openDemocracyUK

Ferdie Mount loses his judgement on PR

One of the UK's most distinguished Conservatives came round to support fair voting but has now recoiled from his conversion. He's wrong to do so.
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
19 May 2010

Ferdinand Mount is one of a rare species, a thoughtful, normally calm Conservative, who loves the old British system but not in a narrow, grasping fashion. But I'm afraid that he has lost it (I hope only temporarily.) His book The British Constitution Now showed how our constitution was a living, valued focus for conversation through the 19th century but fell out of public debate after the First World War with the rise of a Fabian mandarinate overseeing the declining Empire State. I'm sure he wouldn't put it like that! But it situated the role of the Constitution in our public discourse, queried the loss of this and engaged with the new generation of debate after 1988.

He was the Vice-Chairman of the Power Inquiry (Helena Kennedy was the Chair) and came out in support of proportional representation. I understood the reason for this was that he witnessed, in the Inquiry's sessions around the country, the immense gap between regular voters and the entire political process - and was persuaded that the existence of hundreds of safe seats where voting didn't matter was an impediment to the public engagement essential for democracy.

Alas, he has now published an intemperate diatribe in the Telegraph which takes it all back and describes himself as a Lenin fool, taken in by the sweet talk of the likes of Nick Clegg and Helena Kennedy. They have proved themselves to be power-hungry despots willing to stitch up the people for the sake of office, and that all their fine talk of fairness was just a smokescreen to hide their plot to "realign" power in their own favour, whatever the people might want.

He comes to this conclusion because they even thought about creating a Lib Lab coalition! This has led him to conclude that PR "stinks" and will take us back to the old corruption of the 18th century. Why? Because "Brown, Mandelson and Campbell are probably the most disreputable trio to manipulate British politics since Bushy, Bagot and Greene in the reign of Richard II" and no one protested when they tried to stay in power. 

He rightly complains that:

I lost count of the number of times Alastair Campbell said on TV "the fact is that no party won a mandate", and so anyone was licensed to talk to anyone about forming a coalition. This is like saying that there was really no difference between the position of Manchester United, who failed to become Premier League champions at the weekend by a single point, and that of Mr Campbell's preferred club Burnley, who were relegated.

This is well put. But how come the appalling trio had such power in the first place?

The 2005 election was stolen thanks the very electoral system Ferdie has now fallen back in love with. On only 35 per cent of the vote and less than 23 per cent of the total electorate's endorsement, the New Labour leadership was given complete executive power. No wonder they felt 'entitled'. In no other European democracy could this have happened. The corruption Ferdie complains of was a product of the near absolute power permitted by the winner-takes-all voting system, not by hung parliaments.

Here, on the contrary, we can see that the coalition politics, which only a hung parliament produces, has a human even civilising aspect that winner-takes-all triumphalism destroys.

Incidently, there was another shocking aspect to Campbell on the BBC, an organisation he helped castrate in the first place with the Hutton Inquiry, thanks to the extraordinary influence our leadercentric system gives the press office under single party rule. I heard Campbell on the Beeb congratulate then Prime Minister Gordon Brown on the quality and dignity of his initial statement after losing the election. (He was still trying to cling to power. Like Ferdie I think he should have resigned on the spot.) It turned out that Campbell had helped write the statement! This was the sort of thing that happened under Communism, as the regime congratulated itself on its own behaviour. Here, in Britain, it was a scandal is created by our elected dictatorship. The sooner it ends the better, and that must mean having a fair voting system.

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