Sunday, May 30, 2010

David Laws: no sympathy, no excuse.

Let's be absolutely clear: this has nothing to do with David Laws' sexuality.  It is about his failure to follow the rules on parliamentary expenses.    These rules are very clear: “housing allowance must not be used to meet the cost of renting a property from a partner”.  Mr Laws has no excuse for not being aware of these rules after years in which parliamentary expenses have rarely been out of the news. He has done a huge disservice to his party, the Lib-Con coalition, his constituents and the country and he should have resigned immediately. 

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Queen's Speech: why Scotland's laughing.

 Ok, someone has to say it: last week's Queen’s Speech was really rather a good deal for Scotland.  Even the SNP have been struggling to find things to complain about.   And no - I’ve not become a spokesman for the ‘Condem’ coalition or been offered a gong in  Cameron’s next honours list.  We 're so suspicious of Westminster perfidy that we sometimes fail to see when it is playing straight.  The only cries of pain I have been hearing are from Tory MPs bending over backwards not to say anything offensive about the Scots. 

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Great Lib Con

  It’s called the Great Lib Con.   You voted for an end to foreign wars, nuclear power, Trident and for a more positive attitude to immigration and Europe.  You got a Tory government.  On Tuesday,  many liberal-left voters in Scotland were incoherent with rage when they discovered that they’d actually voted for David Cameron when they thought they were voting for Charles Kennedy.  How the F@@k did that happen?  I’ll never vote Liberal Democrat EVER again! were some of the more moderate comments on the new political order.  

  Now, as someone who urged tactical voting to change the electoral system, I suppose I have to take my share of the blame for this.  Before the election, a number of people asked me if there wasn’t a danger of “letting the Tories back in” if they lent their votes to the Libdems.  My reply was if we took that attitude, nothing would ever change.  We’d be left for ever  with a reactionary two-party duopoly in Westminster.
 Bumping up the Liberal Democrat vote, which  seemed to be building nicely during the campaign thanks to Nick Clegg’s TVcoup,  seemed the surest way of delivering a fatal blow to the corrupt and undemocratic Westminster system.  But tactical voting isn’t an exact science.  The Liberal surge faded fatefully on polling day, and that fatally weakened the third force.  Labour rejected a “coalition of losers” and the rest is history. 

   So, am I eating my words in the cold aftermath to the Great Lib Con?  Is it humble pie time for misguided, too-clever-by-half hack?  Perhaps - but I’m not alone: electoral reformers like Billy Bragg have also been seen with pastry crumbs on their chins.  Others, including journalists on the Guardian and Independent newspapers, have been eating hats and running naked down high streets.  No, I really didn’t expect that there would be a formal coalition between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.  My forecast was that there would either be a Tory minority administration after a hung parliament, or a Liberal-Labour progressive alliance.  In the end - ha ha ha - we got the Nick and Dave show.  George Osborne in charge of the public finances.  Iain Duncan Smith in charge of welfare.   Liam Fox with his finger on the nuclear trigger. Five non returnable years of Conservative government. 

   It was a shock certainly.  If you think Tory government is the end of the world - and who knows it might come to that - then you’re probably right to think that we’ve all been lib-conned.   But the inconvenient truth is that the coalition deal, if you study it, is actually a rather good one.  It wasn’t just the five cabinet seats or the fifteen junior ministerial posts.  Or the referendum on AV, which isn’t actually proportional representation.  No, reading the document, I can understand why the Liberal Democrat negotiators were astonished when they saw what the Cameron Tories were offering them.  An elected House of Lords with PR, curbing the power of the executive in the Commons, repealing Labour’s anti-civil liberties legislation, reforming the banks, the £10,000 tax threshold, scrapping ID cards, tax powers for Holyrood, no third runway at Heathrow, etc.  Also, the Liberal Democrats negotiated opt out on clauses things like nuclear power, married couples allowance.  

