“Who will win the General Election?” seems to be the way the question is being framed by a lot of commentators as we approach polling day. With the voting surveys inconclusive, various people are jostling for pre-emptive positions on what they would consider to be a ‘legitimate’ government. In particular, I’ve noticed Nick Clegg, current leader of the Liberal Democrats, talking as if he will again be the ‘kingmaker’ who gets to choose which of the two larger parties to prop up. Seems rather presumptuous, given that his is unlikely to still be the third largest party and he cannot be sure that he will even be an MP any more this time next week. A man who says the party with the most seats in Parliament deserves first go at forming a government must surely admit that the third-largest party should get first go at choosing which of the big two they want to prop up – and that looks like being the SNP, not the Lib Dems.
But all this talk of ‘legitimacy’ is ridiculous anyway. Nobody formally ‘wins’ a British General Election under the current constitution. The ‘winner’ is decided de facto by dint of being able to form a stable government (with the Queen’s blessing). Now, yes, the easiest way to do that is to have more than 50% of the seats be won by your political stablemates (and yes, each seat can be ‘won’ by getting the most votes in the constituency) – but this outright outcome, the most common in 20th century elections, entails a covert process of basically the same kind of horse-trading and compromise that we’ll see more publicly after the hung parliament expected on Friday morning.
Our political parties are not homogeneous blocs of precisely like-minded people. They are full of factions, wings and outliers that their leaders have bargained, bribed and browbeaten into just enough stability to unite under one political brand. Given these loose associations of political affiliations, it is hardly surprising that the lines separating a Tory from being a UKipper are pretty thin. There are LibDems who could just as easily be Conservatives, and others who could be socialists or maybe even Greens. The SNP’s surge in support seems to have come from a lot of young new Scottish voters looking for something different, but it also owes a lot to (older) people simply changing allegiance from Labour (and other parties, too).
So why is everyone falling over themselves to rule out this, stake a claim to that, and declare the other ‘illegitimate’? Well, they still have 650 elections to win, naturally. But when the votes are cast, negotiations between the parties after the General Election will be no less valid or unbecoming than those within the parties in all the years before it.
I rather like the pragmatism of the tacit UK constitution. I read today that John Griffith, an LSE academic (and friend of Ralph Miliband), once said that our constitution is “no more and no less than what happens”, which I think means we have our national institutions and they relate to each other, and those institutions and relationships may change over time, but as long as they still relate to each other and to us, and function, that’s what matters. There are rarely any hard and fast rules, therefore, but this would actually allow for quite radical solutions to problems, too, if the parties involved were willing to be sufficiently bold.
There is no rule, for instance, that a bloc of Scottish nationalist MPs cannot support another party as the UK government, even if that government would not be able to rule without their support. There is certainly no rule that Nick Clegg gets to decide who should be the next Prime Minister. And there is no rule that the party with the most seats (but not a majority) should get first dibs on trying to form a government.
Because ‘winning’ a British General Election is not about getting the most votes or the most seats; it is a question of pragmatism alone: Can you muster enough support to be a viable Prime Minister in Parliament?
Horses for courses
If you don’t like that, and you want to vote directly for your government, well the first thing you need to do is not live in a (tacit) constitutional monarchy. For now, you vote for your constituency representative, your MP; the MPs go to Westminster and each chooses a leader from among all the other MPs to back. These alliances are usually forged over years and formalised through political parties, but alliances forged in the days ahead will be just as ‘legitimate’, although they don’t necessarily come with a branded party stamp. Then the leader who can command the most MPs goes to the Queen and gets the royal nod to be PM (and they are Her Majesty’s PM, strictly speaking, and not ours).
My point is that political parties are a convenient way to judge which potential PM your constituency candidate will back in Parliament, but they do not define the limits of who can work with whom in politics. A coalition of all parties except the one that gets the most (but not a majority of) MPs, for example, would indeed be a legitimate government if it could keep everyone involved sufficiently happy – just as everyone in a single party would have to be kept happy if they were to stay in power. Political divisions and makeshift coalitions are fluid and free – as free as we are to change our allegiance and our vote in each General Election should we so choose. So how will you choose tomorrow?
Another point I forgot to make is that no one should think the ‘national vote’ constitutes useful data. You cannot aggregate the tallies of 650 separate elections and think that everyone would vote the same way if they were voting directly for a government. Under the current system, that would be an illegitimate way to argue for power.