Friday, May 7, 2010

Shall we do it again?

Yesterday's U.K. general election was the first one since 1974 in which no party won a majority of seats in the House of Commons.

A February 28, 1974, election gave Labour a four-seat lead over the Conservatives, even though the Conservatives got more votes. That Labour total was short of an overall majority.

Over the following weekend, the incumbent Prime Minister Ted Heath, a Conservative, unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a coalition with smaller parties. In the current situation, the incumbent, who in this case is from the Labour Party, wants to make a similar attempt, and I suspect he will be just as successful as Heath was.

Once Heath resigned, the then-leader of the Labour Party, Harold Wilson, returned to 10 Downing Street, at the head of a minority government.

But that situation didn't last long. On October 10, 1974, there was another general election. In that one, Labour won a tiny overall majority. They soon lost that majority through by-election losses, but were able to limp on for four-and-a-half years, until they lost a no-confidence vote. That resulted in the general election of 1979, when Margaret Thatcher led the Conservatives back to power, which they subsequently held for 18 years.

If the current situation plays out as expected, and David Cameron leads a Conservative minority government, the question becomes whether there will be a snap general election within a year or so. Peter Riddell, writing in The Times, a London newspaper, thinks the answer is "yes".

If so, will the result of a second general election be any different from yesterday's? For one thing, Labour may well have a new leader by then. If Gordon Brown fails to emerge at the head of a coalition government, it seems likely that he will be replaced as party leader, perhaps by Foreign Secretary David Miliband. That would test to what degree Labour's defeat is attributable to Brown's personal unpopularity, as opposed to a broader verdict against his party.

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