  Yes, the penalty  is that the Libdems have to sit - metaphorically at least  - alongside the “nutters” as Nick Clegg described the Tories' far right partners in the European Parliament.  Libdems will have to accept a cap on immigration, the renewal of the Trident missile system, savage cuts in public spending, probably withdrawal of benefits from many lower income families.  There may be all manner of nasties lurking in the Tory in-tray that we don’t know about.

  But was there an alternative?   The Lib-Lab progressive realignment that we all talked about was a non-starter, and not just because Labour MPs like Tom Harris and Douglas Alexander refused to sup with the hated Nats. On Tuesday it became clear that there was not only a deep mistrust of the Liberal Democrats on the Labour benches, but a profound antipathy to thoroughgoing political reform. Senior Labour figures like John Reid and David Blunkett ensured that no deal would be struck by launching very public condemnation of the talks even as Labour and the Liberal Democrats were sitting in Number Ten trying to find common ground. This wasn’t isolated indiscipline either: the ex-ministers were clearly speaking for many on the Labour backbenches. 

   No guarantees on electoral reform or the rest of the reform agenda were forthcoming.  So, what were the Libdems to do?  Accept no deal from Labour or a great deal from the Cameron Conservatives? Difficult choice, I know - and one I’m glad I will never have to make.  The Tory offer was carefully calibrated to deliver genuine and far reaching reform in exchange for stable government - stable Conservative government. The Liberal Democrats may end up as human shields for Tory cuts, and they have a hell of a job justifying themselves in Scotland.  But here’s a thought: Alex Salmond only managed to secure power, and the first nationalist administration in history, by doing a deal with the Tories.  Sometimes, party leaders have to deal with the devil. 
  Last week reminded me a little of the 1992 general election when everyone expected the Tories to be wiped out in Scotland, and they returned with an extra two Scottish seats, as well as retaining control in Westminster.  There were howls of anguish and gloomy forecasts of the end of civilisation as we know it.  Five years later the Tories really were wiped out, such was the force of the Scottish tactical vote against them.   That led to an irreversible process of constitutional reform which led to Scotland regaining its parliament after 300 years.  

   I’m not saying that’s going to happen again. But what we can say is that the process of political and constitutional revolution that was begun in the Scottish Parliament has now moved south.  Westminster will be radically changed under this coalition. And so will Scotland,  because the Calman reforms and other constitutional changes, will take us much further down the road to federalism.   Of course, many suspect this Lib-Con deal was cooked up before the election by two public schoolboys seeking to edge Labour out of power for a generation. But if so, all you can say is that Labour fell for it hook, line and plonker. 

Friday, May 14, 2010

A Very Civil Partnership.

   It was like a crazy dream, a comic fantasy.  Nick and Dave hugging on the doorstep of Number Ten.  Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of the UK.  As the day wore on my fingers were numb from pinching myself.    There they stood among the foliage of the Downing St rose garden, joking away,  like Ant and Dec in a trailer for I’m a Liberal Democrat Get Me Out Of Here.  Except the Cleggies aren’t going to be allowed to get out of this game because they’ve agreed to a mandatory, five year, non-returnable term of office. And it’s no secret who’ll be eating the bugs in the bush-tucker trials.

   It was all wildly improbable, but Clegg and Cameron seemed to carry it off.  The nation’s press suspended disbelief just long enough to listen to their joint message about the new politics. About giving power back to the people, about going green, helping the disadvantaged and revoking all those nasty Labour offences against civil liberties like ID cards and snooping wheelie bins.    The Westminster hacks were puzzled, though, by the mechanics of coalition governance.  Who’ll control the spin-doctors? Who ‘ll control the civil service?  What happens when there’s a by-election and the two parties have to start fighting each other?  Who takes questions at Prime Minister’s Question Time?  If the phone calls at three am, who’ll answer it?

