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For sale to the highest bidder: LibDem integrity!
I started writing this page in the írundowní from the last General Election. I came back to it quite a lot in the immediate aftermath, and now that weíre going to have a referendum on the Alternative Vote system I have come to the conclusion that the only system a true democrat can support is the one that gave us our hung Parliament - first past the post.
Check the bottom of the page for the latest updates.
As can be seen from my 11 May 2010 posting to the BBC Have Your Say blog...
...I misread the Liberal Democrats for the second time.
A few years ago, I decided that Charles Kennedyís LibDems had become more left-wing than Tony Blairís New Labour, so I voted for their candidate in a council election. They actually got the highest number of seats - and promptly went into coalition with the Tories. I was disgusted, and wrote to both the leader of the LibDems on the council and Charles Kennedy to say so. But I realised that pragmatism is essential in local government, and my judgment had been based on observing the parliamentary LibDems.
So, as implied in my posting, I couldnít imagine Cleggís crew buddying up with the Tories in Parliament - too many political and philosophical conflicts.
I followed developments from Friday morning until Monday night with alternating bouts of excitement and gloom. Of course, Clegg had to give the Tories first bite of the cherry: they had got the highest vote and the largest number of MPs, after all. Anything else would have been undemocratic. But, as I explained above, a Labour/LibDem coalition would have a solid mandate, representing over half the voters. In the end they must share power with Labour.
Cleggís objections to Gordon Brown didnít seem to me to be a major obstacle: whatever happened, Gordon couldnít stay on as Leader and PM. Our local MP, John Mann (Labour - Bassetlaw), was the first to call on Gordon to go, and when Gordon announced that he would be resigning the problem semmed to have gone away completely. Clegg was being strictly ethical in allowing negotiations with Hague, Letwin and Osborne (what a crew!) to continue to a natural dead end, but had already gone ahead in negotiations with Labour. I waited, with bated breath, for him to shatter the dreams of the Tory optimists.
Then came the bombshell. A few hours later, the LibDem MPs and their Federal Executive appeared to have given the Tory/LibDem coalition their unanimous approval - but by that time Gordon had resigned and Cameron was ensconced in Number 10, having íkissed handsí. I couldnít resist the malicious thought that he would have kissed anything - and anybodyís anything - to get his feet over that doormat. After all, his own political survival was on the line.
So much for íprincipledí and íprogressiveí. The Tories seem to have been prepared to dump any number of their most cherished policies - including the raising of the Inheritance Tax threshold that got such a resounding cheer from hundred of supporters at the party conference, and the measy three-quid-a-week tax carrot for married couples. And to be prepared to adopt any number of LibDem policies - even the £10,000 basic tax allowance.
The LibDems must have thought all their Christmases had come at once.
They will get a referendum on the Alternative Vote system, though this is definitely not their Holy Grail of proportional representation - and the Tories will campaign for a íNoí vote.
They will get seats in the Cabinet, but a small minority, allowing the Tories to vote them down on every issue.
And they will get fixed-term parliaments - five years rather than their suggestion of four. That means that they will be locked into this coalition for five years unless they pull out completely. If this happens, will the fixed-term rule (which will need an Act of Parliament to implement) allow Cameron to call an early General Election? Or would he in any case fear that the Tories - the party that failed to oust the most unpopular PM weíve had for ages without the help of one of its sworn political enemies and which then couldnít keep its coalition together - would be totally wiped out? Would he limp on with a minority goverment until Labour and the LibDems poured enough oil on their collective troubled waters to do the wiping-out with a vote of no confidence?
(After writing this, I heard that the Parliament could only be ended prematurely by a vote of no confidence in the government. And that the Tories proposed to increase the majority required for such a vote to 55% - an idea which the BBCís tame politics professor thought pretty dodgy! Then came íclarificationí. Apparently this measure was planned to reassure Clegg that he couldnít be dumped from the coalition too easily - though itís hard to imagine Cameron wanting to do this, so I canít see the point! Anyway, the 55% applies to a motion to end the parliament, not to a vote of no-confidence. Cameron canít exercise the old Prime Ministerís prerogative to end the parliament, but he can propose a motion for the Commons to do so. Even if the LibDems were to oppose this, Iíd have thought Labour would jump at the chance to support it, and they and the Tories together command 60% of members. So what sort of protection would that be for Clegg?)
