The end of the world

12 May 2010

For the first time in 13 years a Conservative government is in power. The last Conservative government went on the way out just as I was leaving childhood; this new one neatly bookends the end of my twenties and my youth.

That said, I’m not as devastated as I thought I might be. Perhaps because this is not the Tories’ 1997. They went from a 20 point lead in February 2009 to a hung parliament against a Brown government seemingly going down with all hands on deck. What threatened to wipe out Labour and the left for a generation eventually turned out to be the second-least worst scenario – the Conservatives forced to enter coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

The preferred option for the progressive liberal left, a Lab-Lib coalition, was not on the cards once the results came in on Thursday night. The numbers didn’t add up; without the aid of the Scottish and Welsh nationalists there was no way to hold a solid majority; such a wide coalition would not have held together well, and been widely resented in England. It was politically unviable. While I’d rather we didn’t have Tories in, with these numbers it was reasonably inevitable, so I’m not that upset about the (tough) choice the Liberal Democrats have eventually made. Better be in the tent pissing in, and all that.

It’s easy to say this is all #nickcleggsfault, and the Lib Dems to some degree look to have been a victim of a last-minute Tory squeeze. 12 of the 14 Lib Dem seats lost at the elections were to Conservatives. The fact the Lib Dems lost so many constituencies is a surprise – their strategy has tended to be to win seats (especially at by-elections) and then hold onto them. Indeed, after combing through the election data, the sitting MP factor seems to have been really important for the Lib Dems:

  • Six seats were lost by candidates who had not stood as MPs before, either replacing retiring MPs or standing in wholly new constituencies – South East Cornwall, Harrogate & Knaresborough, Hereford & South Herefordshire, Truro & Falmouth, Winchester and York Outer.
  • Three were sitting MPs defeated by quite narrow margins – Camborne & Redruth (66), Oxford West & Abingdon (176) and Montgomeryshire (182).
  • A fourth, Newton Abbot, was lost by 523 votes, just over 1% of the vote.
  • Only two were lost by existing MPs by sizeable margins – Richmond Park (4,091) and Romsey & Southampton North (4,156).

So not an overwhelming rejection of Cleggmania – instead perhaps an indication of how important a known face can be in a marginal constituency, coupled with some incidents of sheer bad luck as the big two squeezed on the Lib Dems; even Lembit Opik’s much-publicised rejection was actually in the end quite tight. Had the Lib Dems kept 9 seats (the six with newbies plus the three tight losses), with 66 in total they could have formed a working majority coalition with Labour (327 MPs including Alliance & SDLP) without relying on the nationalists, and it could have all been very different.

Of course, all this “if my aunt had balls” dwelling on marginals and the odd handful of votes here and there show just exactly silly this electoral system is, with its concentrating on a few whimsical middle-England towns while swathes of the country (blue, red and yellow) get ignored. The arguments for proportional representation are clear. Imagine if first past the post had not existed at all and someone proposed a solution where one party can win all of government on 35% of the vote, and where the influence of an individual’s vote varies in accordance to where one should happen to live. It would be rightly rejected. Most modern European democracies employ some form of proportional, preferential voting, as have the former Communist states that have come out of one-party rule.

Furthermore, the new parliaments and assemblies introduced to the United Kingdom in the past 15 years have all adopted a proportional system (AMS for Wales, Scotland & London, STV for Northern Ireland), while the European elections have been proportional (d’Hondt for Great Britain, STV in Northern Ireland) since 1999; direct mayoral elections (which cannot be proportional), are all preferential systems using the Supplementary Vote. Not one system has reverted back to FPTP, nor is their any real political momentum in that direction. The trend is clear. Meanwhile, first past the post’s only real strength, the promise to prove ‘decisive’ results, has been clearly undermined by the results of this election.

Moving Westminster to PR is the next logical step. The deal the Lib Dems have got – a referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote – in itself will not produce an inherently proportional system (although AV could produce more proportional results nationwide as a side-effect). But it breaks the stranglehold that FPTP has over our political mindset. Once we’ve done that, a move to a much better system such as STV is a (much simpler) case of adopting multi-member constituencies and redrawing boundaries appropriately – neither of which needs a referendum or endless commissions and reports. AV is not perfect – in fact it’s crap – but it’s a very good start.

These negotiations have been the perfect example of how much better it is when politicians are forced to co-operate to resolve their differences rather than harangue each other on television for the national good. Just look at the difference between the coverage before the election and after; the endless soundbites and partisan sniping and playing to the cameras of 24-hour-news, as a substitute for genuine differences on policy. Our news culture was so void of actual news or reasoned debate, that despite the momentousness of the occasion, it was truth told a very boring election. The biggest story of the campaign (outside of the debates) was when Gordon Brown made his “bigot” gaffe, which clung to the frontpages for days (until the next debate arrived). As for the debates themselves, Nick Clegg’s rise to the fore was not characterised by his putting clear water between himself and the others, but a polished and confident performance on TV which encouraged his opponents to outdo each other on saying how much they agreed with him.

Given how much the main parties all seemed to want to agree with each other, the clamour opposing a (God forbid) coalition government (from both ‘left’ and ‘right’ wings) looks a little odd, doesn’t it? To be fair, to go from a confrontational culture to a co-operational one overnight is a demanding change of mentality; perhaps with a system of PR we would all know beforehand that some form of coalition would be inevitable, and so the parties would be able to give a more reasoned breakdown of their intentions for minority government – who they would partner with, what they would negotiate on. It would be more honest to the electorate and go some way to stymie the complaints that PR leads to “backroom deals”. We get cross-party stitch-ups like the Iraq War, in a FPTP system as well, and acknowledging that parties do deals all the time would help shine light on them rather than let them scurry away from public view.