 Never has the Westminster village seemed so parochial. These issues of coalition protocol were mostly resolved ten years ago during the first Holyrood coalition. The new politics has just filtered south.  Coalition only looks strange because no one in Westminster looks beyond College Green.    The Libdems also work with Tories and others in big councils like Birmingham. One suspects that the Liberal Democrats played a blinder in the negotiations with the Tories largely because they’ve had long experience of doing coalition deals in Scotland. 
   And there’s no doubt that Nick and co did play a blinder in those five hectic, sweaty, adrenaline-soaked days following the general election.  It was a poor election result for the Libdems, who actually lost seats, but they still got an amazing result from the Conservatives:  five cabinet posts, the deputy prime ministership, a referendum on electoral reform, ten thousand pound tax threshold, banking reform, fixed term parliaments, an elected House of Lords,  freedom to abstain on nuclear issues and marriage tax breaks.  You wonder where the Tory manifesto went. Green investment bank, Tobin tax on financial transactions, pupil premium, more powers for Holyrood.  It was a real deal, which could  change  British politics for good.  Unfortunately, it came from the Tories. 

  This will almost certainly split the Liberal Democrats. When the Cleggies find themselves having to defend the deficit reduction programme and savage cuts to public spending to their party conference there will be blood.  Some Libdems think it’s not so much a coalition as a suicide pact, in which they have to shoot themselves first.  But knowing the risks, Nick Clegg still grabbed the Tory offer on Tuesday after he’d satisfied himself that Labour wasn’t serious about any “progressive alliance”.   Now,  Labour insist it was the Libdems, not they, who sold out the rainbow coalition; that the “personal chemistry” between Clegg and Cameron was down to the Liberal Democrat leader being a natural Tory who always wanted to do a deal with his public school chum.  Certainly, Nick Clegg had great difficulties relating to Gordon Brown, whom he regarded as a political neanderthal.  But it was Labour’s manifest lack of enthusiasm for a coalition that unsealed the deal even before the negotiations got underway.    The succession of senior Labour figures like John Reid, David Blunkett who went on TV saying that any “coalition of losers” would be undemocratic and unstable and would - shock horror - involve talking to nationalists and other political vermin.     It wasn’t the numbers that was the problem - all the parties were losers in this election.  No, it was visceral hatred of Alex Salmond all  Liberal Democrats that scuppered the great broad left realignment. Tribalism is alive and well in the Labour Party.

   Also, Labour had clearly lost the will to govern. Tired and emotional, the thought of going to all the effort of cobbling together a multinational coalition was just too much.   Never has a government seemed to happy to lose office.  Gordon Brown practically skipped out of Downing Street, wreathed in smiles, no doubt thinking about the booby traps he’s left concealed in the cabinet in-tray.  David Cameron, by contrast, almost stumbled into Number Ten, with no grand phrases or air of destiny.  Compared with Margaret Thatcher, with her quotes from St Thomas Aquinas, Cameron looked like an estate agent who’d come to look the property over and give a valuation once he’d inspected the loft. 

   As the furniture vans arrived to take away the football posters and books on post neoclassical endogenous growth theory,  Labour MPs looked forward to an easier life in opposition.   Honing their invective against the “Tories little helpers” and the “yellow Tories” .   Labour MPs believe that the Lib-Con alliance will crack in exactly fifty days, when the Tories’ emergency budget unveils the true horror of the cuts to be inflicted on the public sector - on local government, social services, non-front line health etc.. The very public sector that employs most Liberal Democrat voters. The public sector unions will be out on the streets within weeks and Labour will be joining them on the picket lines, fighting the Tory-Liberal cuts.   Cleggie! Cleggie! Cleggie! Out! Out! Out! 

    In Scotland, Labour are going back to their constituencies to prepare for government after the 2011 Scottish elections. All those ex-Labour Scottish Liberal Democrat voters  are horrified that they ended up with a Tory government and many will never vote Libdem again.  Alex Salmond’s enthusiastic advocacy of the “progressive coalition”  concealed just how  poor a result Thursday was for the nationalists who, far from winning 20 seats, emerged one with fewer than when the campaign began.    With Labour on the march in Scotland, the SNP will have to have to fight like hell to win re-election    But one thing we can say for certain, whatever the Holyrood result:  neither of them will be eager to form a coalition with the new pariahs of Scottish politics: the Liberal Democrats. 

Sunday, May 09, 2010

The election - what the hell do we do now?

