What went wrong, and what now for reform in the UK

What a shocking day for progress in the UK outside Scotland. The minor improvement of AV spurned, hopes of PR dashed, and the Tories escaping not just unscathed, but positively emboldened. Today was not ‘a good day for the left’; it was a victory for tribalism and mendacity.
Oliver Huitson
7 May 2011

What a shocking day for progress outside of Scotland. The minor improvement of AV spurned, hopes of PR dashed, and the Tories escaping not just unscathed, but positively emboldened. Today was not ‘a good day for the left’; it was a victory for tribalism and mendacity. Today we, the people, opted for a return to a solid two-party state in Westminster. If the Tories pull off their boundary fix, and the Scots vote for independence, even a two-party state may be a distant dream. What a shocking day.

The one bright flame that flickered in the darkness of the UK was in Scotland, where even under a proportional system the Scottish National Party have secured an historic victory. The grip of the major Westminster parties on British politics has taken a serious blow, as has the notion that PR can only deliver coalitions. Cameron has acknowledged the enormity of the result by pledging to “campaign to keep our United Kingdom with every fibre I have” (Gerry Hassan covers the result in full here). But South of the border, things are looking exceptionally bleak.

Looking back at May 2010, the decisions taken by Clegg and senior Lib Dems have proved to be disastrous. Not only have they weakened their party immeasurably, they have empowered the Conservatives without gaining a single concession of any substance.  Electoral reform, the reason I and many others voted for them, has now been kicked into touch for who knows how long. Neither Clegg nor the Coalition is likely to survive until 2015. For all this carnage, what has been gained?

It has now emerged that Brown offered a referendum on full proportional representation – the choice of reformers, the choice of the Lib Dems and the choice of all honest democrats. Clegg turned it down. He accepted instead a referendum on AV, another lopsided majoritarian system which no one had asked for, coupled with a gerrymandering of constituency lines in favour of the Conservatives. True, it’s unlikely Brown could have delivered a PR referendum, but STV should have been the primary ‘red line’ – take it or leave it. If neither party were able or willing to offer it, the Lib Dems still had options, and they still had public support.  

With purple protesters in the street and wide support for electoral reform, Clegg could have declined coalition, leaving a Tory minority government. The old LabCon duopoly, unwilling to grant the public a say on how they elect their government, would have shouldered much of the blame. Public support for PR would have grown, not shrunk. The Lib Dems would have been strengthened, and a Tory minority government would never have lasted the distance. But they wanted to play the statesmen, the guardians of the “national interest” – they wanted to be in government, whatever the cost. And how dear that cost has been.

In accepting the vote on AV, they opted to fight on the weakest ground possible. Had they battled for an honourable coalition, gaining concrete and substantial concessions, even AV would have been winnable. They needed to show coalitions could work for the public – they failed. Had they secured a vote on STV, even their dismal servility in this coalition would not have stemmed the tide. Instead – they got the worst of both worlds, and today they have been blown apart.

As for Labour’s role, the sight of Margarett Beckett and David Blunkett campaigning alongside the Noes was a good reminder of just how reactionary Labour can be. Blunkett even acknowledged the No campaign’s dishonesty:

 “We are in the middle of an election campaign. People in elections use made-up figures”

When the duopoly is threatened, they have few qualms about hugging the Conservatives close. One of the most astonishing things about this Coalition is how quickly it has erased the memory of New Labour in power, turning pink-Thatcherites into heroes of the common people. “A little less, and a little slower” will hardly ring through the ages as a revolutionary cry.

Dreams of proportional representation, some have said, will be strengthened by this result, not weakened. I would only ask that this view is backed up with a credible plan of how this is going to happen. I had an interesting exchange with David Rickard on this issue, and he makes some persuasive arguments, but on this point it’s hard to be optimistic:

 “If AV loses, on the other hand, the left-of-centre parties can start pressing for PR and other reforms right away, and pressure could be brought to bear on Miliband's Labour to back PR. We could then have a pro-PR electoral alliance and coalition in waiting at the 2015 election”

The Lib Dems perished today, they are no more, they have ceased to be; they are the yellow parrot of British politics. Labour have shown themselves divided over AV, let alone PR – something that would all but guarantee the end of Labour majority governments. Asked by John Humphrys what a No vote would mean for reform, Miliband replied: “we won't be coming back to this very quickly.”

The Conservatives could hardly have asked for a better day. FPTP has been retained, and they will be encouraged by the results of the local elections. How tempted will they be to call an early election? They failed to win last year, in the most benign circumstances they could have dreamt of. Since then, the public has had a sharp reminder of just how noxious and untrustworthy they can be: the forest sell off, the NHS “reforms”, the desire to privatise everything except “the judiciary and the military”, corporate tax cuts and a complete failure to bring the banks to heel. Labour remain rudderless and ill-prepared, but a snap election would still be a brave move.  If they can hold out until the boundary changes are passed, assuming they get them through, England will be a Tory fortress.

The Coalition may well crumble before then; tensions will reach new highs on the back of today’s events. The Lib Dems would be annihilated in an election tomorrow, but the longer they remain propping up this destructive Conservative government, the more contaminated they will become. They are now in a lose-lose situation, facing either a swift beheading or a slow and painful poisoning.  

What next. The gloves must come off. Labour desperately needs to find some bite and some ideas. On elected Lords, touted as a sweetener to the Lib Dems, expect lots of committees, consultations, reviews, reviews of consultations…. Forget it. The Lib Dems failed to secure anything concrete on the issue. Either the Lib Dems secure solid and fundamental concessions or this Coalition needs to end.


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