Global News: May 2010 Archives

A team of 11 officials from Third World countries observing last Thursday's British election called the UK's approach to voting "corruptible," too dependent on trust. The observers came from countries where election fraud has often been a problem, with methods that include ballot box stuffing, voter intimidation, voter impersonation, and ballot theft.

Ababu Namwamba, an MP from Kenya, said he found the system "almost casual" in the way the whole process was so calm and so civil. He said: "While it may not be corrupt, it has elements that could be regarded as corruptible."

The Kenyan said he was surprised that more checks were not carried out to check the identities of voters. Instead clerks in the polling booths trusted the person who is voting to tell the truth.

He said: "That little detail is susceptible to abuse. It [the system] is admirable but it is open to abuse. This country has opened up to many people coming in.

"While the culture of trust may have worked in the past, your culture is changing. These details need to be tightened up."

Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh, an MP from Bangladesh, suggested that staff in polling stations should demand to see photographic identification from voters.

This would ensure that people do not impersonate someone else when they voted. "It should move to a more foolproof system," he said.

Note the obvious but politically incorrect point made by the Kenyan MP: Immigration brings in many people who don't share a nation's culture. If they come in large enough numbers and are not inculcated with the values of their new home, institutions that depend on those values will founder.

This even applies to different political cultures within the United States: There are big cities where election cheating is proverbial and there are rural areas where such a thing is unthinkable. Imagine a small North Dakota town invaded by a critical mass of folks accustomed to Chicago-style machine politics.

(It should be said that many immigrants come to a country like Britain or the United States precisely because they prefer their new country's cultural assumptions to those of their homelands.)

It was fascinating to watch the results roll in. Polls closed at 10 pm in Britain and it wasn't until early the next morning before the result was mathematically certain, confirming the exit polls from the night before: No party would have a majority of the 650 seats in the House of Commons. The Conservatives won the most seats (306) and received the biggest share of the vote (36.1%), but it wasn't enough. The incumbent Labour Party dropped 6 points (to 29%) and a net 91 seats from the 2005 election (to 258). The Liberal Democrats won 23% of the vote, one percentage point better than last time, but finished first in only 57 seats, a net loss of 5.

Usually, one party wins a majority of seats. If the incumbent party doesn't win, the sitting prime minister and cabinet resign, the Queen invites the leader of the winning party to be prime minister and form a government, appointing other party leaders as cabinet ministers (usually those who served as "shadow" minister during the party's time in opposition).

But no party has a majority, so what now? Gordon Brown, the incumbent prime minister, gets first shot at forming a governing coalition. He remains prime minister until he resigns or there's a successful vote of no confidence. (The last successful attempt was in 1979, which the Labour government of James Callaghan lost by one vote. This led to the dissolution of Parliament, a general election, and the victory of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives.) To stay on, Labour would need the backing of the LibDems and the nationalist parties from Wales (Plaid Cymru), Scotland (SNP), and Northern Ireland (SDLP). That would likely require a coalition government, with LibDem leaders given several key seats in the cabinet. But LibDem voters are likely to feel betrayed if their party goes into government with the bunch they wanted out.

If Labour can't hang on, the Queen would call upon Conservative leader David Cameron to form a government, because his party is closest to a majority. He's already in talks with the LibDem leader Nick Clegg, but he doesn't necessarily need LibDems to agree to a coalition. It would be enough for them to agree not to support a no confidence motion. The Tories have enough votes to survive as a "minority government" if the Liberal Democrats abstain from a vote of no confidence.

The Tories could also try to form a governing coalition with the support of the Welsh and Scottish nationalists, which would be unlikely, since the Conservatives are Unionists and historically have opposed devolution as well as independence.

The final option would be another election, right away, or after one of the above scenarios limps along for a few months. A second election could result in a clearer outcome. Yesterday's vote would give tactical voters enough information to elect their least worst option. A supporter of a candidate that finished third or lower might choose their preferred option among the top two finishers in their constituency.

One of the arguments in favor of continuing the First Past the Post method of deciding elections -- most votes wins the seat, no matter how tiny the percentage of the total vote -- is that it turns even a slim plurality of the popular vote into a decisive majority of seats. That didn't work this time, with three very evenly balanced parties. Using the Alternative Vote (also known as Instant Runoff Voting) would likely have produced a decisive outcome. My sense is that there would have been fewer seats for Labour and more for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, as supporters of both parties would have preferred the other to another term for Labour.

The outcome will cause financial turmoil and international uncertainty, but for us political junkies it's heavenly.


About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Global News category from May 2010.

Global News: April 2010 is the previous archive.

Global News: June 2010 is the next archive.

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