   It was a night of electoral chaos and high drama followed by a weekend of profound uncertainty and inconclusive horse-trading. Voters claimed they were disenfranchised and there were threats of legal challenges.  As the election night wore on it became clear that no one party was the winner and the Liberal Democrats ended up as reluctant king makers.  No, not the 2010 general election, but the Scottish Parliamentary election of 2007. 

  The parallels between the Holyrood election and the Westminster result are striking, right down to the anger and confusion at the polling stations. On Friday it felt rather as if Britain had been turned upside down. Suddenly the London media was eager to understand how the proportional representation system worked and how coalition government, er, happened.  Phrases like “confidence and supply”, which we'd all learned  three years ago,  raised puzzled eyebrows among the metropolitan hack pack. Isn’t “minority government” a contradiction in terms? Welcome to the new world of co-operative politics. 

    Suddenly Scotland was seen as the template for Westminster after its hanging by the electorate.  How exaclty had Alex Salmond managed to survive three years and three budgets without a majority and with no coaliton?.  Correspondents were fascinated to learn how, after the ‘inconclusive’ Holyrood election result in 2007, Gordon Brown reportedly advised the defeated Labour First Minister, Jack McConnell, to cobble together a deal with the Liberal Democrats and form another unionist coalition against the nationalist enemy, the SNP.   That keep-calm-and-carry-on strategy lasted about a day.  The Scottish Liberal Democrats had already realised that propping up a defeated First Minister could open them to accusations of forming a “loser’s coalition” - of being so desperate to hang onto their ministerial motors that they would accept the leadership of an unpopular leader who had been rejected by the voters. 

  That lesson applies again this weekend during the febrile negotiations over the future governance of the UK.   Britain is too new to the coalition game to contemplate the loser becoming the winner again through the magic of coalition, as Gordon Brown is learning to his cost.  It happens all the time in other European countries and there is nothing in the rules that says the party with the most seats and votes is the one that should form the government.  However, in our political culture we like defeated prime ministers to stay defeated, especially if - as in Brown’s case - they haven’t been elected in the first place. 

    In 2007,  the Libdems were equally adamant that they would not form a coalition with Alex Salmond’s Scottish Nationalists because they had a fundamental constitutional disagreement about a referendum on independence.  Now, I don’t want to carry this Scottish comparison too far - Westminster is a very different kettle of constitutional fish -  but I think there is a strong possibility that Nick Clegg may fail to cement any deal with  David Cameron’s Tories at their meeting today for much the same reason: that there is a fundamental constitutional disagreement about a referendum on electoral reform - as well as a host of other issues like public spending cuts, Trident, europe etc...It seems inconceivable that Clegg could carry the support of his party if he ditched PR and equally unlikely that Cameron could offer it. The former cabinet Norman Tebbit probably speaks for many Toy MPs voters when he says he would rather see the party in opposition than in a cock-eyed coalition with the loony Liberals (as many Tories regard them).  His view is that any Lib-Lab arrangement would fall apart soon anyway precipitating an early general election which the Tories would win handsomely.  

    Mind you, David Cameron is a man in a hurry.  He wants to taste power if he can possibly do so.   Perhaps he will listen to the advice from the influential former Tory leadership candidate and defence minister, Michael Portillo, who called on BBC;s Question Time for Cameron to take up the cause of electoral reform.  That is just possible, I suppose, and Cameron’s people have been sounding out the new Tory benches, younger and perhaps more reform-minded than the previous parliamentary Tory party.   But the aversion to PR among most Conservatives is profound because they believe that it might lead to a perpetual Lib-Lab coalition.    The most likely option must surely be a Tory minority administration with David Cameron trying to achieve the balancing act performed so adroitly by Alex Salmond in the Scottish Parliament after 2007. Which is why Scotland is again at the centre of UK politics this weekend.  

