Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What if David Cameron took the biggest risk of all?

Iain Dale holds a unique position in the Conservative blogosphere. He is not a "my-party-right-or-wrong" die hard, and yet neither does he embrace the futile posturing of the anti-Cameroons that form the bulk of Conservative Home postings.

His politics are, I sense, to a great degree truly the "Liberal-Conservative" ideology that David Cameron positions himself as holding, and even though we may question the sincerity of Cameron, I certainly do see Iain as a fairly liberal figure within his party. As such, he quite often takes it upon himself to "love bomb" the Liberal Democrats, seeking to consolidate Conservative support from that quarter.

The latest love bomb is a piece he calls "What if Nick Clegg took the biggest risk of all?" and it is a none too subtle insinuation that since the Liberal Democrats are really "just a pressure group", then grown up Liberals would surely prefer to support the Conservatives. Indeed Iain makes no bones about the fact that he wants to see the Lib Dems wiped out as a political force.

I think it is important to respond to the piece, because the tactical positioning that Iain espouses underlines the ideological vacuum that I have identified for some time as the biggest weakness of the Conservative party.

The Liberal Democrats believe that there is a fundamental constitutional crisis within the United Kingdom. An isolated, closed and out of touch political class has emerged, not just amongst elected members of the House of Commons, but through a vast network of political advisers and "researchers" and which even extends into the media. The result has been that most politicians now come through a recognised route to power which is entirely within this system. This political elite is very small and filled with secret and corrupt practices. The affair of Deripaska's yacht showed the pettiness and rank venality of both Labour's Peter Mandelson and the Conservatives George Osbourne. Both David Cameron and the bulk of the Labour Cabinet are entirely products of this limited and narrow world.

The problem is that the life experience of the politicians in this narrow elite is insufficient to understand the difficulties of the administration of office. Policy making- for the Conservatives just as much as for Labour- has become a function of spin rather than facing the realities of substance. Increasingly the mismatch between what politicians say and what they are physically able to deliver has become so vast that the electorate views the political world with cynicism. Instead of respect for the patriotism of our leaders, the continuous rain of petty scandals alienates the electorate so far as to leave nothing much more than contempt- a state of affairs that is so corrosive as to threaten our very democratic way of life.

Despite their power, the political parties are growing moribund as the gnawing cynicism makes any party political participation socially rather questionable. Despite this, Iain Dale will know that if he had been successful in his bid to unseat the Liberal Democrat MP in North Norfolk it would have been at least as much for the handful of votes he gained in his selection as Conservative candidates as for the far larger number of votes he would have required to be elected. Likewise, when I was selected as the Liberal Democrats candidate in Buckinghamshire, my selection hung upon a knife edge: a victory of just two votes.

If we are to protect our democratic freedoms it seems quite clear to me that the closed shop of politics must be broken. The incompetently managed and partial constitutional changes undertaken under this Labour government must be resolved. The complete reform of the House of Lords is overdue. The constitutional imbalance between those parts of the United Kingdom with devolved assemblies: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and those that do not: England, must be addressed. The shadow regions of England that currently exist must either be brought out of the shadows and made explicit or they must be abandoned altogether. The electoral system that gives the power to form a government to those few Parliamentary constituencies that are competitive at the expense of the wasted votes in the vast majority of uncompetitive "rotten borough" seats must be addressed. At the very least the electoral system must reflect in Parliament how people vote.

These are serious policies and combined with the myriad of detailed social and economic ideas and policies underline the seriousness of the Liberal Democrats as a political party. Iain Dale's mischievous suggestion that the Lib Dems are simply a "pressure group" is very wide of the mark.

The real question in British politics is not whether Nick Clegg would take a risk with the Conservatives- at the moment there is no reason for him to talk to the Conservatives at all. The real question is whether David Cameron accepts the scale of the current political decay.

Would the Conservatives be prepared to support a Royal Commission on constitutional reform? Would David Cameron be prepared to abide by the findings of this commission? Are the Conservatives prepared to see a full reform of our voting system- ratified by referendum if need be?

Iain Dale asks if the Liberal Democrats are prepared to take a tactical risk with the Conservatives. Yet the real question is whether of not the Conservatives are prepared to fill their strategic policy vacuum with substantive ideas.

Above all the question is whether David Cameron is prepared to explicitly offer the constitutional changes our country needs- and mean it. It is surely only by taking those risks that he can prove himself to be a genuine Liberal-Conservative. There is nothing in his background in the political class that gives me hope that he is prepared to put more than futile love bombs and empty air on the table.

Conservative Central Office knows how fragile genuine support for their party is- even as they see good Conservative poll numbers, they also see that their support is still very soft. They know that there is still a chance for the Liberal Democrats to make progress at the next election, and they fear this. In such a bunker mentality, it is unlikely that the Tories would rock the boat to make such an historic offer of constitutional change- however much that some may privately accept that these reforms are necessary for our country.

