Great Britain Heads to the Polls (5/6)     Print Email

michaelmosettigBy Michael D. Mosettig, former Foreign Editor of PBS News Hour

In contrast to the American model of computer generated projections and losing and winning candidates speaking to supporters in separate rented hotel ballrooms (or in the case of Barack Obama in 2008, an entire city park), elections in the United Kingdom are low key affairs.

From thousands of polling stations, paper ballots are gathered in town and borough halls. As the candidates and their local agents watch, clerks assemble stacks of ballots marked usually in pencil for each House of Commons candidate in a constituency. (Only two constituencies across the entire country vote directly for the person who could become prime minister) As the count goes on, the candidates can tell by the size of the stacks if they are going to win or lose. And then in displays of stiff upper lips, they go on stage together in the late night or early morning hours to hear the town clerk officially announce the results. The process is as charming as it is technologically out of date, but then again, it has never produced anything as disastrous as the Florida U.S. presidential ballot count in 2000. On a national level, the television networks try to project which party will win, but those exit polling projections have been notoriously wrong in the past.

On American presidential election nights, there is only one number to watch-- 270 --the electoral votes from among 50 states needed to put the Democratic or Republican party nominee over the top and en route to an inauguration and the White House three months later.

On Thursday night, and probably well into Friday and maybe beyond, the numbers from the UK will be a scramble. All the polls are predicting a dead heat between the two major parties, with no clear winner and the probable result, what the British call a "hung" parliament. Across Europe, such an outcome is normal, leading to bargaining and coalition building. In the United Kingdom, where the entire political and electoral process is built around the assumption of two-party dominance, politics is entering new terrain.

Across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, candidates are running in 650 House of Commons constituencies. Officially around 323 seats would constitute a majority. (In the outgoing House, the Conservative-Liberal coalition holds a 73 seat majority). But this year, reflecting a deep splintering of the UK electorate, the Conservative and Labor parties are expected to win no more than 280 each with the Tories slightly closer to that number and Labor a dozen or so behind.

Let the numbers game begin. For those in the U.S. watching the returns on BBC America or CSPAN, three sets stand out. How many more seats do the Conservatives win over Labor. How many seats do the Liberals lose. And how many seats does the Scottish Nationalist Party win in Scotland and will it totally wipe out Labor in what used to be a stronghold of close to 50 seats.

Putting together sets of numbers for either a coalition or a minority government has become the latest computer game in the UK and also one for some Washington think tank analysts.
In a way that they never have in previous elections, smaller parties could open or block David Cameron's or Ed Miliband's path to forming the next government. Both Miliband and the Scottish Nationalists have said they will not form a coalition (indeed the Scot Nats leader Nicola Sturgeon will not even sit in the House of Commons) but all sorts of tactical arrangements short of that give Labor an edge. Tipping the balance on way or the other, but more likely to Labor, would be the cluster of seats won by Welsh and Northern Ireland parties as well as the Greens and the anti-European Union and anti-immigrant United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in England.

As for what happens once all the ballots are counted, three scenarios stand out short of an unlikely majority government. Prime Minister Cameron could decide to remain in 10 Downing Street, if the Conservatives win more seats than Labor, and try to form a coalition or minority government. Or Labor could patch together a winning combination that Cameron would have to acknowledge and then resign. A pre-election debate already has begun over what constitutes a victory. The third could come as late as May 27, if a Conservative government holds on and presents its program to parliament in a speech read by Queen Elizabeth II. A Commons vote on that program could determine if the next government is short lived or goes a full five-year term.

Such a drawn out result would contradict the usually short and brutal manner in which the British dispose of political losers. The leader of the losing party usually resigns in a day or two. If an incumbent prime minister loses, a van in the back of Number 10 is ready to move personal possessions by noon the next day.

But as a panel of analysts discussed this week at a Brookings Institution panel, any outcome will likely lead to a government totally consumed by political maneuvering. In the case of Cameron's Conservatives, over a referendum to stay in or leave the European Union. For Miliband's Laborites,over what self-governing concessions to offer the Scot Nationalists and then to other parts of the country that could put the UK on the path to dissolution.

As many political analysts and columnists in the United Kingdom have observed, an uninspiring if mercifully short campaign seems certain to produce dispiriting programs and policies for the country at home and abroad.