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All’s fair, even when it’s unfair

datePosted on 21:32, May 8th, 2010 by Lew

As much as it pains me to say it — having long hoped against hope for the illusory Liberal Democrat rally which would see the Conservative party locked out of the British government for another five years — on reflection, I think the result of Thursday’s election in the UK was a reasonably fair one.

That’s a bizarre thing to say for a bunch of reasons, so let me explain. I don’t mean it’s fair in the sense that the views of the electorate were adequately reflected. Hundreds were turned away from polling stations or otherwise prevented from voting, but that pales into irrelevance compared to the fact that somewhere north of 40% of electors who did manage to cast their votes legitimately had no influence whatsoever on the makeup of the parliament. Spare a thought for the 15,903 Lib Dem voters of Camborne & Redruth, whose incumbent candidate lost by just 66 to the local Tory. It’s certainly not fair to the “Celtic fringe” and other minor parties whose candidates were excluded from the main electioneering set-pieces. I’m frequently on record saying that politics isn’t fair, and it isn’t — you don’t get out what you put in, there are no guarantees and sometimes the righteous are not rewarded nor the wicked punished. But from time to time, despite its unfairness, democratic politics does cast a thin, pale shadow of justice, and this is just such a time.

The Labour party betrayed the trust of its electorate in myriad ways. Most egregiously by blindly backing Bush rather than undertaking its own due diligence on the Iraq war; more insidiously by quickening the pace of Britain’s march toward a surveillance state; and most materially by claiming to represent the caring face of modern compassionate capitalism while permitting the barons of the banking industry to make out like bandits to everyone else’s cost. The handover from Blair to Brown was slickly managed but its slickness betokened a deep rot within: a reluctance inside the party to interrogate and dispute and disagree on crucial matters of policy and principle. The absence of any such critical engagement with the big issues of our time during a period when those issues were front-and-centre for the first time in a generation was clear in that nobody challenged Brown, even for show — and it was evident in Brown when he spoke to the electorate. He was a leader who had been given his place; he had not earned it, and it showed. New Labour was deservedly rejected for their performance over the past three terms, and I do not rue its loss greatly.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, were little more deserving. Cameron is unashamedly Blair-like, even describing himself as Blair’s heir. But although early in his leadership he has more characteristics of the later Blair, lacking much of the political verve which marked Blair’s inspirational early career. He is a self-declared moderate, which seems to mean he doesn’t really believe much of anything; he claims to be a “compassionate conservative” but speaks fondly of Thatcher. He derides parliamentary politics as a circus — which, to me, is an indicator of authoritarian managerialism, the preference to stitch up faits-accompli in smoke-filled rooms rather than submit ideas and policy programmes to the chaos of public dispute and scrutiny. For all that, he is an extremely intelligent and politically astute man; his former Oxford tutor speaking of him with surprisingly high regard during the BBC election broadcast. He is in some of these regards deeply reminiscent of our own Prime Minister. His party, however, do not seem to be of this standard; certainly not in terms of ability, and certainly not in terms of ideas. They struggled to keep pace with an ideologically bankrupt Labour party throughout the campaign and preceding term, no doubt just thanking their lucky stars that they were not having to make any of the hard decisions throughout the financial crisis. They were deservedly kept from securing government on their own, although they probably consider that they’ve been robbed, given how deeply loathed Brown and his Labour party are.

But the Liberal Democrats were robbed, although not so much as comparing their share of vote to their share of seats might suggest. They were much less to blame than either of the other two parties for abusing their expenses, and have proposed a much more thorough programme of economic and social reforms to present to an electorate clearly displeased with the tired and mediocre offerings of the mainstream. In a loose moral sense, they deserved more than they got from this election, not simply on the numbers but on the basis of their performance. But they were also the architects of their own misfortune to some extent. They unselfconsciously tried to drive a “sensible moderate” path between two parties whose electoral programmes were positively defined by stultifying sameness and a refusal to commit to anything which might make a blind bit of difference. There was too small a space between those two for anything to properly bloom. They targeted the young, immigrants, and the otherwise marginalised for votes — groups who might respond to polls, but never really turn out on election day. Clegg also played with best-of-both-worlds populism, and his “I agree with Nick” slogan is now being cruelly mocked — as it perhaps always would, given that not even the most generous projections had them winning more than an eighth of seats.

Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats hold an ace, and that is proportional representation. Now Labour, which has long had the political capital to implement a proportional system but has consistently chosen not to even consider it, declares itself in support of electoral reform. Blair, for all the great things he did in his first term, could potentially have saved his hapless successor’s — and his party’s — hides in this election by starting the PR reforms when he could act with impunity. I hope he regrets the decision not to. Even David Cameron, an avowed opponent of PR and representing a party with a deep, even tribal opposition to such measures, now claims to support “reform of the political system”, though — remaining true to form — he has been carefully circumspect on what he actually means by that. I reckon he means “make sure all the polling stations have enough ballot papers”, which is admittedly a good start. But PR is the only way to end the electoral corpulence of the two major parties; while they remain insulated from the challenges of lesser parties there will be no genuine improvement.

So the Liberal Democrats have to go for bust to get proportional representation, now. That, paradoxically, means supporting the Tories to the minimal extent necessary, in the classic sort of compromise that leaves neither party happy. (Though it does mean that the Lib Dems must rebuff as much of Cameron’s “big, open and comprehensive” coalition deal as they can get away with.) For all that it seems, on paper, like a wonderful idea for the Liberal Democrats to give Labour the chance to build a coalition out of the the minor parties — everyone except Sinn Féin and the DUP would be needed — such a course of action would lead to proportional representation being robustly rejected by the British electorate. To stitch together all of these competing interests and Quixotic crusades into a cooperative which can agree on a seating plan, let alone draft constitutional reforms as important as devolution wast would require a bona fide political genius. Gordon Brown is not that genius, and nor is Nick Clegg. If such a person existed in Britain at present, he would probably be the leader of a very much more substantial majority in the House of Commons already. The inevitable, catastrophic failure of such a merry band of jokers would paint for the British people the worst possible picture of what proportional representation parliaments would look like, at the worst possible time, and would leave the Tories free to simply sit on the sidelines and shake their heads knowingly. For all that it’s a self-serving platitude to excuse a deeply undemocratic system, “strong, stable government” really is quite useful during times of such deep economic crisis. Not only would these events drive the electorate into the arms of the Conservative party (who would not even need to change their slogan), but it would sink any chances of PR being adopted for a generation or more. On the other hand, to force the Conservatives to permit even a discussion about PR could grant Labour a new lease on life. Once it’s cut away the extensive dead wood, the party would be in a strong position to stand against the nay-saying Tories trying — and likely failing — to limit their exposure to the public’s will and to make a decent fist of their time in government (in that order of priority).

Probably the most memorable quote for me from this election coverage was “the voters have spoken: we just don’t know what they’ve said”. Well, it seems to me that what they’ve said is “screw the lot of you”, with the perhaps unspoken exhortation to “sort your bloody act out”. I hope that’s the message received. That means the death of expressionless, gutless managerialism in politics, and it means a genuine engagement with the electorate on electoral reform. Neither can come soon enough.


categoryPosted in Democracy, UK | printPrint

24 Responses to “All’s fair, even when it’s unfair”

  1. Ag on May 8th, 2010 at 22:18

    The Conservatives, on the other hand, were little more deserving.

    They’re worse. Cameron is yet another chinless wonder. He would look similarly at ease with a monocle and a whistle in his mouth sending thousands of working class boys over the top to be machine-gunned.

    Britain has no effective political leadership, and probably has not had any since the Major government or possibly the Thatcher government. It’s not really the fault of politicians, but of the massive influence that Blair’s poll-driven style of politics has had. The introduction of PR will not be a remedy for this fundamental problem.

    You can win elections by following the advice of pollsters, but you cannot provide effective political leadership by poll hugging. Game theorists have long known that elections can produce perverse outcomes, and that is what has been happening in Britain.

    There are of course other factors that make British politics unusually pathetic, including the incestuous nature of British politics and society (Brown was the only leader who wasn’t a toff, and even he was a parson’s son), but moving to PR won’t solve those either.

  2. Lew on May 8th, 2010 at 22:29

    Blair was a superb political leader, when he was actually leading. It was when he outsourced his autonomy that it all came apart.


