Polling day diary at what may be the start of a long, long month
Ephems and Mrs Ephems have voted today, early and only once each – or rather twice each, once for Sadiq Khan (our Labour MP presumptive, senior Labour front bench shadow Justice Secretary, London election campaign manager, and Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign manager in 2010), and once for the Labour candidate for a vacant seat in our ward of the London borough of Wandsworth Council, following the death of one of the ward’s Conservative party councillors. As usual there was only a bare trickle of people voting. A polite man with a clipboard stood in the entrance to the polling station, asking to see our poll cards as we came in. Assuming that he was some kind of security official, we obediently handed over our poll cards to him to be ticked off on his clipboard, when a sudden thought struck me. I asked him if he was an official or a political party person.
“I’m a political party person,” said the polite man.
“Which party?”, I asked, not releasing my poll card into his waiting hand.
“The Conservative party. Might I see –”
I pulled my poll card away and told him I thought he should be wearing a badge or rosette to identify him as a Conservative party teller and not an official. I also mentioned the matter to the official handing over our ballot papers. He said he would “look into it”. I don’t know what the law says about the matter, and I doubt if either the provider of ballot papers or the polite Conservative party person knew either. There was no sign of the usual policeman outside the polling station, nor of any representative of any other party.
So our duty is done for another five years – or possibly less? — and within a few hours the die will have been cast. We’ll be up until the small hours glued to the television for the early (meaningless) results and then again at dawn for the latest news, but with so many possible arithmetical permutations of results it seems unlikely that we’ll be able to read the runes with any confidence until well into Friday, and perhaps not even then. We may know quite early whether the Tories are going to win more seats than Labour, as widely expected (largely because of the presumed Labour collapse in Scotland): we’ll know that without having to hear it from a Dimbleby on the box because the screams of the Tory press and the Tory leadership claiming (entirely falsely) to have “won the election”, and demanding that Ed Miliband “concede” immediately, will be audible from Land’s End to the Outer Hebrides. No magisterial interpretation or forecast by the television gurus will be complete without the word ‘legitimacy’ to make it sound authentic and meaningful. None of this will tell us anything whatever. It won’t be worth a hill of Dick Whittington’s beans.
It looks as if we now face days or weeks of struggle for the soul of the LibDems — assuming that their parliamentary votes will be needed in addition to those of the Tories, UKIP and the DUP to put them over the 323 line for a majority in favour of a Cameron Queen’s speech and/or in favour of a vote of confidence in the Cameron government. The Liberal Democrats’ leader Nick Clegg’s six red lines (bottom lines or non-negotiable essentials) have Tory help in the drafting all over them, and the Tories’ monstrous threat of £12 billion of further cuts in the welfare budget (details of which they have obstinately refused to reveal) are pretty obviously designed to be bartered away, or halved, as a huge “concession” in the negotiations with Clegg, in exchange for the LibDems acquiescing in the EU in/out referendum, which Cameron is irrevocably stuck with if he wants to remain leader of the Conservative party. Will those in Clegg’s party who want ‘No In/out EU Referendum’ to be a 7th red line prevail over Clegg? It smells strongly of an eventual LibDem split, with the final numbers still unpredictable right up to a Commons vote on — or even after — 27 May. Torture!
Unless of course the anti-Tory group, led by Labour and including the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Green[s] and SDLP, add up to 323 or more without needing any LibDems, in which case “Les jeux sont faits, M. le Premier Ministre, rien ne va plus.” But that may be too good to be true. When shall we know? Possibly by late on Friday (tomorrow) if the numbers are clear and decisive by then, in which case it’s conceivable that either Cameron or Miliband may concede forthwith. But with the obscure and controversial Cabinet Manual nagging at Cameron not to resign, even if he clearly hasn’t got the numbers, until there’s a new government ready to take over, Cameron will be constitutionally entitled, even required, to stay on as prime minister of a caretaker government, whatever the arithmetic, and submit a Cameron programme for government (Queen’s Speech) to parliament on or possibly even after 27 May. It’s going to be a long month, filled with constitutional ignorance, irresponsible language and filthy tempers.
One modest recommendation: we’re now well into the age of fractured political affiliations and a multitude of parties with enough support to feel entitled to a seat at the table. For the foreseeable future no one party is likely to win an overall majority of the seats in the House of Commons, the necessary condition for being able to govern alone. If we ever change to a proportional electoral system (PR) in response to the current storm of criticism of First Past the Post, that prospect will become a certainty at every election: no political party in the UK has won as much as 51 per cent of the national vote since the 1930s. So every government will have to learn to negotiate and bargain for the support of at least one and probably (as now) more than one other party in order to secure parliamentary approval for its measures. And we, the electorate, will have to learn to live with that reality, preferably without denouncing this or that alliance of parties as ‘illegitimate’, or warning that this party can’t govern with a democratic mandate because it has to be ‘propped up’ by that party, or that the senior governing party is going to be blackmailed and dominated by its junior partner at the expense of stable, moderate governance. We shall all, in short, need to grow up.