The General Election turn-out this time was unpredictable. In several constituencies the numbers of electors presenting themselves to vote proved too much for the two person, Presiding Officer and Polling Clerk team and queues formed down the road outside the Polling Stations. Some voters made several visits hoping that the queue would have died down. Sometime between 9.15pm and close of poll at 10pm, the assembled voters became restless when they realised that they would be locked out. Indeed, in some cases, now with legal challenges pending, the ballot boxes were sealed at 10pm sharp, disenfranchising hundreds of voters waiting to be issued with a ballot paper. In at least one case there was a sit-in. Even then the drama and comedy continued with some, such as Alastair Campbell, suggesting that voters outside the Polling Station (in some cases over 150 people) should have been brought inside a small hall, locked in and only allowed to leave when everyone had voted. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
During the TV Election Night coverage I became a channel hopper. The real stories on BBC1 and ITV1 were funnier than the Alternative Election Night version on channel 4. “What do we know for certain?” one presenter asked a panel of experts, before any results had been declared. A series of complicated possibilities were trotted out to fill in time but the real answer was that no-one really knew. I particularly enjoyed watching Sunderland South’s 15 minutes of glory which began, not with the first boxes coming in minutes after the close of poll but with a clip of the team of local school children practicing passing the ballot boxes down a line into the count. They were going for the record: fifth consecutive time as first Constituency in the UK to declare. Other constituencies might have challenged their record had it not been for their Returning Officers inconsiderately checking the accuracy of the results.
As the results were declared through the night and the following day it became clear that another extraordinary drama was about to begin. The Conservatives had gained 97 seats but not enough to form a Conservative Government. The new found popularity of the Liberal Democrats, generated in the Leader’s debates, had not been converted into seats and they had lost 5 seats overall. As for Labour, despite the Blair legacy of the Iraq War, the tragic loss of life and casualties in Afghanistan and the implications of the Global Financial Crisis for the UK economy, the Government had not seen a landslide against them. No party had won an overall majority. For the first time in a generation the country was moving towards a coalition Government and it appeared that the people had willed it to happen. The ‘first past the post’ system had failed to deliver the one thing that its supporters in the Labour and Conservative parties claimed in its favour: a strong and stable Government. The Leaders of the two main parties, having denounced the value of a coalition in the closing days before Polling Day were entering into the realpolitik of courting the Liberal Democrats and espousing the virtues of cooperation. Electoral reform, the Liberal dream for over 70 years was now a real bargaining counter, apparently accepted by both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Conservatives, although not by all their Parliamentary colleagues.
After the razzmatazz of the election campaign we entered into period of seemingly endless media speculation against the background of a strange silence amongst senior politicians. As the negotiating teams for the Lib-Con and Lib-Lab pacts moved tight-lipped between buildings in Westminster and Whitehall they were followed, questioned and photographed by a crowd of reporters and their every gesture examined for clues as to what might be going on. Whether you take the view of the Tory press, that Gordon Brown was “squatting in No.10” and “clinging on to power” or, more charitably, acknowledge that it was his constitutional duty to carry on until a deal emerged, you couldn’t help being moved by the drama of it all. His last two cards were played with an element of surprise that caught the other parties and even the media off guard. First, he announced that he would not stand in the way of a coalition but would, after it was formed, be standing down to make way for a new Leader of the Party. Second, when it became clear that, he would not be overseeing a ‘rainbow’ coalition led by Labour, he trumped the announcement of a Lib-Con coalition deal by declaring that he had offered his resignation to the Queen. There were emotional scenes of his family leaving Downing Street and, for the first time, photographs taken inside number 10 of the Prime Minister, accompanied by his advisors, taking the call from Nick Clegg that seemed to seal his fate. We now know that the Leader of the Liberal Democrats was asking the Prime Minister for more time to negotiate with the Conservatives. It amounts to the same thing: the Prime Minister’s resignation forced the other two parties to strike a deal.
Media presenters ran out of dramatic superlatives as, within a few hours, David Cameron announced that the Queen had asked him to form a Government. A short time after that he appeared with his new Deputy Leader, Nick Clegg; both men explaining how they were not just launching a new Government but also a new politics. One of the first questions put to the new Prime Minister, at his new Deputy’s expense, was whether he regretted saying that his favourite joke was Nick Clegg. The two men laughed it off.
Let’s hope that they can retain some of that humour and camaraderie when the novelty wears off and we get into the really tough choices ahead. Members of the new Cabinet have now been appointed and a joint statement of policies has been released revealing that both parties’ manifestos have lost their rough edges and have merged to form an agreed and credible agenda for change. Whether or not this really marks the launch a new politics and what the implications of it will be for the public sector are the big questions.