One of the most puzzling features of the current unstoppable wave of political punditry that is flooding all channels and outlets at the moment (including this one of course) is the peculiar propensity of commentators to feel qualified to extrapolate from the election results the Manifest Will of Britain. “The people have voted for change”, “The people have told Gordon Brown that he has got to go” , “The people are saying that they don’t really trust any one party”, “The people have said that they want Parliament reformed, the tea room in the House of Commons redecorated, new carpeting in the women’s lavatory of the House of Lords and a vegetarian option in the canteen.” What fevered branch of electoral hermeneutics allows any such interpretations on the basis of the summing of millions of individual’s single votes I cannot imagine. It is possible that people do want real change, but a single cross next to a single name is no way to deduce it.
We only get one vote, one cross to put next to one name. If you put your cross next to Victoria Tory’s name you declare that want her to be your MP, representing you constituency, although it is perhaps also permissible to assume that you are up for her party and her party’s leader winning an overall majority in the Commons in Westminster as well. If the cross is next to Fabian Labour’s name or Libby Dem’s one might be justified in assuming the same there too. There really is almost nothing more nuanced or sophisticated that one can infer from our recent general election except to say that that of the 68% who voted there weren’t enough who wanted Conservatives to win to allow Cameron to claim first prize, and even fewer who wanted to vote for candidates from the other parties. One could deduce a huge amount more if voters were allowed to express their preferences in an intelligent way that reflected how they really feel and think. The Electoral Reform Society is a good place to go for information as to how precisely such a form of voting could be implemented, as it is all round much of the civilised world. My friends at Vote For A Change have also been campaigning for the same thing. Proportional Representation is the prize that many of us hope this “confusing” election will deliver. But there is an obstacle. An obstacle so huge that I cannot see it being overcome.
Here is the situation as I read it.
- David Cameron’s Conservative Party elders and backbenchers will never allow him to seal a pact with Clegg that guarantees electoral reform in the shape of proportional representation.
- Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrat Party elders and backbenchers will never allow him to seal a pact with Cameron that that does not guarantee electoral reform in the shape of proportional representation.
- Cameron will spring an obvious trap by saying, “We’ll see. We’ll look into it. You can have concessions on schools and hospitals.” Children who want an ice cream know that when their parents say “We’ll see, but you can have a banana” it means no ice cream. The Lib Dem and PR pressure groups are perfectly aware of that too. Any talk of “an independent enquiry … a Royal Commission … a committee to look into it” will be treated for what it is. Fudge.
It comes down to this: the Conservatives believe that under a PR system they will never achieve full supremacy in the country again. This would mark a sharp reverse in their ambitions. Their manifesto commitment to a 10% reduction in MPs and a consequent redraft of constituency borders would necessarily gerrymander massively in their interest, all but guaranteeing Tory power for the foreseeable future. The idea that they will for one moment countenance PR reform that will see them reduced, as they would interpret it, to the role of Euro-style hedgers, compromisers and pragmatic consensus inclusionists is more than a bitter pill, it is a suicide pill and Cameron knows that he could never induce the party to swallow it.
There can therefore be only two outcomes. Either Clegg blinks and accepts a “We’ll see, dear” fudge which would cause outrage in his party and his own political death or Cameron refuses the deal, demands a new general election and watches grandly, nobly and in a “statesmanlike manner” from the sidelines as Labour attempts to cobble together something with both the Lib Dems and the requisite number of independents and nationalists required to form a majority who could push through an Emergency Budget. Cameron would calculate that the press and public might well see him as the iron man of principal, with the most votes and the most ‘authority’. Clegg would be painted as an opportunistic spoiler: after all his party actually lost ground in the election. Brown, if he stayed, would continue to be portrayed as forlorn, desperate, blundering, out of touch, cynical, greedy, lame and fatally wounded. The media would, I think, successfully raise Cameron and the Conservatives in public estimation: “What principle! What courage! They were not squalid smoke-filled room negotiators, they didn’t strike ugly deals behind closed doors… they deserve the chance to run a stable administration without all this sordid horse-trading. They made handsome and significant concessions on issues that really matter, hospitals and schools, yet instead of seizing this historic opportunity to do something for the country the Lib-Dems insisted, at this time of economic crisis, to fuss about cosmetic changes to the constitution that no decent Englishman understands anyway… nasty European nonsense. Now we see Clegg for what he really is…” You can write the Telegraph and Mail leaders for yourselves. They will argue furthermore that if the Lib Dems and reformers get their way, then the kind of deal-making, compromise and gridlock that we are seeing now will become the norm after every general election and that, they will declare, is no way to run a whelk stall.
