to form a government. And at the moment this all depends on negotiations between the party leaders. We’ve had statements from all three party leaders now: Basically Gordon Brown and David Cameron are both making offers to the Liberal Democrats to invite them to sustain their bid to be prime minister.
Kennedy: There have been mixed reactions to Nick Clegg’s reaching out to the Conservatives first. On the one hand, you can ask, well, why are you showing your cards so early? But I’ve also heard that this is a clever approach. Can you explain this?
Hopkin: Well the point is that Labour was in power, they did have majority. They lost more than 80 seats in this election and suffered a series of electoral defeats. For the Liberal Democrats to then immediately begin negotiating with Labour to form a coalition government in which Labour would probably retain control of the Prime Minister’s office I think would be perceived as subverting the election result. So it’s a wise move for them to accept that David Cameron is the leader of the party that won the most votes and seats in this election, and should have a first shot at attempting to form a government. That’s wise politics because it would appear a backward step for Clegg to do anything different.
Kennedy: If you have a Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition, what is that going to mean for public sector spending? There’s got to be huge cuts anyway, but how will both these parties work together on something like that?
Hopkin: Well that’s a really interesting question, because we’ve seen from David Cameron’s speech … [that he made an] offer to the Liberal Democrats for a coalition, and the main features of that offer were actually increasing deficit-spending policy measures and a pupil premium in education. So, this doesn’t look like a good start in reducing the deficit, if a deal between these two parties is based upon increasing the size of the deficit. So it’s really quite hard to see how this coalition could work in terms of reducing the deficit because clearly nobody wants to take the blame for the spending cuts that would be necessary. My feeling is that the Liberal Democrats have an awful lot to lose from a coalition of this kind, and I would be quite surprised if they actually accepted the offer that David Cameron has made. I think it is more likely that they would agree to allow a Conservative government to function by not seeking to defeat it but I don’t think that they would want to tie themselves to conceptive policies that are likely to include a lot of unpopular decisions.
Kennedy: So, if I understand you correctly, then you are saying that there is a possibility that there could be a minority government in power, is that right?
Hopkin: Yeah, the Conservatives are at the moment looking like they will have something like 305 seats, which leaves them 20 short. They would usually find it reasonably easy to make a deal with the unionist MPs in Northern Ireland which would give them around another nine seats, so that would take them up to, oh, less than 10 seats short of an overall majority. At that point, you can actually get most bills though parliament unless every other party decides to vote again. So all they would need is the Liberal Democrats to [not] take the opportunity to defeat the government. They don’t really need the Liberal Democrats to actually throw in their support. So at the moment, for me, a minority government looks the most likely outcome simply because I don’t think the Conservatives are willing to offer what the Liberal Democrats would need for it to be worth their while.
Kennedy: So, how long is all this going to take?
Hopkin: Ha. If I knew. My feeling is that it probably won’t take very long because there are lots of good reasons for not allowing the process to drag on and nobody wants to be seen as responsible for denying Britain a government in a period in which obviously all sorts of things are going on, and Britain has a big public financing problem and the markets at the moment are very volatile. So, everybody wants to sort this out quickly and nobody certainly wants to appear to be delaying the formation of a government. Having said that, of course, they do need to reach agreement and it depends a little on how hard a bargain the parties want to push for.
Kennedy: OK, so looking at David Cameron’s speech earlier, he says no government can give more power to Europe. How could the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives find a middle ground on something like Britain’s role in the EU, when their positions seem diametrically opposed?
Hopkin: Yeah, this is a complicated question. On Europe it’s complicated because although they could agree to not actually pass any measure which would give greater powers to European-level institutions because there is no such measure on the table at the moment. The political rhetoric of the two parties, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, on the European issue is vastly different. So, they could probably agree in practice, on not actually agreeing to any measure … [that gives] greater power to Europe. But how they would justify that position to their respective electorates would be much more difficult.
Kennedy: In your Foreign Affair’s article, “Labor Pains,” you say that, “the future of Britain’s so-called special relationship with the United States is also unclear.” What do you mean by that?
Hopkin: Well, the problem is that traditionally it’s been an article of faith almost of British leaders that they should try to maintain what they perceive as a special relationship with the United States. It’s quite a one-sided special relationship because I’m not sure it’s perceived in the same way in the United States, but this has been an uncontroversial element of British politics for most of the postwar period. That’s kind of changed because Tony Blair’s support for interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq in particular were very unpopular in Britain, and compromised this special relationship to some extent. What also changes the relationship, of course, is the election of Obama. So we are in a situation of flux: We had a Labour prime minister [who was] ironically very very close to a quite right-wing Republican president. Now we have a Democratic president who will probably have to deal with a Conservative prime minister. And it is really quite uncertain what form that relationship will take.
Kennedy: When I spoke with Vernon Bogdanor, he said that this was the most interesting election that he can remember. Do you feel the same way?
Hopkin: Yeah, well I’m a bit younger than Vernon, so it is certainly the most interesting that I can remember. I don’t think there has been an election quite as complex and unpredictable as this in postwar British history. I think we may be on the cusp of really major changes to our political system because [in addition] to the complexity of the results we also are facing a really disastrous economic situation in the world – the advanced world – at large and in Europe, but also specifically in Britain, which has very serious problems with running a big big deficit. [This] will have to be addressed and … will involve some very unpopular decisions. Through most of the postwar period we’ve had elections which have produced single-party majority governments, and we don’t have that at the moment, and it really looks like we may never have that again because the major parties no longer command the kind of support that would allow them to win majorities outright.
Kennedy: Finally, did you get any sleep last night?
Hopkin: I did, I stayed up ’til half past five. I was waiting for one particular result in Birmingham, which was an important swing seat that the Conservatives were expected to win and didn’t. There was the recount there, so I thought I would stay up until that result came through. And then, of course, I was woken up by invitations to speak on television and radio so I haven’t had a lot of sleep, but there will be time for that.