    I could be wrong, of course - like the rest of the media, I’ve been wrong about most things in this election.  Nick Clegg might suddenly come out as an enthusiastic proto-conservative.  The Liberal Democrats might abandon the habit of a lifetime and come to a very rapid agreement this weekend on the need for a crisis coalition with a Conservative Party that rejects just about everything they stand for.  Nick Clegg could be awarded the post of home secretary in a Cameron government with Vince Cable as industry secretary and Charles Kennedy as scottish secretary. 

    But it stretches credulity to breaking point to believe that anything like this fantasy coalition could work, or anything like it.  Even a confidence and supply agreement whereby the Libdems agree to pass the Tory budget would be fraught with danger.  The Liberal Democrats have to be very careful that they are not used as human shields by the Tories in the impending confrontation with the public sector unions, as David Cameron pushes through his financial austerity package.  Liberal Democrat voters across the country would be outraged at their own party pushing through service cuts and might resolve never to vote Libdem ever again.  It could destroy the Scottish Liberal Democrats who would be leapt upon by the other parties as the real Tartan Tories. Then there is Europe.  And immigration. No - it just won't happen. 

    And when Cameron decides to call another general election, perhaps as early as this autumn, the Libdems could be wiped out as the country divides along traditional lines.  And for what?  The “big comprehensive offer” that David Cameron made to the Liberal Democrats on Friday is actually small, limited and conditional.  A “cross party committee” on electoral reform will butter no parsnips, and the proposals on schools and a carbon-free economy offer nothing substantial.  Only Labour is offering the real deal on electoral reform. 

   So, should Nick Clegg swallow his pride, and his words,  and in spite of the Scottish experience seek to do a deal with Gordon Brown,  the “desperate” man he said he would not allow to “squat”  in Number Ten?  Well, Brown has certainly made the best offer so far - a guarantee of  referendum on PR as part of a comprehensive package of political reform. It would change British politics for good, reflect the mood of the country, ensure Libdem participation in future governments, and probably lock the Tories out of power for a generation.     The case for a progressive realignment of politics in Britain is a very convincing one.  There is no ideological or institutional reason why the Liberal tribe and the Labour tribe should not live in the same tent.  Their manifestos are a close fit, and Labour really has had a dramatic deathbed conversion to political and electoral reform.  Amazingly, both wings of the Labour Party seem to be agreed now on the need for this historic realignment - which was supposed to have taken place in 1997 but didn’t because Labour got such a huge majority that Tony Blair didn’t need the Liberal Democrats.

   That painful memory of the former Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown, being left alone at the alter in ‘97, will make it hard for the Liberal Democrats to trust Labour again. Gordon Brown would have to stand down, obviously  - he is just too unpopular - as even the Labour MP John Mann has conceded.  That could be arranged: Brown has already made it clear that he’s been thinking about a career outside politics.  But there is another even more serious problem: a Lib-Lab pact, unlike any Lib-Tory arrangement, would not have a majority in the Westminster parliament.  The Labour and Liberal Democrats combined won 52% of the popular vote on polling day,  but such a formation would only have 315 seats in the House of Commons, eleven short of an absolute majority. 

   Any Lib- Lab pact would have to look to the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and the new Green MP, Caroline Lucas, for support.  Add them together and this ‘progressive popular front’ would have  325 seats, which is tantalisingly close to a majority in the Commons because the Speaker, John Bercow, doesn’t vote. Add in the Northern Ireland Social Democratic and Labour Party’s 3 seats and the non-Tory Alliance MP’s one - and factor in that the Democratic Unionist Party in Ulster is no friend of the Tories -and you start to see a possible coalition emerging which would have perhaps 329 seats against the Conservatives’ 306. 

     It is  on the basis of this arithmetic that Alex Salmond has announced that he's waiting by the phone for a call from Gordon.  The call has not come - but the phones have been ringing all over the country and I have it on good authority that Labour has been testing opinion among all the minority parties including the SNP.   If the Liberal Tory coalition talks fail, and there is no stability pact between Clegg and Cameron, then this might be the only way of preventing another general election almost immediately parliament resumes. Alex Salmond and Ieuan Wynn Jones, the leader of the Welsh Nationalist Plaid have issued a joint statement proposing a “progressive” coalition of the anti-Tory parties. The idea is to unite all parties, great and small, who want to see a historic, one-off reform of the British constitution through electoral reform. Whether this coalition could withstand the stresses of managing the worst economic crisis Britain has faced in thirty five years is another matter.  The Lib-Lab-SNP-Plaid-Green-SDLP-Alliance would be a ramshackle vehicle with seen party leaders.  Would they agree on where to meet?

