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 FÃ©in 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.