  3. Ag on May 8th, 2010 at 23:41

    Blair was a superb political leader, when he was actually leading. It was when he outsourced his autonomy that it all came apart.

    If that’s a superb political leader, then we are all in trouble. You can run a country like that in the short term, but you will be found out in the end, as Britain has been.

  4. Hugh on May 9th, 2010 at 09:57

    It’s certainly not fair to the “Celtic fringe” and other minor parties whose candidates were excluded from the main electioneering set-pieces.

    I know it’s only a side point, but I am not sure what you’re talking about here… how were the Welsh and Scottish nationalists excluded?

  5. Lew on May 9th, 2010 at 10:26

    Hugh, exclusion from the leaders’ debates.


  6. Lew on May 9th, 2010 at 10:29

    Ag, if you substitute “Blair” for “Thatcher” then your last statement holds perfectly true as well.


  7. Hugh on May 10th, 2010 at 08:48

    Oh, right.

    I suppose you’d have liked to have seen the Northern Irish parties in the leader’s debates, too?

  8. Lew on May 10th, 2010 at 14:16

    Well, when you put it like that…


  9. Ag on May 10th, 2010 at 15:43

    Ag, if you substitute “Blair” for “Thatcher” then your last statement holds perfectly true as well.

    But for different reasons. At least Thatcher had political courage.

  10. Lew on May 10th, 2010 at 19:59

    See, I think the early Blair did, as well. He reframed Labour from dull, unelectable, ineffectual cloth-cap socialists to a proto-capitalist party, which (although the implementation was a long-run failure) was a bold move, and one critical to the party’s survival. He pushed devolution. Implemented important civil, labour and financial reforms (before doing considerable damage in those fields with other policies).

    On balance, I despise the man and his time in government. But if we could have had another five or ten years of the Blair we saw from 1997-2000, things would be very different.


  11. Lew on May 10th, 2010 at 20:07

    Anyway, arguments about Blair and the Celtic Fringe aside, do you guys have a take on the election, its results, and where to from here? So far in the NZ media there seem to be two camps — the “left must keep left” camp of Chris Trotter and Idiot/Savant, and my camp, which (I reckon) is rather more realistic and oriented toward the long-term. Is there a (heh) third way?

    What I now think the most likely option is that Cameron will not come to the party on PR, and Clegg will leave him to form a minority government on his own. This would be far better for the LD than supporting the Tories without a strong commitment to PR, but could still be bad for them if the blame for the resulting economic chaos is seen to rest with the Clegg for failing to prop up the government, rather than with Cameron for failing to give him a reason to do so.


  12. Hugh on May 10th, 2010 at 21:10

    I think a Liberal-Labour agreement is more likely. I’m trying not to allow my predictions to be influenced by what I would like to see, which is broadly speaking the above, but it strikes me that a Liberal-Conservative agreement would be a non-starter.

    Why? Because if a Liberal-Conservative coalition occurs, the Conservatives will immediately seek to pick a policy fight with their coalition partners on an issue where public support is closer to Tory policies than Lib ones – I’m thinking immigration, or perhaps something involving Europe. When the Liberals refuse to support the law in question, the Tories will be justified in calling another election without looking like opportunists – and will be in a position to gain an actual majority based on voters desires to punish the Lib Dems for creating instability over a policy where the majority of the country doesn’t support them. The Libs must be wary of this too, and I think it will move them into Labour’s camp.

    Not that Labour wouldn’t quite happily do the same thing but it is less able to do so – in a similar situation lingering distrust of and dislike for Labour would probably mean they could be less assured of profiting from public distaste at an early election.

    The British electorate is very conservative (small c) in this case – they are very unhappy with coalition governments, governments without assured majorities, elections more often than once every four years, etc etc. Of course they’ve delivered a result that makes some of these impossible to avoid, so political parties will be looking to direct that disgust at their opponents.

    Of course a Lib-Lab agreement, even one that jettisons Gordon Brown*, will also suffer from popular outrage, being seen as overturning the electoral result. But it will have a good chance of lasting a full term, and by the end of then will be able to campaign on its record.

    *Which strikes me as bloody likely – if the Liberals make it clear that Brown’s departure is a prerequisite for their cooperation, Brown may find the queue to stab him in the back goes around the block.