Frankly, the only major party leader to come out of this fiasco with his integrity in one piece is poor old Gordon. The LibDems said Labour forced their hand by offering ínothing more than their manifestoí. If thatís true, good for them! At least one party stuck to its principles while the other two were bartering away some of their most cherished policies.
Sadly, whatever Gordon had managed to deliver in his three-year tenure (and that, I suggest, was actually quite a lot), he failed to sell his package to the public, and then to the voters. But I continue to believe that he is a decent man, however flawed as a leader. I canít help wondering what sort of PM he would have been if he hadnít had to spend years brooding in Number 11 while Blair betrayed his trust, eventually picking his moment to leave an embittered Gordon with a very unwelcome legacy. He has my good wishes for the future.
The other two? Cleggís gang seem to have used the possibility Labour/LibDem coalition - one which would have been very fragile and which, perhaps, they never had any intention of entering - to beat the Cameroons into a pretty humiliating (and possibly unnecessary) sequence of surrenders. With my long-declared loathing of the Tories, I have no sympathy whatever. Frankly, Clegg and Cameron deserve each other.
But what has Clegg done to his party? He may have found the Tory negotiators easy to deal with, but doesnít he realise that there is a whole generation of Conservative grandees lurking in the background, nursing their long-held contempt for íthe Liberalsí (it has taken this coalition finally to make Tories call the LibDems by their real name) and their poisonous ideas about the EU and many other issues?
Does he really believe he can trust these people?
And where will his voters - already far less of them than he expected after the first TV leadersí debate - turn when they go back to the polling booths? Or those who voted for the Tories?
A couple of days ago, I thought we might finally be about to see the end of the Conservative party as a party of government. Now I think we may have seen the beginning of the end of the Liberal Democrats. Or possibly both - even if we have to wait five years for the outcome.
Think about it. On the 6 May 2010, 10,706,647 people voted for the implementation of the Conservative manifesto. By the 11 May they had a government committed to implementing only parts of that plus parts of the LibDem manifesto, voted for by only 6,827,938 people. Both groups of voters find that their votes have been used to bring to fruition the policies of parties many of them hate.
Democracy? No from where Iím sitting.
Whither (or wither?) electoral reform?
Iíve always instinctively supported the Liberalsí and later the LibDemsí long campaign for a fairer voting system - one that results in a House of Commons whose makeup more accurately reflects the balance of the votes cast. But now I suspect that the LibDemsí apparently idealistic calls for a fairer, more representative electoral system have actually been motivated by a desire to exercise power - or, at least, to hold office - far in excess of what is justified by their share of the vote. After decades as the poor relation in Parliament, they have for the first time achieved that. They appear to have conned the normally cunning Conservatives into shelving some of their own policies and implementing many of theirs.
In last weekís election, a truly proportional system would have turned the Conservativesí 36.1% of the votes into 235 seats, Labourís 29% into 188, the LibDemsí 23% into 149 and the 11.9% shared by the minor parties into 77. This would have allowed the LibDems to offer both the Conservatives and Labour coalitions that would deliver overall majorities, of 59 and 12 respectively.
So less than a quarter of the votes cast would have given even more power to the LibDems. That looks worse, in terms of fairness, than the situation given them by first-past-the-post. Because, while the Con/LibDem coalition does have an overall majority of 38 seats, the Lab/LibDem one would have been 15 short, meaning that the minor parties would have had to prop it up.
So with the same outcome in terms of votes, proportional representation would have given the third party even more muscle than first-past-the-post did. And at least the current result can be seen as a rare aberration - the first time it has happened in living memory. With PR, results like this would be the norm.
Rock and hard place? It seems to boil down to the proposition that itís impossible to design a voting system that would both be fair and deliver effective government.
So what do I think Clegg should have done?
He should have given the Tories, as the party with the most votes, the minimum of support necessary to get a Queenís Speech and a Budget through the Commons - a so-called confidence and supply agreement - and allowing it to form a minority government. This would have had to negotiate with all parties in an attempt to garner enough support to pass each new piece of legislation. That would have allowed all parties to show what they were made of, informing the electorate ahead of what would inevitably have been an early new election. And it would have been truly democratic. Trading at commitment to ongoing support for a few policy concessions and some mostly junior ministerial jobs is nothing of the sort.
