Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The political pendulum

If I was happy with the state of British politics I would not want to change it.

There has been a long history of two party politics in Britain. whether it was the "King's Party" versus the Puritans or the Whigs and the Tories, Liberals and Conservatives, and later Labour and Conservative, the tradition, indeed the very structure of the British Parliament is based on a division into two groups: Aye versus No.

The result was that British political parties have had to be large coalitions. Blairites and Communists coexist in Labour and Social Conservatives and Libertarians coexist amongst the Tories. Power alternates between two parties and they survive in power depending on the irritation factor of the electorate.

The pendulum of politics swings, and no one group achieves dominance- it was not a bad way to protect democracy. The problem is that the political duopoly has smothered ideas and genuine debate. The parties are afraid of dissent and can expel members who will not conform. There is no other way to take a direct role in the political process except through a party- there is but one independent in the House of Commons (though- as cross-benchers- more in the House of Lords).

Increasingly few people are prepared to accept the political compromises that the bi-party system requires. Membership of all political parties has fallen, and increasingly citizens have chosen to participate through single issue groups. For example, membership of the RSPB is greater than the combined membership of all political parties. Electoral participation rates have been in long term decline for decades.

So, the swing of the political pendulum, if that is what the recovery in the Conservatives turns out to be, may not be of such dramatic significance. The convergence of Labour and the Conservatives has created a bland homogeneity, where no voter feels threatened and neither Labour nor the Conservatives step to far away from the bland marketing bromides that pass for political slogans these days. So the replacement of Blair with Brown or even Cameron will not change that much.

The problem is that this gentle decay of politics is a threat to our freedoms. Democracy is under threat not yet from tyranny, but from indifference- and indifference which suits the party duopoly.

The electorate are not stupid: they know that much of the posturing of politicians is empty, and that they are powerless in the face of much that occurs. We listen to statements that demand action on a range of issues where politicians can not do anything, but no one points out that the Emperor has no clothes, they just don't bother to vote.

Liberal Democrats should not simply aim to replace on or another of the two parties on the pendulum. Our view of politics is in opposition to the zero-sum game of the two party system. We accept that there is greater diversity in political opinion than is allowed for in a straight Yes-No question. We believe that a coalition of different parties is no worse than the coalitions within parties and does at least have the advantage of honesty.

It is not enough to change the government, we must change the system of government, and unless we do then the political class - increasingly professionalised and based on marketing rather than philosophy- will become divorced from the citizens that it is supposed, ostensibly, to represent.

Liberal Democrats have got to speak out: our creed remains, "Trust in the people, tempered with prudence". Our political system now excludes the majority of citizens and can easily fall into decay- and in the vacuum irresponsible and dangerous demagogues may lurk.

The pendulum is no longer a sufficient guarantee of our liberties.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

That diversity you want Cicero will bring the likes of the BNP and Respect. You want that. BTW I tink you'll find there are two independents or three if now count Clare Short. Although I grant you Dr Taylor behaves to all intents and purposes like a Lib Dem. I have replied to you on that previous thread again.

Lepidus.

James said...

Yes it will. The fact that dross of left and right might creep in does not alter, in my oppinion the need for a freer market in politics. It is not up to the system to make political choices- it is up to the citizen. Democrats should not be afraid of this.

Anonymous said...

I don't want Le Pen style stuff here Cicero, so we'll have to differ. You mock our broad spectrum parties but considering our last civil war was 350 years ago they've served us pretty well don't you think at defusing all sorts of tensions political and social. Besides it has one brutal political simplicity, when its time the bums are kicked out. I don't fancy a system like Germany 1969-1998, where the Govt depends on the whims of back room whealer dealers like Hans Dietrich-Genscher. Though I can see why the Lib Dems like the idea! BTW are you Lib Dems willing to submit your PR to a referendum or just ram raid it through Parliament, without a by your leave from the public.

Cicero it is one thing to ask Conservatives for principles it is another like you to ask for their manifesto now. An opposition's job from Disraeli on is to hold the Govt to account. That is because you are an opposition. Come election time you are for a few brief weeks a prospective Govt. Then is the proper time to put your proposals to the Electors. Speaking personally I'd say Patriotism, Liberty and compassion are sound Conservative principles for you to chew over.

Lepidus.

James said...

I think the two party mould is a bit less monolithic than people like to suggest. Partys can come and go - as liberals should know! While such sea changes occur in politics the PFTP system can be very fluid, as it was throughout the 1920s for example.
The real heyday of the two party system was from 1945-1974. Since then there has always been a pretty consistant 25-30% of the electorate who vote for other Partys, implying a three party system at least in terms of votes cast. It has taken a long time for those voters ballots to turn into MPs, but I would argue that from 1997 parliament has essentially been a three party system masked by Labour's vast majorities. That time has now come to an end. I think that increased Party political 'turbulence' over the next few elections will rekindle wider participation in politics.

Anonymous said...

And on PR will you dare for it to be voted down in a referendum. There may even be some Lib Dem voting FPTP voters out there you know. BTW FPTP can have more that two parties you know. Canada hasn't collapsed so far and I don't see their third paty making a song and dance about it. No take up on my German example as bait.