  13. Ag on May 10th, 2010 at 22:37

    See, I think the early Blair did, as well. He reframed Labour from dull, unelectable, ineffectual cloth-cap socialists to a proto-capitalist party.

    Yes, but the dull cloth cap socialists were right. I looked up the so-called “longest suicide note in history” not long ago, and it seems pretty reasonable given recent events.

    If such policies make a party unelectable, then that is just further evidence that the kind of democracy that Britain has is unlikely to solve its current political problems. This would be my considered view: that Britain is a politically dysfunctional country (as it was when I lived there).

    Anyway, arguments about Blair and the Celtic Fringe aside, do you guys have a take on the election, its results, and where to from here?

    I think it’s a joke, and did not even bother to check whether I was currently eligible to vote (I hold UK citizenship as well as NZ citizenship). It appears to make no difference who is elected, since whoever is elected will be forced by the bond traders to make severe cuts to the welfare state. The only difference is that the Tories would do this with greater alacrity than a Labour government.

    PR would make British politics a bit better than it is now, but I cannot see how elite interests would permit a PR referendum to take place. It’s one thing to have the threat that PR represents to the wealthy in a peripheral country like NZ, but another thing entirely to allow it in a hub of the global financial system. I think Trotter is right, and that Clegg has probably “been told”.

    If you asked me what the main lesson of this election was, it would be that the Tories are finished as a political party if they can’t form a government this time. The Tories were facing the most unpopular Labour government I can remember, one that is actively loathed by a large proportion of its own supporters, and they still couldn’t win. Brown is less popular than the average British paedophile (whom he slightly resembles), and Cameron still couldn’t close the deal. If Clegg had any stones, he would understand this and hold them to ransom, but he won’t.

    One thing is true, the commentary in the British press has been nothing short of dire, with the vile Julian Glover (the pampered eromenos of some even viler tory journo) possibly the worst of the bunch.

    Rant over. Glad I don’t live there.

  14. Keir on May 11th, 2010 at 01:31

    *Which strikes me as bloody likely – if the Liberals make it clear that Brown’s departure is a prerequisite for their cooperation, Brown may find the queue to stab him in the back goes around the block.

    Brown pulled off an amazing campaign in some respects. The economy’s stuffed, there are two unpopular wars, he called a voter a bigot on live tv, and he’s still not kicked out of Downing Street? He’s also a talented machine politician; you don’t get to the top in the UK without being a very slick operator. Don’t bet too much on Brown getting the heave until Labour are two weeks out in the cold, and even then…

  15. Hugh on May 11th, 2010 at 03:55

    I agree, Keir, that Brown didn’t have the worst campaign – he certainly exceeded expectations, although expectations were very, very low. That being said he is still less popular than his party, who are themselves not exactly super popular (29% of the vote); and I’m pretty sure almost all of Labour’s MPs are more loyal to the concept of staying in power than they are to Brown personally, with the exception of a few of his personal disciplies (I’m thinking Ed Balls and his various doppelgangers). So if it’s a choice between Brown in opposition and no-Brown in government, well, I don’t think it’s even a choice, really.

  16. Lew on May 11th, 2010 at 08:58

    The only way I can see that Brown’s campaign could have been worse is if the Liberal Democrats had outpolled Labour on the popular vote. The exception to that is in Scotland, where Labour actually gained votes (though not seats). The Tory failure was more due to their own ineptitude than Labour’s brilliance.

    Ag, I think the main difference between us is that I see the integrity of the political system as having primacy, whereas you place much greater emphasis on policy outcomes. So while you argue that the failure of Old Labour’s economic programme means that democracy is broken, I’d argue it just means the left needs to do a better job of selling their ideas. But we’ve had this argument before.

    My belief on eleciton night was that the elites would move on PR if it meant the difference between government and opposition; now I’m not so sure. But Labour’s sudden willingness to fire their leader and countenance working with the SDP might provide them the impetus they need.


  17. Hugh on May 11th, 2010 at 10:51

    Lew, I’d say Labour could have done worse if they’d got 28% or less of the vote – that would have made it their all-time worst election result, even more pathetic than Michael Foot’s attempt in 1983.

