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A Historic Meeting

12 May 2005

A Historic Meeting

I’ve just come from a historic meeting in the Houses of Parliament. No, not in the Commons, the so-called legislature of the United Kingdom, but a public meeting held in the Gladstone Committee room called at short notice by Make Votes Count and the Electoral Reform Society. It was packed. I sat on the floor with many others as over 300 of us listened to calls to bring the rotten voting system to an end.

There were five good brief statements then plenty of points from the audience. Early on Peter Tatchell spoke up. He is a veteran campaigner for gay rights who once, wonderfully, tried to arrest President Mugabe when he visited Brussels. His website announces itself as ‘Gay and Human Rights Campaigns’. He told us that our leaders “will not listen to reasoned arguments”. Only popular pressure would do the job. The applause, I thought, was muted, respectful rather than enthusiastic. Most of those present were party members, mainly Lib-Dems, Labour or Greens.

Then, towards the end of the meeting, two Tories were identified and given a special welcome. One of them, John Strafford from Buckinghamshire, Chairman of the somewhat loopy Campaign for Conservative Democracy said that he was astonished to find himself in agreement with Peter Tatchell and that he would take to the streets with him! This was cheered to the roof.

Neither Strafford nor Tatchell represent ‘grass roots opinion’ whatever that is. But their combination suddenly made the meeting feel that they could move out of the committee room. And so we will. On the 17th, to coincide with the opening of parliament, there will be a mass vigil outside Downing Street. I’m not sure that the plan is to sit down and close the road, as I suggested in my blog two days ago. But having asked them, "Where are you now your country needs you?" I am very happy to report that Make Votes Count is on the ball and also that Charter 88 will be calling on its supporters to join them.

Who else spoke? It was Chaired by David Lipsey, who I’ve had little time for, but who now seems to have risen to the occasion. Polly Toynbee from the Guardian led off. Billy Bragg argued we needed a proportional House of Lords as well as fair voting for MPs. Martin Linton, the only MP, was eloquent and factual in his denunciation of “the worst electoral system in the world” which is “poisoning the whole of our political system”. Chris Rennard, a leading Lib-Dem peer noted the anger and in his summing up cautioned us against any reliance on “noisy protests”.

There was a palpable sense of injustice. The Labour government has been voted in by just over 20 per cent, a mere fifth of the electorate. Yet only hours before, I think in the same room, Labour MPs had given Blair a standing ovation in a closed meeting of the parliamentary Labour party. According to the Daily Mail, supporters of the Prime Minister said he had made short shrift of any doubters about his leadership. One minister emerged to say: "Whingers routed!" And Defence Secretary John Reid said: "It was a great meeting. The silent majority are silent no longer." It seems that “That loyalists had rallied round Mr Blair to drown out any protests… Everyone who appeared to say Tony Blair was less than perfect got shouted down."

So it seems that in the same room, on the same day, tectonic plates moved in opposite directions. For this kind of talk and intimidation shows Labour becoming the old regime, bullying, silencing and  toughing it out as opinion widens against it. The spirit of democracy, already coming to life in websites like perfect.co.uk and the sharpener to name just two, is now becoming tangible.

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