So it doesnít look as if Clegg, for all his fine words, gives a toss about democracy. Quite the contrary: he has been able to get power out of all proportion to his votes. And now heís got five years of it. And weíve got five years of him as deputy prime minister.
But he should think very carefully. His MPs voted unanimously to accept the settlement negotiated with Hague and his sidekicks. But they would - wouldnít they? - out of the same self-interest. And the LibDem Federal Executive also gave it their seal of approval, so it didnít have to go to the individual members. If it had, the result might have been quite different and the party might now be losing grassroots members in droves. And the MPs and Executive members arenít the voters. Will they - the most important group after all - ever trust Clegg and his cronies again?
A bit of history
On the second full day of the Cameron/Clegg government, Iíve been doing a bit of memory-refreshing via Wikipedia.
David Cameron is the fourth Tory leader since John Major, the last Conservative leader to actually win an election but defeated by Blairís New Labour in 1997. Of his predecessors - Wlliam Hague (1997-2001), Iain Duncan-Smith (2001-2003) and Michael Howard (2003-2005) - Hague fought and lost a General Election in 2001 and Howard did the same in 2005.
Since Cameron did not win the 2010 election, and there are only winners and losers, you could argue that he is the third leader since John Major (1990-1997) to lose one, only gaining power by the skin of his teeth by courtesy of the self-interested LibDems. Since the other two left office soon after their defeats, he has Nick Clegg to thank for keeping him in his job!
It is interesting that during Cameronís ímodernisingí tenure, the right-winger, rabid Europhobe and failed leader Hague has been rehabilitated as a shadow minister, chief negotiator with the Liberal Democrats and now Foreign Secretary. Also that Duncan-Smith, a very short-lived leader who was not even in Cameronís shadow cabinet, has popped up in his real cabinet. Does this perhaps suggest that there is a paucity of real experience and talent in the upper echelons of the party? Only Ken Clarke has held a senior Government post - and heís a Europhile...
May you live in interesting times, says the old Chinese Curse.
And now we have the AV referendum
As I said earlier, Iíve always instinctively favoured the idea of a ífairerí voting system for Westminster. And, in return for a comprehensive sell-out, the LibDems are going to get their referendum on the Alternative Vote system - not proportional presentation, by any stretch of the imagination. Wikipedia attempts to explain this as follows:
This isnít very clear. Is it the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes or the one with the fewest total votes who drops out? And is it, after 1, only the second-choice votes on the ballots where the first-choice is for the candidate dropping out that are allocated to their respective candidates?
I think Iíve fallen at the first hurdle. And if the author of all the wisdom youíve just read canít get a grip on the system, how is the rest of the electorate expected to make an informed choice in the referendum?
Simply by choosing between the current system and one that is a bit more proportional, I suppose.
Having demonstrated to my own satisfaction that a truly proportional system would make the third-place party effectively the king-maker, despite my instrinctive preference for something fairer, I find myself cornered into voting a resounding NO!
And thatís without being influenced by my deep desire to give Nick Clegg and his office-hungry cronies a bloody nose!
Monday 21 February 2011
Much to my surprise, in yesterdayís Observer I found Andrew Rawnsley seeming to advocate a YES vote in the referendum. Under the headline The cynical enemies of electoral reform think weíre stupid and the subheading Those against the alternative vote believe they can persuade the British that we are too dim to count up to three - perhaps justified comments, as he was reacting to Cameronís opening speech in the campaign - he attacked the NO group for its negative approach.
In response to Cleggís opening salvo, he said:
Iím sceptical that AV is the miracle cure which will purge us of every lazy, disconnected or corrupt MP [Clegg seemed to be arguing that a switch to AV would somehow make MPs less likely to fiddle their expenses - why?], but as Iíve argued here before, I do think it would be a fairer and more appropriate electoral system for contemporary Britain. It will be a worthwhile improvement if MPs have to gather some form of support from at least half of the voters. The parties will be impelled to engage with more parts of the country than just a minority of marginals and it will pay MPs to connect with more parts of their constituencies.
