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A well hung parliament

A few weeks ago I sent off to register as an overseas voter with the local council in Britain where I was last registered to vote – Camden. I got an e-mail from an elections officer saying I should register to vote by proxy because there probably wouldn’t be enough time for me to return to my vote. I e-mailed a couple of people I know in the Liberal Democrats to ask if they could find someone to vote for me. I didn’t push too hard, and nothing came of it.

My postal vote arrived a day after the election. It wouldn’t have made much difference, as the Lib Dem candidate in my constituency was up against Frank Dobson and he won comfortably.

I got up extra early on Friday morning to start listening to the election coverage on Radio 4. As I proofread at work, I listened to the results coming in. I rather selfishly refused to go out to look at potential new textbooks with my colleagues at lunchtime.

What a disappointing and fascinating night. Despite the boost in the polls as a result of Cleggmania, the Lib Dem vote only went up by 1% – and we lost a handful of seats, ending up with 57 MPs. The Conservatives ended up the biggest party in Parliament with 306 seats, while Labour got 258. The Green Party got its very first MP – no mean feat in the UK electoral system.

In the council elections, Labour actually did pretty well, albeit from a very low base. In my hometown, Runcorn – which is covered by the constituency of Halton, the Lib Dems lost one seat, going down to 13, and the Conservatives lost three, going down to six, handing Labour an even more comfortable hold on the council. In Camden, where I lived in London, Labour gained control where previously there had been a minority Lib Dem administration.

The Liberal Democrats now have a difficult choice to make. Both Conservatives and Labour are making moves to get into bed with us – or at least into a casual relationship. The Lib Dems essentially now have the power to decide who will be the next prime minister, or at least which party will form the next administration. There are complex benefits and disadvantages to gauge.

The Conservatives have the strongest claim to be the next government, but their ethos is antithetical to many Lib Dems – liberalism and conservatism go together like oil and water. They are also against electoral reform – an issue of talismanic importance to Lib Dems.

Labour on the other hand, while they didn’t do disastrously badly on Thursday night, have lost the confidence of many of the voters who put them into power in 97, 01 and 05. I think most people would rather not have another Labour government. On the other hand, by constitutional convention, they have the right to be the first to try to form the next administration – they are also much closer philosophically to the Liberal Democrats, and before the election they had planned to introduce legislation to reform the voting system.

Besides all of this, there may well be another election within the year – and those voters who came to the Lib Dem cause this time around may desert us for one of the larger parties just to try to get a more decisive result. Right now may be the only chance we have for a generation to get electoral reform. If proportional representation were introduced before the next election we could end up with three times as many seats. But if the Lib Dems are seen to be making deals for selfish electoral advantage it could count against them.

For someone of my age, a hung parliament is terra incognita – something that only happened in the past or in other countries. It must be a huge challenge to the politicians, who have to change their whole way of thinking about elections and representation. All the signs seem to indicate that a deal of some sort will be hammered out sooner rather than later. We’ll just have to see what it is.

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