Thursday, 13 May 2010

ConDemNation

I've been mostly a supporter of the Liberal Democrats for nigh on 20 years - ever since I learned about proportional representation in 5th Year Social Studies at school. The injustice of First Past The Post seemed to me so immediately self-evident that I've never quite believed that anyone who supported FPTP could be trusted on anything they said - if they wanted to maintain such an archaic monstrosity, how could they be trustworthy on any issue?

Obviously, most people didn't agree with me. Electoral reform has never been a *burning* issue in British politics, as it served the interests of Labour and the conservatives perfectly well. Even 18 years in opposition didn't cause the Labour party to reconsider its tacit support for FPTP - when they were returned to power with a thumping majority in 1997, they commissioned Roy Jenkins to look into reform, and then ignored his mild suggestion that Alternative Votes topped up from regional lists might be an improvement. The rejection was based on a tribal instinct - fear of letting the Lib Dems, the national parties and (shudder) the Tories into territory labour regarded as 'theirs' - urban Scotland, the North East of England, the English cities, most of Wales. Also, some felt it was very much 'their turn' after 18 years waiting, and it the monopoly on power that a 100 seat majority offered shouldn't be given up.

That majority meant Blair was in a position to ignore the dissenters - the so-called 'Hard Men' like John Reid, from glasgow, and David Blunkett from Sheffield. But he caved into them, a climb down that was pretty revealing about Mr Blair's character.

I was disappointed, but not surprised. If my head belonged to the Liberal democrats and the trainspotterish fun of comparing different PR systems and arguing which is best (I'm an STV man, always have been, always will be), my heart was essentially Labour. I wasn't quite willing to abandon them yet. After all, what was the alternative? The Tories under Hague/ the tories under Iain Duncan Smith? The Tories under Michael Howard?

Bearing in mind, under FPTP, there was no other real option. The Liberal democrats regularly pulled in 20% of the vote, but struggled to get more than 5% of the seats. Even under the leadership of Charles Kennedy, who astutely targeted marginals and cynically leveraged local issues, they still only managed to get about 10% of the votes - and that with Howard's unelectable Tory party, Blair's loathed administration and the Iraq war. the wind was at their backs, but they weren't moving very fast.

2010 was meant to be the breakthrough. the polls all pointed to a hung parliament and it was duly delivered. And what do the Lib dems do? Coalesce with the Tories, in a deal that explicitly does not include proportional representation, and allows the Tories to campaign even against switching to Alternative Vote. Its like seducing Halle Berry (who I have want almost as much as I want proportional representation) , only to find that she was a lady boy all along. Only more disappointing.

The possibility of a deal with Labour was shouted down by the same voices that rejected electoral reform back in 1998. The tribal faction would rather see labour in opposition for a term, in the hope of a quick return to power, than make a deal. They aren't interested in electoral reform or progressive politics, because, in the final analysis, it's just a class war for them - Labour versus the Tories. dealing with the Lib Dems strengthens them, but weakens labour, so they think.

Now they're in a lose-lose situation. If the coalition works, and the economy improves, another election will see either a further Con-Dem coalition or a Tory majority. The Lib Dems will be reluctant to engage with labour, because the same hostile voices will be arguing against coalition and reform. They won't go away, because they are just waiting their turn and dreaming of another decade or so in power, even if it means having to wait a decade - even if it means having to hand over the fate of the British people to the Tories for a decade. Surely, anyone can see that is a bad thing?

For the Lib Dems, I'm not convinced of the strategic value of the coalition with the Tories. I can see the plus side for the Lib Dems: they get ministerial experience; people can't say that the party is not fit for government or that coalitions don't work; Labour and the Conservatives will have to be more open about coalition plans BEFORE the next election, not after. And there is a modestly increased likelihood of a hung parliament happening again, under Alternative Vote, if that comes to pass.

But I think, strategically, that will be as far as it goes for the foreseeable future. If Alternative Vote is established, neither of the big parties will be willing to fool about with further electoral experiments. If the Lib Dems try to demand full proportional representation, they'll get told, impolitely, to piss off. They had their chance to sort it out in 2010, the matter is closed and neither Labour, nor the Conservatives will care to re-open it.

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