Feature: Uncharted waters for British politics
British politics, fresh from the turbulent choppiness of election night’s unpredictable results, is entering uncharted waters. It’s enough to make anyone queasy.
“We find ourselves in a position unknown to this generation of political leaders,” Gordon Brown said portentously in Downing Street on Friday. The prime minister was right. No-one really knows what is going to happen in the coming days and weeks.
In Westminster even seasoned hacks who have been around for years are marvelling at the true extent of the uncertainty provided by a hung parliament. It dawned on us slowly through the wee small hours of Friday morning, as a night of unexpected and unpredictable results flooded in. Each party had gains and losses they did not see coming. The electorate, volatile and moody, produced a turbulent, choppy political landscape.
Politicians, too, are struggling to cope with the realities of negotiating in a hung parliament. New Conservative MPs had hoped, as backbenchers in a new Tory government, to be attracting much more attention as the future of British politics. Unfortunately for them we still don’t know what this future is.
West Worcestershire’s new MP Harriett Baldwin, who achieved a swing to the Tories against the Liberal Democrats in a seat the Liberals had hoped to win, believes the fate of her constituency is at stake. The Labour government’s regional spatial strategy could result in tens of thousands of new homes being built on the fields of her rural seat.
“I very much hope that David Cameron is able to lead either a minority government or a coalition with some sort of formal support from the Liberal Democrats,” she says. “Then there will be the ability to abolish this top-down approach to housing.”
Three-way marginal Colne Valley saw the Tories’ Jason McCartney win through, as the Lib Dems pushed Labour into third place. He has not even been thinking about the national picture, being in his “own little bubble”. It seems the momentum of his campaign hasn’t yet slowed down as he prepares to fight “tooth and nail” for his constituents.
“This morning I was really pleasantly surprised,” he says. He had bought a copy of his local paper from two 18-year-olds, brothers, who told him they had voted for him. “Their parents had always voted Labour,” he says triumphantly. “I’ve always wanted to have broad support, from all ages, from elements of different communities.”
McCartney’s attitude to the unfinished national picture might be the healthiest one of all: ignoring it completely. “I must admit, I’ve got no idea what’s happening,” he says. He has been at a community event and then at the Holmfirth folk festival. Down in London the talks are crawling slowly along, but McCartney is not wasting any time worrying about it. He’s getting out and about as all good new MPs should.
There is so much to take in, so much to reflect on. A quick chat with a West Midlands Conservative spokesperson – who managed nearly 50 hours without sleep – reveals a defiant kind of weariness.
“We did very well. We gained a number of seats in key areas,” the spokesman says. “It reflected that people across the Midlands are fed up with Gordon Brown.” In this region seats like Stourbridge and Dudley South succumbed to the Tory advance – but targets with miniscule majorities like Solihull did not change hands. It has been reported over the weekend that some senior Conservatives are calling for heads to roll because of the failures.
That may be a little premature. In any case it is not the main issue gripping the Commons’ new largest party at present. If any one dilemma can emerge above the others this first weekend after the general election, it is this: is a referendum on electoral reform a price worth paying for the Tories to form a government?
Robin Walker, the new MP for Worcester, does not think so. “The vast majority of people in the House of Commons are now very wary of… any move to break the constituency link,” he explains. “During the campaign I was focused on Worcester and local issues. It would be a great shame for any move away from that.”
He wants a government which can take “decisive action”, of course, in the “national interest”.
“If we can get a government based on the rump of Gordon Brown’s government, it would be very difficult to get anything done. We’ve got the right answers… from a national interest perspective it’s really important we do form the next government.”
A coalition with the Lib Dems is viewed as the “best outcome” – but only if it can be achieved “without too many compromises”. That’s the crux of the issue: where to draw the line?
Matt Richardson, a Conservative Future campaigner who helped Jeremy Lefroy unseat Labour minister David Kidney in Stafford, takes a very different view. I ask him whether he’d be happy with David Cameron offering a referendum on electoral reform. “I wouldn’t have a problem,” he says. “You’re always going to get people who don’t like ideas…. but in the end if David Cameron says we need to do this because we have to for the good of our country, I’m sure people will come round to it in the end.”
That, it seems fair to say, is a minority view within the Conservative party. Harriett Baldwin appears unwilling to back a referendum on electoral reform. “For me PR is not something that people cared about on the doorsteps, it’s a minority anorak type issue,” she says. “It would be extremely unwise of the Liberal Democrats to make that a non-negotiable aspect of them working with us because it would make them seem as if they are just pushing on it for their own self-interest. It’s got to be the interests of the nation that are first and foremost here.”
The need for both the Tories and the Lib Dems to handle public perceptions of the coalition-forming game is paramount, for Baldwin has hit upon a real vulnerability here. If the current talks collapse there will be a price to pay on the markets, with all parties seeking to blame another. With the prospect of another election within 12 months now a very real possibility there really is all to play for.
What about Labour? Since Brown walked slowly back into No 10 after Friday’s holding statement the party has remained in stasis, with only hardliners openly calling for Brown to quit before the bigger picture comes into focus. The parliamentary party lost 91 seats. There will be no Labour fourth term. But, as the new reality sinks in, there is no real lack of spirit. For the Tories have been kept out of power, at least for now.
After 13 years in power Labour campaigners appear more comfortable with looking at the bigger picture. Ali Craft, who helped Tom Blenkinsop hold Labour’s Middlesbrough South and Cleveland seat after the unexpected death of MP Ashok Kumar earlier this year, is “not entirely sure exactly” what he makes of the current situation. But he acknowledges that there may be pluses in a Tory-Lib Dem coalition, or even a Conservative minority administration.
“It would become a fairly weak government and then in the longer term it might find it’s an easier government to attack,” he muses. “But to be honest I’ve not been thinking about it.”
Francis Steer, Gavin Shuker’s agent in Luton South, is delighted after holding the seat despite the disgrace of ex-MP Margaret Moran’s expenses claims. He calls a Lib Dem-Labour tie-up “the worst scenario for us”.
“I think the best scenario for the Labour party is a Tory-Lib Dem coalition which I guess wouldn’t last very long. Sometimes in the political cycle, you have to let the opposition have a go. I’m not saying it’s a good thing, but in political terms it might help [us].”
He mentions European countries where left-wing parties have returned to power recently after a brief right-wing spell. And then he comes up with an example much closer to home.
“Labour controlled the council in Luton for a long time,” he explained. “We lost a huge amount of seats to the Liberal Democrats in 2003 over the war.
“There was a Lib Dem-Tory coalition running the council – they made such a mess of it that it only lasted four years. We were back in, even stronger.”
Even six months ago the idea that a Labour campaigner would be talking in such terms the weekend after polling day would be unthinkable.
Yet this is the reality politicians now face: one where it is impossible to predict what will happen next week, let alone in five years. Pass the sick-bag, please.