A rather Israeli election crisis

Analysis: A divided electorate, post-vote confusion. Sound familiar?

Despite following a totally different election system, Britain this weekend finds itself plunged into a rather Israeli electoral crisis, following a rather Israeli result in Thursday’s general elections. Curiously, however, the solution some are proposing is to reform the British system in the direction of the Israeli one. We, of course, know well enough to advise them strongly against it.
The British public has contrived to disappoint all three of the main parties: Voters gave David Cameron’s front-running Conservatives a huge increase in seats but denied them an outright parliamentary majority; they did not destroy but they did brutally punish Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labor incumbents; and, perhaps, most surprising, they flocked away from Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats at the moment of truth, actually reducing Lib-Dem representation in the House of Commons, though still giving Clegg the anticipated role of kingmaker in the hung parliament.
Watching from Israel, there was immediately much that was familiar. Precisely as was the case here last year, the publication of what proved to be a pretty accurate TV exit poll when the polling stations closed their doors produced not the clarity TV viewers had expected but, rather, conflicting claims of victory, dubious assertions of legitimacy and a largely baffled public.
Here, in February 2009, it was Tzipi Livni who hailed victory on behalf of her Kadima party on the basis of its slightly outperforming Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud – a celebratory assertion that was to prove thoroughly unjustified. Netanyahu quickly demonstrated that he, and not she, had the necessary votes to cobble together a coalition and become prime minister.
Over in the UK, in the early hours of Friday morning, it was the Conservative leader Cameron who rushed to assert that Brown’s incumbent Labor government had “lost its mandate to govern this country.”
The trouble for Cameron was that while Labor might indeed have lost the outright mandate to govern, the Conservatives hadn’t quite gained it.
In a striking indication of Britain’s unfamiliarity with the kind of indecisive result that is the norm in Israel but had not been seen there since 1974, it took some leading UK political analysts several hours to internalize the exit poll’s full significance.
It was obvious, of course, that the Conservatives had bested Labor byabout 50 seats, yet failed to win the necessary 326 seats for a Houseof Commons majority. What should have been equally obvious, but was notwidely realized at first, was that Labor and Clegg’s Lib-Dems togethercouldn’t get to 326 either.
It is that failure of the more natural Labor-Lib-Dem alliance to mustera majority that now leaves Cameron trying to negotiate a partnershipwith Clegg, even though their two parties differ immensely on issues ofintegration with Europe, immigration policy, aspects of financialpolicy and, most crucially, electoral reform.
A magnanimous-sounding Cameron on Friday afternoon reached out to Cleggand proposed a “big, open and comprehensive offer” of parliamentarypartnership.
At a time when Britain faces acute economic challenges and the bitterwar in Afghanistan, he said, people don’t want “bickering.” They want“stable government.” And so “I want us to work together,” he all butpleaded.
The Conservative leader, needless to say, is desperate to turn hisparty’s advantage into a government that will see him not merelyinstalled as prime minister in the next few days, but capable ofholding onto that post for the next four or five years.
The trouble is that Clegg’s priority is to shift away from Britain’sconstituency system – an admirable way of choosing members ofparliament because it provides a concept so lacking in Israel that wedon’t even have a proper Hebrew word for it: accountability. Britishvoters know that they are choosing their own MP, responsible for theirlocal area and their local interests, to be booted out next time if heor she fails.
The Conservatives like this system – it’s got Cameron back to thethreshold of 10 Downing Street after 13 years of Labor’s Tony Blair andBrown. The Lib-Dems loathe it, and with good reason: They won almost aquarter of the votes nationwide, but because of the way theconstituencies are drawn, and because of the relatively even Lib-Demvote, they ended up with less than 10 percent of the seats inparliament.
What Clegg and the Lib-Dems want is what we’ve long since learned to revile here: proportional representation.
So even as Cameron was trying to woo Clegg, the best he could offer onelectoral reform was the promise to establish a “cross-party committee”on the subject – Westminster-ese for a non-binding forum that wouldcome up with some recommendations that could be staved off endlessly.
Cameron may have outscored Brown in the elections, but he didn’tdeliver the knockout blow, so he’s not as strong in his own party ashe’d like to be, and there’s a limit to how far he can drag theConservatives in Clegg’s direction.
There’s also a limit to what Clegg can accept. He needs overwhelmingsupport from his party’s various institutions for any deal. Hecampaigned on a ticket of electoral reform, and he cannot now easilyabandon that demand in return for a share of power.
To underline the point, a large crowd of protesters gathered toconfront him in central London on Saturday afternoon. One of theirspokespeople, singer and activist Billy Bragg, observed correctly that“the Conservative Party’s grass roots have no interest in electoralreform” but warned Clegg not to do a deal without it.
“It’s very important that we get proportional representation at thenext election,” said Bragg. “It’s not Britain that’s broken; it’s theelectoral system... A fair voting system will enfranchise people acrossthe nation.”
Clegg, coming out to address the crowd, stressed that his entirecampaign had been for “better, more transparent politics.” He vowed touse the unique leverage he now has “to usher in a new politics.”
Interestingly, however, he did not use the phrase “proportional representation.”
Meanwhile, canny fighter Brown is exercising his legal rights not togive up the prime ministership until or unless he is veritably draggedout of No. 10. He has given an avuncular blessing to the nascentCameron-Clegg negotiations, and told them to take as much time as theyneed.
But he has also reminded them, and the public, that he will bemaintaining his statesmanlike position running the country in theinterim, and that if their talks fail, he will be ready to step in andtry and cobble together some kind of deal with whichever parties areinterested.
He’s also promised Clegg what Cameron cannot: Immediate legislation on a referendum for electoral reform.
British governments’ formal hold on power depends on their capacity to“command the confidence” of the House of Commons. This does not meanCameron and Clegg, or Brown and Clegg, should it come to that, aretrying to sew up formal, Israeli-style coalition agreements.
Britain has not enjoyed – or suffered – a coalition government for 65years. A handful of times in the last century it was ruled by minoritygovernments – governments that had no majority, but had concludedarrangements that enabled them to prevail in crucial votes.
That’s the likely outcome this time, too. The last formal coalition wasWinston Churchill’s wartime Labor, Conservative and Liberal governmentof national unity.
There is precious little sense of unity in British politics thisweekend, however, and no certainty yet as to how the Britishconstituency system’s capacity to produce an outcome similarlyproblematic to Israel’s proportional system will be resolved.
From the Israeli perspective, the prospect feared in Jerusalem of Clegg– who called for a halt to British and EU arms sales to Israel at theheight of Operation Cast Lead – securing control of the Foreign Office,as his price for a Lib-Dem share in power, remains a possibility.
But then, as the British are discovering, and as we have seendemonstrated so often here down the decades, when the electoratedelivers a confused mandate to politicians unified only by their thirstfor power, most everything is a possibility.