This gulf between pre- and post-election behaviour shows who the biggest losers in these coalition government talks were. Not the Labour Party (who were fucked anyway), but the news media. In contrast to the banal antagonism of the election campaign, when the serious negotiations of producing a government got under way, everybody in power got to work and stopped talking to the media. MPs disappeared from our screens with their usual pontificating, and so the news had to resort to bringing out a series of old warhorses (Heseltine, Prescott, Blunkett). When that didn’t work, they had to resort creating the news themselves – witness the Boulton-Campbell handbags at ten paces, or Kay Burley having a go at protesters.

The newspapers faired little better. The right-wing press tried smears on Clegg and a ludicrous anointing of Cameron as the new Obama, but they failed to push him onto a clear majority, while the Guardian and Independent’s advocacy of the Lib Dems probably had the reverse effect of getting the big two to squeeze them out in marginal constituencies. It’s hard to see who in the media really “won” out of this election.

I mentioned how fucked the Labour Party was – so time for a quick aside on Labour and Gordon Brown. Brown is a no doubt an intelligent and (broadly) principled man; he handled the economic crisis well enough to stop us from descending into the madness of Iceland or Greece. But he was clearly not cut out to be Prime Minister – disliked by his staff and Cabinet comrades, unable to find a common touch, and simply unable to relax like Blair did. He brings to an end the New Labour project he helped found, and Labour now need to look at themselves, and apply to themselves the kind of root and branch reform they so happily piled onto public services. If they are to be an effective opposition and stand any chance of winning the next election off the Lib Dems and Tories, they need to rediscover themselves and bring back voters and supporters turned off by the Blair years (myself included). Cut out the bullying and spin, the obsession with endless ‘reform’, central control and surveillance, and rediscover what a party for the people should be; not a move to the hard left, but a more honest, consensual and diverse politics internally. As for Brown, I have a hunch he could go on to do something like what Jimmy Carter did – redeem himself internationally somewhere, after such a disastrous period in charge. It may well be the only option left open to him, in fact.

As for Cameron, he faces a very difficult situation. This was a good election to lose in some ways. He’s going to have to keep up the cuddly Dave act while he keeps his promises to his supporters and slashes spending; internally, he has to keep a leash on the batty right wing and fundamentalists in his party while making sure his Lib Dem coalition partners don’t get ideas above their station. If his ham-fisted oaf of a Chancellor cocks up the recovery, his entire project could die at the outset, and though they might get kicked out the next election that’s not something to celebrate: we’ll all be made to suffer first.

So here’s what we have to do: keep vigilant, hold the new Government to account on everything and don’t think they won’t get away with it just because there’s a few Lib Dems to keep an eye on things. The best thing we can hope for is that we muddle through OK. But hey, that’s not a bad aspiration to have, in fact it’s what we usually do. So chin up, everyone. It’s not the end of the world.


5 Responses

Nice piece – thanks.

At the moment I’m enjoying being free of New Labour, and thinking the importance of cancelling much that was simply wrong.

There are quite a number of ultra-marginals, so I see many opportunities for local and grass roots politics, as well as possibly a greater responsiveness rather than “plough on regardless” of the last few years. Geoff Hoon’s seat now has a Lab majority of ~200 over the LD.

And – I hope – Lords Reform which *may* neatly exclude so many washed-up ex-MPs from an automatic entitlement to affect laws.

I am not looking forward to spending the rest of my life paying for Brown’s unnecessary mistakes.

But we shall see.

Nice considered piece. One more factor I’d throw in re LibDem performance that hasn’t been mentioned yet… This was supposed to be the election where their 2005 anti-Iraq War protest vote unwound bigtime. They were supposed to fall quite substantially in vote share. In fact they grew by a point or so. Though it wasn’t the nationwide breakthrough that polls suggested, I still think it’s a decent result. To sustain a third party under FPTP with around a quarter of the vote for a couple of decades is almost impossible. But they are still hanging in there. And while going into govt. with the Tories is far from ideal, they didn’t really have any other credible choices, I fear. (As I wrote a few days ago: http://liberalconspiracy.org/2010/05/08/why-a-con-lib-coalition-might-be-good-for-the-left/)

DamianK

Nice piece. In defence of the press they haven’t had much to go on with a discussion of policy.

Assuming that the big policy debate is how much do you cut spending and where, which taxes do you raise and how much of the deficit do you think is structural there has been little from the parties either in the campaign or the coalition talks, or the post coalition statements.

The devil of the ‘muddling through’ will come, i would argue, in the details of the balance between tax and spending and in how much, or how little, the government relies on and generates economic growth.

[...] I suggest they accept no criticism that begins without unpicking the puzzle above – one that the election result set them. That [?] might include the implosion of the party. It might also include the [...]

It’s a very interesting post and you are right it’s not the end of the world. Nevertheless. If Gordon Brown saved England from a bigger economic crisis he has just begun the process and that shouldn’t be stopped. Because even if England is still with AAA marks from Standard and Poors it will be like that for how long ??? It’s a political choice to don’t afraid the finance system even more.
Unfortunately with a conservative parliament the english economic system will go down : this country doesn’t export a lot and the debt will grow… Let s face it… The bank system is the heart of the english economy and the way the conservatives wants to maintain it is just a nightmare for the future.
Being honest England with such a government is not far from the Greece situation in several years…