I know this is supposed to be a blog about my time in Belgium (and surrounding countries!), but you'll forgive me if I devote this entry to commenting on what has come to be regarded as the most exciting British General Election ever, to be followed by its even more fascinating aftermath.
I managed to tear myself away (very briefly) from BBC1's election coverage in order to ensure that I at least had some sleep before my trip to Munich. 2 hours was all I could bear, such was the excitement and unpredictability of the night. Even at 4.15am, the time when I forced myself to go to bed, the outcome was still uncertain. I actually awoke in time to witness the highlight of the evening/morning for me: the election of Britain's first ever Green MP, Caroline Lucas.
And so, for the second election in a row, the hundreds of opinion polls were once again actually correct. In fact, the joint BBC/ITV/SKY exit poll was spot on in pointing to our first hung parliament since 1974, with the Conservatives the biggest party, and the Lib Dems down on seats, despite the 'Clegg Bounce' and surge in support for the Liberals, thanks mainly to the Leaders TV Debates.
It's the bit that came next that had me glued to the radio/tv/internet for days. After 5 days of discussions, political wranglings, media reports of which take-aways were being ordered by the parties in order to keep them going during negotiations that spilled over into the small hours of the mornings, we knew by Tuesday evening that we had our first coalition government since the Second World War: a Conservative/Lib Dem one. The 3 main options open were really: Con/Lib coalition, Lib-Labour coalition, or a Conservative minority government, relying on votes from the Unionist parties in Northern Ireland. The latter was seen to be the most unstable, most precarious, and most likely to result in another general election later this year.
What made me laugh was all the talk of a "progressive coalition" between Labour and the Lib Dems, and how any other scenario was clearly not 'progressive' (whatever this word is supposed to mean. A friend reckons it's the new, acceptable word for 'socialist.'). Now, I know Labour has enacted some excellent policies since 1997 (enormous improvements in the NHS, especially for cancer patients, minimum wage, civil partnerships, although gay marriage would have been even better in my book, Sure Start centres, maternity/paternity leave, and a lot more. Yes, Labour wasn't all that bad), but to start calling it a 'progressive' party is a bit of a joke, and an insult, in my eyes. A progressive party wouldn't have spent the last decade doing all it could to erode our civil liberties, all in the name of the nebulous concept of security. A progressive party wouldn't have introduced some of the most draconian and authoritarian policies ever passed in Britain, and given the police a ridiculous amount of power to implement them. A progressive party wouldn't have taken joint responsibility for one of the most immoral, reckless, and badly planned wars since Vietnam, resulting in the deaths of anywhere between 100,000 + and a million Iraqi civilians (whichever report you care to believe) whether directly or indirectly.
To call the proposed alliance with the Lib Dems a progressive one was frankly preposterous in my view. The arithmetic also didn't add up. Together, Labour and the Lib Dems (315 seats) would still have fallen short of an overall majority (326), although their vote combined totalled over 5 million more than the Tories, or 52% of all votes. So, yes, together they commanded far more votes. But, Labour had also polled its worst showing of votes since 1983, and lost more seats than at any other time since 1931. The election result was clearly not a ringing endorsement of the Conservatives (glad to see that as a nation, many of us still remain suspicious and wary of the Tories), but it was clearly a huge rejection of the Labour Party, and in particular Gordon Brown. In fact, he was probably one of the main reasons the party did so badly. That, and simple voter fatigue with a party in power for 13 years.
What I loved was the complete chutzpah (to be expected, though) of people like Alan Johnson and Alastair Campbell, spin master extraordinaire, claiming that in fact no one had won this election. Well yes, technically, no one had won the overall majority, but in a choice between the Tories and Labour, the Tories won hands down. They won far more votes and seats than any other party and so had the right to govern, whether alone or as part of a coalition.
The fact that Labour hoped to remain in power with the Liberals as their partners just seemed outrageous to me. Even more so, Gordon Brown standing down as Labour leader first in order to boost the chances of such an alliance (yet more acknowledgement that the voters wanted to see the back of him). An act I believe was selfish and solely in the interests of his party and not the country, despite what papers like The Guardian tried to portray it as. Labour's very poor showing had meant they had lost all moral legitimacy to govern. Of course all of this was occuring because of the criminally unfair and undemocratic voting system that we have in place.
And so watching Tuesday's joint press conference on the Downing Street lawn by new PM David Cameron and his deputy and Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, was a rather surreal and astonishing experience to say the least. Branded, within minutes, as a 'love-in' by our wonderfully cynical media, it certainly tore up all the election rule books and got us all feeling a little confused and, if you're a hardened Lib Dem supporter, bitter.
I would just say that given a choice between a Tory government, and a Tory government hopefully restrained and tamed by the Liberals, I'd go for the latter ever time. Of course I'd prefer not to see the Tories in power at all but that's not possible for now. 5 Lib Dem MPs have formed part of Dave's cabinet, with a further 20 odd taking up ministerial posts. The new fixed 5 year terms is welcome, but not so changing the rules so that now 55% of MPs must get together to back a vote of no confidence in the government and force the dissolution of parliament, down from 50% + 1. So, even if the Lib Dems pull out of the coalition and vote with everyone else, they'd still only number 53% of all MPs. It's getting very tiring hearing Cameron bang on about bringing "strong and stable government" to Britain, as his main justification for this proposed change.
As for whether this coalition will last the distance? I'd probably say more likely no than yes, but who knows. The Economist has given its usual incisive and overly optimistic verdict, pointing out that Cameron is a shrewd and skilled operator who will do all he can in order to ensure that it succeeds. There is a strange combination of damp praise by the right of centre media for the Tories finally taking office, whilst being wary of the presence of the Liberals, and the left of centre media predicting the beginning of the end for the Lib Dems, in line to be punished and thrashed by those on the left at the next election. And of course how Labour can now proudly boast to being the only 'progressive' party left in Britain. And an enviable choice of contenders to lead them out of opposition. One from either the Moribund brothers, or Ed Balls. I certainly share Lib Dem MP, and new Home Office Minister, Lynne Featherstone's concern that once again all three parties will probably be led by people who are 'male and pale.'
The reaction of the media is also in part because we are just not used to this style of politics. Nobody really knows what to expect. How can it possibly work they shout? Well, if we do end up having PR (although with the Tories in power we'll never get the truly proportional STV form of PR, more the watered down AV variety if approved in a referendum), we need to be getting used to coalition governments. I for one like the idea of parties being forced to work together, reaching compromise, and not left free and unchallenged to pass any law they see fit. And I'd say this was far more in keeping with the national character of our typically moderate British electorate: neither truly staunchly Conservative or Labour, but a mixture of both, but also rather Liberal at the same time.