  18. Ag on May 11th, 2010 at 22:28

    Ag, I think the main difference between us is that I see the integrity of the political system as having primacy, whereas you place much greater emphasis on policy outcomes.

    The problem with that position is that it is unsustainable in practice. If you believe in the integrity of the democratic system, then you ought not to relativize this to a particular instance. That means you have to support the integrity of the system over an indefinite number of future elections. However, a problematic feature of democracy is that retaining the integrity of the system in one instance may compromise it in future instances. Faced with such a situation, anyone who values the integrity of a democratic system must be prepared to forgo integrity of that one election to secure the integrity of future elections. Failure to do so just means that you don’t really value the integrity of elections.

    So it really does not matter. If a reasonable case is made that the integrity of future elections is imperiled by the results of present ones, that is not a case that a democrat can answer by appealing to the integrity of the election in question or by simply claiming that it would never happen.

    Or so it goes.

  19. Ag on May 11th, 2010 at 22:38

    The only way I can see that Brown’s campaign could have been worse is if the Liberal Democrats had outpolled Labour on the popular vote. The exception to that is in Scotland, where Labour actually gained votes (though not seats). The Tory failure was more due to their own ineptitude than Labour’s brilliance.

    I’m not sure about that. I think Brown can be quite happy about the way things have gone. His was one of the worst governments in the history of Britain, he’s a terrible leader, and he had the misfortune to be up for review in the aftermath of a horrible economic meltdown. Labour could well have been up for the kind of destruction meted out to Canada’s Progressive Conservatives back in the 90s, but it didn’t happen and that must be a relief.

    I don’t think the Tories ran a bad campaign. It just seems to me that they don’t have the support any more. To be quite honest, everyone knows that the things that they hate Labour for would be worse under the Tories.

  20. SPC on May 12th, 2010 at 00:02

    Clegg should, in my opinion, allow a Tory minority government for a year – with a referendum to the public by the end of the year. This effectively allows the LD a veto (made public within parliament if the Tories so choose) over policy, a veto from outside formal coalition.

    That should allow Tories to feel the need to go again to the polls for a new mandate – but under AV. Which makes a Labour-LD coalition within a couple of years likely with the more unpalatable parts of the Tory programme being blocked in the meantime.

  21. SPC on May 12th, 2010 at 00:26

    One also hopes the Greens agitate for at least some SM with AV, to ensure smaller parties have a continuing presence.

    AV is like allowing LD a foot in the door and then closing it on other smaller parties. Though, I suppose one could legislate the exclusion of parties based on race and religion.

    Some have suggested Commons become an English parliament and Lords become the new centre for rule over the wider UK (this would exclude some regional parties from an English Commons). It has some merit.

  22. Lew on May 12th, 2010 at 11:00

    Ag, I’m reluctant to go around this particular mulberry bush with you again, except to say that you’re misinterpreting my view as an absolute or binary position rather than a something which rests broadly on the merits. I accept the reasoning that where a democratic outcome threatens the future of democracy it should not be tolerated; I just suspect that my tolerance level for this sort of thing is different from yours. Rather than the need for a ‘reasonable case’ to be made, for me there must be a grave and imminent threat to justify any encroachment on the process of democracy.

    On this morning’s events, I think it’s an error for Clegg to take the DP position and cabinet roles, but I think this was a deal-breaker for the Tories, who want to be symbiotically linked with their junior partner in order that both share the blame when it inevitably falls apart. I think it looks more likely that Hugh’s prediction — a policy fight, probably over Europe — will come true, rather than SPC’s, which I agree would be better.

    One thing’s sure, though — this was just the opening act.


  23. Ag on May 12th, 2010 at 15:41

    Ag, I’m reluctant to go around this particular mulberry bush with you again, except to say that you’re misinterpreting my view as an absolute or binary position rather than a something which rests broadly on the merits. I accept the reasoning that where a democratic outcome threatens the future of democracy it should not be tolerated; I just suspect that my tolerance level for this sort of thing is different from yours. Rather than the need for a ‘reasonable case’ to be made, for me there must be a grave and imminent threat to justify any encroachment on the process of democracy.

    What about slow building threats?

  24. Lew on May 12th, 2010 at 21:56

    A grave and imminent threat can build slowly.


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