All very fine - provided the new system isnít proportional, because as Iíve argued here a proportional system makes it more likely elections will result in hung parliaments and, therefore, the power to choose a government will be put in the hands of the LibDem leadership, not of the electorate. He says later that AV will, at most elections, distribute seats a little more fairly than first past the post, but AV is not a proportional system. It is a majoritarian system. If there is a strong national will to award a majority of seats in Parliament to one party, AV will do that.
I am not convinced, regardless of what he says elsewhere about the effects of AV in other countries, including Australia, where it has resulted in just one hung parliament in 38 elections. If that is the case, why are the LibDems so keen on it? Because itís a bit more proportional than the present system, and the best they can hope to get? Just because it was the biggest prize they won in their haggling with the Tories and theyíll look pretty daft if they donít get it?
I donít know, but I would need some strong evidence to make me vote for a change to this untested (in the UK anyway) system. I donít see how anyone could model the effects of AV on our elections without some serious data, so how about this?
Scrap the referendum in May and use the next general election as a testbed. Retain first-past-the-post for this election but ask voters to rank all candidates in order of preference anyway. Then publish the real result and the AV result alongside one another to show what difference AV would have made. Then hold a referendum.
Office versus power
The LibDems seem to think that they are íin powerí. They are not. They are in office, but they seem to be doing nothing to rein in the Cameron mobís bull-in-a-china-shop approach to Government. Cameron keeps coming up with his loony projects (like todayís wholesale privatisation of public services) and his ministers are being left free to implement their own equally daft ones (like the terrifying reorganisation of commissiong in the NHS, handing the spending of billions over to GPs, who are contractors to the NHS - not even givernment employees). Clegg struts around being a toothless deputy PM and LibDem ministers trip over their own feet - the wretched Vince Cable being a classic example (middle-aged man being flattered by pretty young women and trying to impress them - how sad can you get?).
The mandate question
Iím baffled that I havenít heard anyone challenge Cameron seriously about this issue. The simple truth is that we, the electorate, chose collectively not to give any party a mandate to form a government, let alone to implement its manifesto policies. You might argue that the Tories and the LibDems together have a mandate for any policies that were in both their manifestos, but this is probably hairsplitting because Iím not sure there were any of these!
As for the loopy far-right back-of-a-fagpacket schemes that seem to be assailing us every day from the Tories, they have no mandate whatever for these. They are wantonly abusing a position in government which they only gained by a long drawn-out haggle with the hapless LibDems, and the said hapless LibDems seem to think that theyíre honour-bound to support every one of these.
Where does it say that coalition partners have to support every one of each otherís policies? Is that what happens in other countries where coalitions are more common? I doubt it. But the poor LibDems have been so desperate to get into government for so long that the experience of actually doing that seems to have bled them dry of all their political judgement.
Wouldnít you think that, having known for so many decades that coalition was their only hope of ever exercising power, theyíd have had time to figure out how to do it when they finally got there?
Clegg would be exercising real power if he looked at each policy proposal from the Tories very critically, decided honestly whether his party could support it, negotiated changes if it were possible to turn it into something they could accept and opposed it if not. Not much hope of that, though. Heís much too cosy in his Downing Street office to risk busting the coalition...
Friday 25 February 2011
Iím still finding myself thinking about this AV thing - and still getting confused. So Iíve just done a bit more research, and here goes...
Each voter ranks the candidates on the ballot paper in order of preference.
If any candidate has first-choice votes from 50% or more of the voters, that candidate is elected.
If not, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated and the second-choice votes from the ballots on which the eliminated candidate was the first choice are added to totals for the second-choice candidates.
If there is still no candidate with a clear majority, the process described in the previous paragraph is repeated, until eventually a winner emerges.
Iím happy to live and vote in a constituency, Bassetlaw, in which the Labour vote has only dropped below 50% once since 1970, though it has come perilously close a few times, including in 2010 when the excellent John Mann got just 50.5%. We donít seem to have the benefit (?) of lots of fringe candidates, either. In fact the total of five in 2010 was the highest in 40 years.
So AV might never change anything in Bassetlaw (unless, of course, the other bit of the forthcoming Bill allows the Tories and LibDems to re-rig the contituency boundaries). And my second-choice vote is unlikely ever to affect the outcome, because my first choice will be Labour, who are highly unlikely to drop off the bottom of the list before someone gets a majority.