   Anyway, Labour might prefer to take its chances with an early election than do any kind of deal with the SNP, such is the ocean of mistrust between the two parties. There is actually a precedent for a Lib-Lab-SNP alliance in Westminster.  Back in 1979, the nationalists supported the Lib-Lab pact government led by the Labour PM James Callaghan.  That involved a kind of “confidence and supply” deal under which, in exchange for a devolution referendum, the SNP agreed not bring down the minority government and support its budget.  Unfortunately, after he abortive March 1979 referendum, when Scotland voted Yes but not by 40% of the electorate, the agreement broke down. James Callaghan said it was “turkeys voting for an early Christmas”, and in the subsequent general election, the SNP were almost annihilated, losing 9 of their 11 seats.  Labour have never forgiven the nationalists for “ushering in” the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher who won the May 79 election.   It was really the Winter of Discontent rather than discontented Nats that did for Callaghan.  However, the memory is not one that will make either Labour or the Libdems enthusiastic about a pact involving nationalists.  

    But if not that, what?  We are very much back now to the minority politics of the 1970s.  As the economic crisis develops, and the political crisis is unresolved, there may be many Commons cliff=hanger votes in which the nationalists may hold the balance.  It's going to be great fun for political journalists, though perhaps not for the country as a whole.  The real problem with the parliamentary arithmetic is that the Liberal Democrats failed to deliver.  They are too small , with only 57 seats, to seriously call the coalition shots.  The general election result was a massive disappointment to the Liberal Democrats who had been expecting greater things, and to those who have been seeking real reform of British politics. 

   It seems an age ago now, but only four weeks ago, after the first televised debate, the Liberal Democrats were thought to have made a historic breakthrough, and were for a time neck and neck with the Tories.  Cleggmania gripped the nation. Clegg was compared with Barack Obama - a new and unstoppable force in British politics.  Throughout the rest of the campaign the Liberal Democrats remained neck and neck with Labour in the polls.   Unfortunately it all evaporated on polling day, and Nick Clegg won even fewer seats than in 2005.  

       Historians will argue for decades about why Nick Clegg failed in the end to to deliver the votes he had in the opinion polls.   Professor John Curtice talks of the “great mystery of the Liberal Democrat surge”    To what extent were the Cleggites undermined by the subsequent press campaign of vilification, possibly the worst since the days when the tabloids used to rubbish Neil Kinnock?  Within days of Nick Clegg’s success in the debate, the Daily Mail discovered that he was really a Nazi sympathiser, who had compared Britain unfavourably with Germany under Hitler. The other Tory supporting papers were rather more subtle in their attacks on the messiah of third party politics.  The Daily Telegraph discovered that he had accepted cash from political donors and deposited it in his own personal bank account.  This turned out to be irregular but within the rules and it was established that Clegg had not benefited. 

    But these attacks did not appear to be all that damaging, and in the final week of the campaign, the Liberal Democrats were still level with Labour, though falling back slightly.  What no one expected was that on the very day of the vote, there would be a sudden and massive move away from the Liberal Democrats.  Some voters clearly heeded Gordon Brown’s eve of poll warnings that a vote for the Liberal Democrats was effectively a vote for Cameron.   But not many -  Labour only got 29% of the vote - pretty much as the polls forecast, while  the Liberal Democrats lost 5%, ending up with 23`%.  A million Liberal Democrat votes just disappeared.    Perhaps these people were never going to vote anyway, and had just been drawn passively into politics by the televised debates.  Perhaps it confirms that Liberal Democrat voters are inherently less committed than supporters of the other parties.  