Lepidus.

James said...

Ok Lepidus: I don't like Le Pen. any more than you do- but to be honest it is marginal that the BNP would get any MPs at all, and even if they did, I am not afraid of a few knuckle headed Fascists- after all we seem to cope with Galloway, an unreconstructed Communist (who I loath at least as much as I loath Fascists).

I agree that it is good to clean out the stables from time to time- but please notice that this happens about as regularly with PR systems too: the FDP are not in office in Berlin at the moment, and have not been for some time (it was previously a Red-Green coalition and is now CDU-SPD). In a democracy the electorate are quite capable of putting the boot in when required.

As to a referendum on PR- I am certainly not opposed, but if a government is elected with it in their manifesto, then a referendum is not necessary on PR any more than it would be on any other government policy (even a constitutional policy like creating an elected House of Lords, for example).

I agree that the two party system used to guarantee a measure of liberty- my argument is now that it is too restricted to engage most of the electorate, and that therefore the system should alter. People are voting for a multi party system, but FPTP does not deliver what people vote for. As a result this contributes to an increasing disllusionment and disengagement from politics. The fact that the Conservaatives have gnerally been beneficiaries should not blind you to the growing crisis of legitimacy that FPTP is creating.

I know Canada reasonably well- I went to Uni there- and FPTP is very tricky in a multi-party system, and Canada has five parties federal parties: Liberal (New) Conservative, NDP, BQ and various others, like the SoCreds on a provincial basis- what FPTP did was wipe out the old Progressive Conservatives- they got over a quarter of the vote but only two seats (and one of those, Jean Charest, defected to the Liberals to become premier of Quebec). Arguably the lack of a powerful opposition made the Chretien government rather lazy. I do not beleive that any politican should have a safe seat: PR improves the accountabilty of politicans quite dramatically.

James- of course this is right- and I echo your comments.

Anonymous said...

Cicero,

PR means they get booted out, err hello you remember Andreotti and the Christian Democrats pre "Clean Hands" don't you. Re manifesto well yes but it certainly won't be in the others. Any case Cicero how many LD voters not activists even a little vote for you because of that. This would be such a fundamental I would say assault you say change to our constitution that you must agree as a democrat that the people should be directly consulted. My fear of PR has always been paralysis of the sort in Italy. Mrs T had strong majorities but it was still immensely hard to pull the reforms the country needed through. With PR they would never have happened and this country would still be an economic basketcase. That the power FPTP gives a Govt can be abused is undoubted. But used wisely it is still far better than the alternatives. Second the only time it comes up is when the Tories do well, and is therefore merely an anti democratic device to block any Tory Govt. You are right the FDP are not in at the moment but three successive decades weren't a bad run! If you Lib Dems are afraid to have a policy of such fundamental importance to the nation if it happened sanctioned by referendum, then it s proof of what I suspect that this is all about your self aggrandizement as a party and a bid for a near permanent share of power. Finally Cicero imagine there is a hung parliament and Ming gets his call, ID cards consider them scrapped etc so on down the list. Finally PR, well Ming HoC no but let's talk about the Lords. Ming no that's it early elections or that. Ok early elections. One of the big two returned with a majority all of the above gone. If you had a chance to achieve somethings and had chosen stake it all or nothing on PR, and got nothing wouldn't you look a tad silly.

BTW was Mr Littleford's departure what you mean't by correction.

Lepidus.

James said...

These hackneyed old arguements against PR simply do not stand up: most governments in the world are selected by proportional voting systems.

You argue that PR would have avoided reform, I argue that we might not have got into such a mess in the first place if government had been more accountable.

Liberal Democrats are playing a long game- you don't join our party unless you have patience, and of course generally beleive in its principles, rather than simply using it as a convenient route to power. We will not give way on these fundamental issues, and it was for giving the impression that we would that we have parted company with the spokesman.

PR is not an anti-Tory conspiracy, but FPTP is a fix than denies our people an effective voice and reduces the accountability of politicans- it is simply indefensible. Slowly, step by step: Europe, Scotland & Wales, local elections, the House of Lords, PR is coming. Fair votes should not be list based- MPs should be personally accountable and STV would simply not deliver the kind of results that the Italian brand of voting gave.

Anonymous said...

I have to hear your convincing argument on not sanctioining it by referndum then. Your position is a little like the fury of the EU bureacrats with the French and Dutch people for having the termerity to say "no" to their "project." PR is a popular idea only the left as a device for permanently locking the Conservatives out of Government. NOthing more than tha that.

Lepidus.

James said...

By and large I do favour referendum on many issues, but the use of a referendum quite often itself becomes a political football. We do not have a direct democracy in the UK- "The Queen in Parliament" is sovereign so we elect representatives, and therefore referenda are very rare. If a policy is in the manifesto of a party that wins power, then no one disputes their right to enact legislation to enact the policy. likewise, if the Liberal Democrats win an election, with PR in our manifesto, then the electorate can be presumed to have voted for that policy. In fact, especially since PR would probably be part of a wider constitutional settlement we would very likely submit it to referendum, but no government is under an OBLIGATION to put anything at all to referendum- and it is one of the things that Liberal Democrats would like to change about our constitution

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