But in other constituencies...? Who knows.
Even disregarding my recent decision, I just think it would be lunacy to vote to introduce a system whose effect on our future seems totally unpredictable.
So I go back to my suggestion made on the 21 February: the next general election should be run using first-past-the-post but with an AV ballot form so people can see how the outcome would have been different under that system.
Until then, itís simple: if the LibDems think AV is going to be better for them than the current system, and having seen what the LibDems do when they get one foot in government, AV has got to be a no-no for me!
1 April 2011 I watched Cameron speaking to the Welsh Toriesí campaign launch for the 5 May Assembly election today - distasteful, but you have to keep an eye on the enemy!
And I caught him out in a king-size porkie (unless, of course, the date is significant!).
He said that AV meant some people would get more than one vote. Now, as Iíve said before, AV is very difficult to get your head round, but this is just not true. Of course, if the Prime Minister hasnít got his head round it, then Heaven help the NO campaign.
What actually happens is that, if no candidate gets 50% or more of the first-choice votes, the candidate with the lowest number of first-choice votes is dropped from the contest. The ballots from the voters who gave that candidate their first-choice votes are then recounted, giving the second-choice votes to the relevant candidates. If that process gives any candidate a winning majority, thatís the end of the process. And the second-choice voters will still only have cast one vote each, but for their second-choice candidates. If there is still no majority, the new candidate with the lowest number of votes (first- and second-choice now) is dropped; that candidateís first-choice voters are then counted and their second-choice votes allocated. And so on.
This raises the question of why we bother ranking all the candidates on the ballot, because if the process above is repeated until only two candidates are left one must have a majority unless there is a dead heat, in which case AV doesnít seem to have anything to offer.
Somebody dig me out of this hole - please!!!
Anyway, Cameron was talking nonsense. In fact, the voters whose second-choices are counted could be said to have just one somewhat devalued vote - unless, of course, the second-choice votes pile up to give a win to a candidate who didnít have the most first-choice votes...
6 May 2011 - The morning after the night before!
I ended up voting YES yesterday, despite all the arguments to the contrary I had put together on this page. Iím not sure what tipped the balance. Certainly the Referendum Broadcast this week by the NO Campaign, which consisted solely of an infantile bit about the Grand National helped. The consistent battering every Sunday from The Observer certainly got me thinking afresh. And someone saying that actually AV isnít much more of the proportional system than FPTP helped. Finally, I thought about who I wanted to kick hardest - the Tories or the LibDems. A one-horse race, really - and as it turns out this morning the LibDems have taken a serious walloping without any help from me! The visible misery of Nick Clegg was enough for me. Labour hasnít done as well as Iíd hoped but...
Good news? After three years of Tory control followed by one of no-overall-control, my home district of Bassetlaw elected a Labour majority (21 to 18 Tory and three independent) and my home ward of Carlton elected a Labour councillor on a decent turn-out of over 47% and a decent majority too.
As if the LibDems hadnít taken enough punishment in the local elections, they lost the AV referendum by a thumping 70:30 margin. Thatís their holy grail gone for a very long time.
Back to the mandate question
Further back up the page I expressed surprise that nobody seemed to be talking about the lack of a mandate for any new policies, especially the really radical ones. Now I notice that this is being raised by Ed Miliband and others - but rather quietly. The coalition needs to be challenged very loudly and very publicly about this. Every time they trot out this irritating mantra about ígoverning in the national interestí they need attacking vigorously.
First, the national interest is a matter of opinion - not some universally accepted absolute. It isnít something the Tories can hide behind while butchering the NHS or any other of our precious public services.
Then thereís íthe mess Labour left behindí. I still choose Labour ahead of the Tories - by a huge margin - but I was very critical of both Blair and Brown for many years. But we need to keep reminding people that the financial crisis was triggered by the greed and irresponsibility of bankers and other gamblers, that it didnít originate in this country, and that unlike Ireland, Greece, Portugal and others, this country is far from being on its financial knees. If it was, would we be able to sustain our military presences in Iraq and Afghanistan, let alone add a new one in Libya?
