Cicero has put his name forward to be a Liberal Democrat candidate for Westminster twice. The first was in the Home Counties, where there was little history of success at national level, although within the last few years the Liberal Democrats had had minority control over the local district council.
The second time has been closer to home in Scotland, where there are several local Liberal Democrat MPs, MSPs and effective control over the local authorities.
In both cases party membership was surprisingly low, but there were activists and members determined to make some progress. The particular surprise for me was that the Scottish constituency party was not much larger that in the Home Counties. Being selected the first time was a slightly hit-and-miss affair. For complicated reasons the constituency was almost the last to select a candidate before the 2005 General Election was declared. Therefore there was little expectation that the party could do well in that constituency. That I had been selected by a vote of the members is something that is satisfying, but the fact is that I was only selected by a two vote margin.
The selection in Scotland is still ongoing, but whichever of the candidates is selected, they too will owe their selection to a relatively small number of local party members who come out to vote. For example, fewer than a quarter of those eligible decided to turn out to the hustings- this in a seat where the Liberal Democrats have a very real chance of winning the seat. Perhaps I shouldn't be, but I still find myself shocked by such relative apathy even amongst party members.
I may say that being a Liberal Democrat candidate even in one of the most difficult seats was a great pleasure- it was fun campaigning and I met a brilliant team who worked so hard and so well- no wonder our position in the seat improved so much. We even did more than our share of assisting higher priority seats in the area and still pulled in votes in our home constituency: in fact we turned in one of the most improved results in that part of the country.
Yet to a certain extent, it is the apathy of the initial selection that highlights one of the major problems of the current British constitution. In a large swathe of seats it is not the electorate that chooses the MP- it is the party organization- however small or apathetic. "Safe seats" allow party bigwigs to select the candidate who is pretty much guaranteed to win the seat. In the Home Counties seat the Conservatives have held the seat for nearly two generations- even though sixty percent of the electorate vote anything other than Conservative. Yet whoever has gained the Conservative nomination, no master how lazy- as at least one Tory member certainly was- no matter how inappropriate, they have still got the nod from the local party and the certainty of sitting in the House of Commons.
The Scottish seat that my name has gone forward in, is a marginal seat, but surely all seats should be marginal? This is to say that every MP should surely have to work to achieve election or re-election. Of course a change in the electoral system would help to bring this about, but more and more I think that we should consider the right election system.
In the Scottish Parliament, the unhappy combination of first-past-the-post and list systems, while it has created a more proportional Parliament, has also created a two tier system of MSPs. Furthermore it has actually enhanced the power of political party bigwigs, who decide the order of candidates on the list. Personally I am in favour of an electoral system where voters decide between candidates in order of preference- if necessary between candidates of the same party. The Single Transferable Vote- STV- may be complicated to count, but it is very easy to vote. It will be interesting to see how the elections for Scotland's local authorities go, compared to the Parliamentary elections next year.
I do not know what the likelihood of my being selected for the Scottish seat is, but I am beginning to think that we will need to think very carefully about the future of political parties in their current form. The issue of secret funding schemes that has emerged in the Conservatives and Labour, and the question mark that emerged over the public donation made to the Liberal Democrats reminds us that democratic parties and money can be a poisonous mixture. I do not believe in public funding for political parties, but neither am I comfortable with the way that parties are funded at present- I am not sure what the solution is, but it is going to become more important as we see the cabal of Conservative funders looking to match the power of patronage that Labour has deployed to raise funds for itself.
The growth of single issue campaigns over the past thirty years has further weakened the roots of the parties, which are -almost by definition- coalitions of different priorities. The growth in the number of political parties- Greens, UKIP etc. Reflects a more pluralistic political environment too. Our constitution does not reflect the diversity of opinion in our country.
Those who support the current electoral system suggest that it gives more decisive government. My response is: "why should a party that gets less than 40% of the popular vote get to have 100% of the power?"
I generally think that Clare Short is a rather immature politician, but when someone senior in their party recognizes the problem of our constitution, I am pleased. I think that one of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats, despite their problems continue to attract the support of between one in five and one in four voters, is that people now recognize that the problems that Clare Short talks about only now, we have been talking about for decades.