Within three months I imagine that any Lib Dem/Labour/Others coalition will fall, a General Election will be called, the Lib Dem vote will be decimated, the Conservatives brought to full power and Electoral /Constitutional Reform will be nothing but a wistful memory as those of us with distaste for conservatism hunker down for the duration. Demos, riots, overturned cars in the streets, many more homeless, infrastructure decay, a rise in crimes against the person and property, a happy time perhaps for the City and the secure middle classes, a dreadful time for the vulnerable, the disabled, the physically and mentally ill, the homeless and the poor. I remember the main feeling induced by living under Thatcher was shame. It was shaming to live in a country that could be so proudly, gloatingly unkind, so vulgar, shabby and ungracious in its attitudes to the outsider, the weak and the destitute. Goodness knows the Labour administration has been very, very far from perfect, but I think we will only appreciate the unheralded and uncelebrated good it did when the props it built up for the poor, the disabled and the disadvantaged have been kicked away.
This is the first occasion in my lifetime when true electoral and constitutional reform has seemed a possibility. We could, if Clegg keeps his nerve, guarantee a political system in which yoyo-ing between right and left ends and with it all the vindictive, ideological revenges and pendulum overcompensations wrought by the major parties each time they return to office. We could have a proper second chamber that is more than a clique of rubber-stamping apparatchiks. An Upper House should be composed of those who think long term. The Commons might vote to put up some smart wallpaper and do some attractive repainting, but the Upper House must be there to look at the damp coursing and the structure, to eliminate the ravages of short-termism. We could also conceive a constitution into whose genetic code a profound and thoughtful understanding of the competing demands of privacy and openness is written – for that surely is the issue in citizenship and government which will most demand attention over the next fifty years? Nobody intelligent or competent appears to be looking at these questions. The Digital Economy Bill shows how pitiful is the politicians’ understanding of the changes that are coming our way.
I want to write soon about Digital Inclusion, which I hope will become a great cause to which some of you might ally yourselves. These and many other issues are structural, deep and important yet consistently ignored by mainstream media: it is to a properly constituted Upper House that one looks for that kind of vital strategic planning. Of course such root and branch reform in governmental structures and electoral methods would require proper debate which would take up parliamentary time and a great deal of (no doubt necessary) public consultation. Working parties, fact-finding missions, amendments, variations, filibusters and vacillations will make it intensely difficult even to make the issue one for referendum.
The Conservatives would throw all impediments that could be found in the path of reform at the best of times, the current economic crisis can so easily be used as an excuse to do nothing constitutional. It is hard to be optimistic, even thought there are clear arguments for a simple implementation of the Australian system of preferential voting, also known as Instant Run-Off, that would hardly need a referendum or two years of committee. Australia has had their system since 1918 and it has worked well — infinitely better than ours has. But if there is one thing the British are good at it is shaking their heads and saying that a thing can’t be done. They forget that political will and commitment can make any problem disappear. Depression and War have proved that there is nothing we can’t do properly, amicably and promptly if we set out minds to it. But history has also shown us that our civil servants and politicians can outdo builders when it comes to sucking in breath, shaking their heads and saying that they can’t get the parts and that frankly it just can’t be done.
There are many golden prizes that might be extracted from the strange situation we are witnessing in and around Westminster at the moment. I am pessimistic only because I can see how from the Tory point of view there is a case for the legitimacy of a conservative administration and why they will never concede on PR and because I can see how easy it is for them to scupper any chances of it while yet looking reasonable and magnanimous and authentic and responsible. The gamble of staying aloof and making sure another election comes along soon must seem a small one to them.
A fair voting system is not in Tory interests, and it is a fundamental of conservative politics that everyone should act in their own interests. Only the twittering classes and high-moral-ground hugging smug media liberal wankers like me would vote or act otherwise. Therefore the Tories will never budge, a consensus will not be built and Clegg’s brief moment in the limelight will be over and he and his party will be a forgotten blip as we return to the same old dance of death while the world changes ineradicably around us. Britain will be shown to be incapable of evolving in its own interests as a nation, as a smart, adaptable, imaginative and diverse community of people who can respond to a changing world. Where once we were in the vanguard (rarely first, but usually early and sound) in areas like universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and child labour, the institution of votes for women and many other important freedoms and civilised reforms, the unsuitability of our political machinery for the modern world will mean that we will soon be seen as a haggard oldie in a broken down jalopy coughing and shaking our fist at the fast electric cars that zoom past us on the highway. What a pity, what a terrible pity.
If what I prognosticate comes to pass and a second general election is called (and it most certainly won’t because I’m crap at this kind of prophecy) – then I think those of us that really care about the kind of change I’ve alluded to will have to mass together and demand it with every democratically viable tool at our disposal. We will have to stop the media from shifting the rhetorical ground and erecting Cameron as some kind of hero of the people. Because believe me that is what they and their PR people will do. It is hard to see how Clegg and whoever leads the Labour Party (Alan Johnson or David Milliband, one assumes) in three months time will be able to counter such tactics. It’s fun now to see the manoeuvrings and courtship dances but it will soon enough become boring, then irritating and finally enraging. The victims of our displeasure are more likely to be the Lib Dems than any other party, which is why I fear they may swallow their pride, lose their moment, accept the ‘We’ll see’ and end up with lots of fudge and bananas and no ice cream.
Wednesday 12th May 2010. Comments are now closed for this blog. Thank you for your contributions.