Whither the coalition now
Golly! Suddenly the LibDems seem to have realised that for the past year theyíve completely misunderstood what being in a coalition government is all about. Surprising, this, because all their political hopes have been placed on hung parliaments and resulting coalitions for as long as I can remember. Youíd think theyíd have had it all thought out for years!
But no: we had days of horse-trading on the basis of íYou concede us this policy from our manifesto and weíll support that one from yoursí. Then the nauseating Rose Garden Love-In, in which - after weeks of pretty bitter campaigning against one another, Cameron and Clegg were suddenly the best of friends.
Not so surprising on Cameronís part - after failing to win a useful majority even against a stale Labour Party led by a bitter-and-twisted Gordon Brown (which didnít say much for him, his party or his campaign), heíd been handed the keys to Number Ten by his second-bitterest political foe. He must have thought all his Christmases had come at once.
And Clegg? Deputy Prime Minister - wow! And some fairly senior cabinet jobs for his pals - wow again!
And then he seems to have sat back and let the appalling George Obsborne get away with a deficit-reduction package vastly more severe than what was in the LibDem manifesto - or Labourís.
And, while Cameron was basking in his new-found glory, he seems to have become a sort of hands-off chairman, leaving (among others) the deeply unpleasant Lansley and Gove to go public with outrageous policies for the NHS and state education.
And Clegg has let him - and them - get on with it.
It has taken a violent kicking from the voters to drive home to Clegg what should have been blindingly obvious to the LibDems, in principle for decades and in practice for the last year. All the parties lost the election. None of them earned a mandate for any of their manifesto pledges. It was just that the Tories lost a bit less badly than Labour, creating a situation for Clegg in which only a coalition with the Tories could produce a working majority.
Remember, in May the Conservatives got 36.1% of the votes, Labour got 29% and the LibDemsí 23%. 62% voted against the Tories. Not quite twice as many as voted for them, but fairly close - and a lot more than 50%.
We hear a lot from politicians and commentators about íwhat the electorate choseí, or what message íthe electorateí sent to the parties, as if íthe electorateí was a single entity with a single mind. This is nonsense, but itís still fair to say that in May 1010 the electorate said a resounding NO to Conservative policies - nearly as resounding as they did to AV this year, and probably for much better reasons.
So the job of the LibDems, as the junior partner in the coalition, was not to rubber-stamp Tory policies in exchange for some concession, but to hold the Tories in check: to limit their power. And it seems to have taken the virtual destruction of their party to bring this blindingly-obvious truth home to them.
If they can get some definite LibDem policies implemented, as the price of propping up this minority Tory government, well and good. But their highest priority - in the national interest - should be to prevent the more extreme Tory policies from being implements.
It is high time David Cameron understood that the biggest losers in the 2010 General Election were the Conservatives. After 13 years a continuous Labour government, the tail-end under the leadership of poor Gordon Brown, who was probably never cut out for the job, the Tories should have won by a landslide. They did not do this. They abjectly failed to do it.
Incidentally I heard a useful explanation from Roy Hattersley of why the LibDems had taken such a beating but the Tories had not. It?s simple, really: Conservative voters like what their party is doing; LibDem voters don?t like what their party is allowing to happen.
So what should Nick Clegg do now, poor thing? If he is to win back his party?s more floating voters, he must be seen to be opposing everything the Tories try to do unless he and his party genuinely support it, using the considerable power he has within the coalition to protect this country from another painful bout of Tory nastiness. Otherwise most of his floaters will probably drift to Labour at the next election, leaving the LibDems as a discredited rump in the next Parliament, whichever of the major parties wins.
10 May 2011
After writing the ?So the job of the LibDems? paragraph above, I picked up the following nugget from a most unlikely source: The Sun. I was in a rather long queue in the barber?s this morning. My shop offers two options for reading - Teh Sun and The Mirror. No prizes for guessing my first choice, but as it happened the Murdoch offering came my way first, giving me a peek at what ?the baddies? were thinking. In an interview a year into the Parliament, Cameron said this:
?Mr Clegg?s controversial claim?? I?ve just argued that this is the obvious role of the junior partner in a coalition. Not only do the LibDems seem to have missed this - the PM has, too! Hopefully, the LibDems will stick to their new-found guns and put David Cameron right. Typical of The Sun to see Clegg?s ?claim? as controversial.
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