    This unexpected Liberal Democrat set-back, should have presented David Cameron with an opportunity to seize the political initiative. much as Alex Salmond did in 2007, when he helicoptered into Holyrood the day after the election and simply announced that he was forming the government.  Timing and chutzpah are everything in minority politics, and Salmond was relying on the confusion and division of the opposition to allow him to get his feet under the government table.  David Cameron could have mounted a similar coup de theatre on Friday if he had organised a rally of supporters and simply declared himself the victor and prime minister in waiting.  In 1974, when the Conservative prime minister Edward Heath lost his majority in the February election, Harold Wilson simply announced that he was going on holiday until Heath vacated Number Ten. 

    But instead of seizing the moment and asserting his right to rule,  Cameron opened a negotiation process, spelling out in public his terms for a Libdem coalition.  It sounded as if he was unconfident about his mandate, unsure of his ground.  By declaring his hand he also invited Labour to enter the negotiations themselves with their own superior offer.  In fact, Gordon Brown managed to slip in a hasty statement outside Downing Street even before Cameron had made his pitch.  It was a bizarre sight, unprecedented in British political history - a public auction of policies   Never happened this way in Holyrood.  Not a very good advert, perhaps,  for coalition politics and a strangely demeaning sight.

   But then, the political  leaders have been knocked down several pegs by this general election in which - in a very real sense - they have all been losers.  For all the talk of the greatest victory since 1979,  David Cameron’s achievement was very modest for a party that was 20 points ahead of Labour a year ago. With only 35%  of the vote, there has been widespread internal criticism of the Cameroons for weaknesses of the Tory campaign - in particular the “Big Society” manifesto which  invited people to set up their own schools.  There was some truth in Alistair Campbell’s claim, blogged from his old office in Number Ten, that under the circumstances, and given his unpopularity,  this election result was a moral victory for Gordon Brown, because he managed to fight of the Liberal Democrats and denied the Conservatives a majority in parliament.   Mind you, that is small consolation for losing nearly a hundred seats.  It also underlines the spinelessness of  Labour ministers who must surely realise that if they had only dumped Gordon Brown after the European election debacle last year, when Labour came fourth, they could have been back in government by now instead of desperately seeking deals with Clegg. 

    Television was perhaps the only real winner of the 2010 general election.  Politicians and commentators alike signally failed to predict the impact that the televised debates would have.  British political campaigning will never be the same.  This wasn’t a twitter election, or a facebook election or even a blogging election. It was a TV election, a kind of political X Factor, in which contenders were put through their paces before a live audience, and the viewers invited to deliver their instant verdict.   However, the voters turned out to every bit as fickle as the X factor audience, given to outbursts of passion that can quickly subside. The voters have made their decision, and we’re still trying to work out what it was, said one minister.  This election was a kind of punishment for the UK political leadership, for the expenses scandal and the banking crisis.  The people wanted a change - well, now they have it. The political system is broken , but we don't yet know if anyone has the tools to fix it. 


Sunday, May 02, 2010

Don't hold your nose on election day. Vote for fair votes.

     When things go wrong in British politics they don’t half go wrong.  The collision near the launch of Labour’s final poster campaign on Friday was a headline-writers gift:  The Car Crash Election.  The final mishap in the worst Labour election campaign since 1983, when the late Michael Foot - a man of great intellect but little popular appeal - led the party to its worst defeat in half a century. Who’d have thought that Gordon Brown, one of Labour’s brightest young stars in 1983, would lead a campaign that compares unfavourably with that? 

   I recall Footie, with his stick and fly away hair, stomping round the country from botched photo-opportunity to heckled speech.  Manfully trying to defend “the longest suicide note in history” as the Labour manifesto was called.  He scarcely seemed to know where he was most of the time, and nor did his aides. But he never lost his dignity.  He might’ve got in a muddle with his microphones, but Footie wouldn’t have dismissed a loyal Labour supporter as a “bigot”, even in private,  and he wouldn’t have testily blamed his staff.    Nor would Foot have abased himself, and demeaned his office, by turning up with the world’s media in tow to beg for Gillian Duffy’s forgiveness.  (One of the explanations for Brown’s “bigot” remark, by the way,  was that he had thought Mrs Duffy had said “f@@king immigrants” not “flocking immigrants” - to which you can only say: that’s a flocking ridiculous excuse.)

