A hung Parliament but a victory for democracy and unity?

I’m an inveterate election follower. 25 years of sitting up until stupid o’clock watching the ebb and flow of party politics in the UK.  20 years of having the privilege of casting my own vote. Old habits die hard. I can’t resist David Dimbleby’s interviewing and the ever more technical Swingometers that the BBC produce.

My first time of voting was in 1997. The pundits got that one wrong too. A small Labour majority predicted; a landslide achieved. I watched that election from the basement common room of my halls of residence at Uni. A small section of the British populace divided. The Labour supporters, erroneously now I come to think about it, sat on the right, cheering with every scalp their heroes took from the Conservatives. The roar that erupted when Portillo lost his seat woke the ground, first and second floors.

The young Conservative supporters on the other hand, were visibly upset. Quietly rolling up their banners, they slowly slid off to bed. An early and decisive lesson, a lesson re-learned by a politician of quite a different persuasion, Nick Clegg last night – that in politics you live by the sword and die by the sword. Anything can happen on election night. And very often, everything happens.

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The following morning, I and many others in my halls of residence, got up and went to sit our end of first year exams. Well, I use the term “get up” loosely. Many of us hadn’t been to bed at all. But we and millions of others that morning, went to Uni, went to work, dropped the kids to school and did all the other day to day things that are our constant. In some ways, everything changed. In some ways, nothing did.

Now, in some ways, these elections have nothing in common. One brought in a sweeping majority – the other has delivered a hung parliament. 

But in other ways, they have a number of things in common.

They were both hugely affected by protest votes. In 1997, a huge protest against 18 years of Tory rule. In 2017, at least from early indications, it seems to be that there was a protest against austerity and the much vaunted and never defined “Hard Brexit”.

So where does that leave us? 

Well it probably leaves us with Theresa May as PM for now.

But in some ways the identity of the PM is irrelevant because there can’t be “majority” Government.  I mean yes, the Conservatives and the DUP could form an alliance which will give a technical majority, but that’s not a majority that has power within Parliament.

And that’s very interesting because what it means is that despite the UK’s firm return to two party politics in this election, actually all the MPs returned last night are in the unusual position of having real power – when normally that power will rest largely with the governing party. The far right and far left will be held in abeyance, for better or worse, because every party will have to make concessions to get any decision through. And overall, I think that leads to a more representative Government because the majority of voters are an amalgam of political views. I know very few people who support every policy of their party of choice. Almost everyone votes on a compromise basis, voting for the party that on balance expresses more of their views than any other.

Has this year’s election been a victory for democracy?

Yes, I think it has been, because the two major parties are neither strong enough nor weak enough to succeed without concession.

Is the election a victory for clarity? Well not yet, but actually, I think it could be. Let’s look to the elephant in the room – Brexit. And let’s start by remembering that the Brexit vote last year was a vote to leave the EU. It gave a mandate to leave. It did not give a mandate to the terms of that departure.

And that’s the problem all the political parties have been juggling with for the last year. What does that Brexit vote mean? What form of exit do the British people want? Do they even know? I don’t say this lightly, but let us recall that the most searched term on Google the day after the Brexit vote was, “What is the EU?”...

Theresa May had taken a “Hard Brexit” position over the last 9 months, which although undefined, is broadly accepted to mean exit from the Single Market and a cessation of free movement of workers.

Whether for that reason or for others, the Conservatives have taken a pounding in the election. So we might reasonably draw from that, that a Hard Brexit is not as well supported as the press might have had us believe.

But then if not a “Hard Brexit”, what? Retention of free movement of workers? Protection of the rights of EU nationals in the UK? Staying in the single market?

Well, as of this morning, none of us know. But what we do know is that with the balance of power across many parties, we will have an outcome determined by all political parties rather than just one.

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Is that good news? Well that depends where you stand on Brexit. But for me, it is good news for unity. The Brexit vote was horribly divisive – as binary votes necessarily are. A card carrying Labour Party member can forgive his neighbour for voting Conservative because the odds are that there are some policies they can agree on. But how does a Brexiteer forgive a Remainer and vice versa? Their choices are black and white; chalk and cheese. The Brexit vote drew a dividing line down the UK which I feared last year I would not see healed in my lifetime.

But actually, this morning, I’m more optimistic.

And I’m more optimistic this morning because it is very likely that neither extreme will have a voice in the Brexit discussions. They’ll have to find a middle ground because no party has enough Parliamentary power for there to be any other outcome.

And is that good news for the negotiations with Europe? Well again, I have to say yes. As a lawyer, I’m a career negotiator. Of commercial matters and civil litigation for my employer, not the future of countries, I grant, but some rules of negotiation run true everywhere. There must be give and take.  There must be room for compromise. And there must be respect for who holds the upper hand.

I have not enjoyed the recent bombastic approach to dealings with Europe. Posturing. Stalking for position. Making demands. This is not the way to form partnerships for the future. 

For sure, within the negotiations themselves I’m sure it will be, and should be, hard and dirty. No compromise is anything other than hard fought and hard won. But a compromise forges relationships. Why do so many commercial disputes fail to get to court? Expense is a big part undoubtedly. But in many cases there is an understanding that a court order is binary. Black and white. Chalk and Cheese. Divisive. A place from which two parties can’t easily return. The best outcome is invariably a compromise. Each side wins some and loses some. That’s a benefit and burden that each can bear. So actually, this morning I think we have cause for cautious optimism.

And last night I did at least go to bed. Which is more than I did in 1997…

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