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Azeem Ibrahim

Azeem Ibrahim

Posted: May 14, 2010 03:11 PM

A Momentous Change in British Political History

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The study of British political history tends to be broken up into chunks, divided by the most important turning points. Students learn about the postwar consensus 1945 to 1979, the Thatcherite consensus of post 1979, sometimes also pre and post 1997. I suspect that as soon as next academic term, students will be studying pre and post 2010 politics. Because this week, British politics has undergone one of the more momentous changes in history. I don't think we've even begun to appreciate the scale of what has happened.

First there's the obvious, the first coalition government since the war, and a coalition between two parties which were not just in opposition, but the two primary poles of British politics for most of its history, down to 1945. But I think it's the subtler changes which are likely to be more momentous.

It was little remarked on that in a bid to woo the Liberal Democrats, both the Labour and Conservative parties offered electoral reform. Labour promised to pass a bill on the Alternative Vote system, the Conservative party promised a referendum on it. The extraction of these promises from the two biggest parties in politics means that there's a very good chance that this year's election will be the last one ever under the first past the post system.

That would mean that the kind of post-electoral haggling that we saw is likely to be the first of many post-election haggles to come. Any kind of electoral reform would make post electoral deal-making and coalitions of the kind we are seeing today more of a norm. Politicians should get used to it.

The only way this might be prevented is if the idea is rejected in a referendum, or if the coalition falls apart before it even reaches the thorny issue of electoral reform. The latter result would likely be the result of bad faith on the part of Conservative right wingers, and it would risk accusations, especially by their spurned coalition partners, the Lib Dems, of putting vested interests -- retention of first past the post -- ahead of the national interest, which is served by the continuation of a strong and stable government to address the pressing economic problems, as Cameron has clearly said himself.

If that did happen, the Conservatives would anyway likely be hammered at the next election for their party's intransigence, and so lose power. That alone would probably be incentive enough for them to try to make good on their pledge of electoral reform, however painful it was for them to give it.

I believe that the second thing that is likely to change for good is the perception of coalitions by the electorate, the markets, and the politicians themselves. Firstly, if we do get electoral reform, they will inevitably be more in the future. We will all just have to deal with them; we aren't likely to see any of the kind of campaigns against hung Parliament which we saw during the election.

Everyone who participated in the Conservative-Lib Dem negotiations seemed to come out with nothing but praise for the conduct of all participants in those negotiations. There seemed to be a very real sense of the gravity of the situation, and a sense that the electorate would not forgive any party which put their own party's interest ahead of the national interest.

The markets are also likely to change their tune on the question of hung Parliaments and coalitions. The incredible gravity of the financial situation isn't going to go away soon, and if this spirit of cooperation continues we are likely to see a more successful coalition, on economic policy at least. This will likely result in the stabilization of the markets, not least because they will see that the parties are able to take action together to tackle the problem. Even before the election took place, Moody's credit rating agency said publicly that there was a chance that a hung Parliament and the resulting coalition might actually be a good thing for the markets, as it might enable greater cross-party support for the coming cuts, and so a greater sense of national consensus around them, with the resulting stability.

Certainly, Conservative and Lib Dem policy on those cuts weren't particularly far apart. Given that, we can expect the coalition to be a success on the most pressing issue of the next Parliament, even if it fails in other areas. All expectations of a market meltdown over a hung Parliament are likely to be forgotten by next week, so ending the myth of the dangerousness of a hung Parliament.

Even if many of these predictions are not borne out, it seems clear that we have just lived through a watershed week in British political history. And that, at least, is something to savor.

Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.