    The 1983 general election almost destroyed the Labour Party and the question this week is whether Gordon Brown could finish the job.  I don’t think he will, not least because our unfair electoral system is designed to prevent parties like Labour expiring through natural causes because people stop voting for them.  It props them up like cadavers in a Frankenstein beauty contest of the damned.   In 1983, Labour plunged to 28% of the vote, only 2% ahead of the SDP-Liberal Alliance.  But Labour  ended up with 209 seats in Westminster and the Libdems only 23.  It was a brutal result, which made a nonsense of democracy.    By rights, voters should have taken to the streets, as they did in Eastern European countries where the electoral systems were similarly rigged.   But they didn’t, Neil Kinnock came along, and the rest is history.  

   In 1983, Margaret Thatcher got a parliamentary majority of 144 seats on only 42% of the popular vote -  a spurious mandate which she used to devastate industrial Britain. Thursday looks like being every bit as perverse as 1983, even though David Cameron is never going to win a majority like that. The poll of polls seems to be suggesting a hung parliament with the Conservatives on around 300 or so seats;  Labour coming second with 200 plus;  and the Liberal Democrats having to make do with under a 100 seats, despite winning more votes than Labour.  Any such result will be an outrage.  As someone put it: we can’t go on like this.  I find the alphabet soup of AV, STV, AMS as tedious as the next man - but after this election  something must be done to make this country a democracy. Actually, I suspect that the death knell for the present system tolled mid week when voters realised that that Labour could come third in this election and still win the most seats in parliament.  Never! Never! Never!

     But as the hours and minutes tick away, Labour are telling anyone who’ll listen that the way to achieve democratic change is to vote, not for the party of electoral reform, the Liberal Democrats, but for Labour.  The logic is thus:  If the Tories win, and the Liberal Democrats come second, Nick Clegg will have no choice but to support David Cameron.  It may be a hung parliament but if Labour is third there could be no chance of a Lib-Lab alternative.   A vote for the Libdems, then, is a vote for David Cameron.  Ergo, to give the Nick Clegg a sniff of power, and to halt the Tories in their tracks,  you must hold your nose and vote Labour.  Hasn’t Gordon said that Labour now accepts electoral reform?

    This argument is too clever by half.   For a start, Labour’s promises of electoral reform are generally forgotten the moment they gain power - they promised a referendum, remember, in 1997.  Even if Brown comes second in terms of seats, there is still no chance of a Lib-Lab coalition.  The British people will not accept a party that has been  defeated in an election hanging on to power. Nick Clegg would still have to let David Cameron form a government and, here’s the twist, so would Labour.   Yet, the democratic reality is that Labour and the Liberal Democrats will have an overwhelming majority of the votes cast on Thursday.  In any proportional system Britain would long since have had a stable coalition of the progressive forces of the centre left. 

 And right now, an overwhelming vote for the Liberal Democrats is - in England at least - seems the best way of demonstrating the central point: that Britain cannot be called a democracy so long as the number of seats in parliament bears no relation to the number of votes cast.  

  The time for holding noses is over.  Some Scots will vote  for the SNP to register their discontent on Thursday.  More are likely to vote Liberal Democrat.    This is not 2007, and the issue in this general election is not who governs Scotland, but how to reform Westminster.  Of course,  the vast majority of Scots will continue to vote Labour, as they always have,  especially in the West of Scotland, where hatred of the Tories is the driving force.  I fully respect that.  However, in those seats where it counts, I hope people will at least consider voting tactically for whichever party seems most committed to change. 
   We have one chance:  to end of this rotten, corrupt and unfair electoral system, which has deformed our political culture. Which has allowed leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, with inflated majorities in parliament on 43%  or 42% of the popular vote, to push through policies like the Iraq war and the poll tax that the majority of British voters never wanted.  Voters have an opportunity to make themselves heard on Thursday:  Let’s open our mouths and scream.