It bodes ill for the leadership of any Prime Minister Cameron if he fails to take that risk now. It may prove to the measure of the Conservatives failure if they continue to believe in the idea that the problems of our country are the result simply of the party of government.

We not only need to change the party of government. We need to change the system of government.

13 comments:

Iain Dale said...

A typically thoughtful post. I may well respond in kind.

Cicero said...

Please do, I would be very curious to hear your thoughts

Newmania said...

If you want PR say so and I will be happy to tell why it is a dreadful idea . Not quite sure what all the preamble was for you are not getting it anyway.
I think a once and for all referendum would be a good idea on PR ( Just as Clegg recommened on the EU.) I am all in favour of more direct democracy in general ,immigration , tax , the EU crime and education would all benefit from direct Polling .
Given that you think there is a progressive majority I take it you will supprt the idea ?

That would shake things up a bit

Cicero said...

Newmania, I am perfectly happy to take my case to the country and, as with the death penalty, use the force of argument to defeat the narrow and populist positions that you are likely to offer on these issues.

Of course I want PR- and so do millions of people in the UK. If you don't support fair votes, then it simply means that you support a corrupt and anti-democratic system that pays only incidental attention to what the voters actually want.

At least we can see quite clearly that Tories like you are only democrats as long as it suits them.

Giovanni said...

Sorry Cicero but only someone who has never lived in PR dominated countries could advocate such a disastrous electoral system. I lived for a long time in Italy where PR played a decisive role in the 50 governments in 60 years, in the creation of a political caste that makes the British political class look like part-time voluntary weekend workers and government coalitions so fragile that they governed down towards the minimum common denominator, which is power and little else.
Look at Germany, look at Israel. Is this really the politics you want to introduce into the UK?
That's what PR means, sure, lots more Lib-Dem MPs, but also Greens, UKIPs, BNPs and eventually other little clusters (English Democrats? Respect? Some other party?) How is any government supposed to form a majority in such a fragmented set-up?

Having said that there are issues on which the Liberals (when they ARE Liberals and not Lib-Dems) are right. The UK needs a form of federal constitution wherein England, Scotland, Wales and Ulster can all have their assemblies and powers without endangering the UNion. And directly elected mayors, with real US style powers would be a strong step in regeneration politics at every level.
But please, PLEASE, stay as far away from PR as is humanly possible.

Newmania said...

At least we can see quite clearly that Tories like you are only democrats as long as it suits them.

How do you conclude that then ? The majority do not want PR want immigration reduced and were the conservative working-class free to vote outside their perceived economic interest there would be nothing left of the progressive agenda soi-disant . This is exactly why the Conservative Party want to introduce more direct democracy such as elected Police chiefs and more referendums . That is exactly why m, whatever you say , the Liberals Party will hate such innovations . How many votes do you think there are in “ the vast “rehabilitation” racket . ..and yet in continues .

On the death penalty I think there is no longer a majority in favour which personally , I regret . You would like system where the electorate only set the environment for politicians to stitch up deals such as in Israel because your prejudices will only thrive in a hierarchical system. That hierarchy of decisions making allied to the even greater importance of tiny central groups is not what anyone wants expect you and for obvious reasons . We have witnessed the Liberal attitude to democracy over Lisbon where there was a cast iron promise for a referendum weaselled out of on a fatuous pretext because it would have been lost.

The Conservative Party represent the voices of the majority , we have nothing to fear from direct access to power . A self appointed “intelligentsia” ( ….I try not to giggle ….) would be like vampires in the daylight .

Your faith in your rightness is rather touching though

Cicero said...

Giovanni- I think the point that you are not seeing is that very few countries use first past the post. From Norway to Spain to New Zealand the vast majority of democratic systems are dramatically more proportional to votes cast than ours. Ironically as you will know, Italy now uses a highly unproportional system.

As for your point about lots of smaller parties: if people vote for Greens or UKIP in sufficient numbers, then why should they NOT be represented in Parliament. I don't support Labour ideas at all, but I do recognise that for as long as the voters support them in sufficient numbers, they have a right to sit in the House of Commons. Democracy is not only promoting your own point of view, but accepting the legitimacy of your opponents- even when you profoundly disagree with them. At the moment just under half of the votes cast for the House of Commons are given no value or representation whatsoever- so you can hardly complain when the electorate says that it feels powerless and cheated. The fact is that the current closed-shop electoral system reduces competition to a degree that even political parties with a dead ideology (like Labour in 1983) can still survive. I want to see a free market in Politics as well.

As for newmania, your comments are more or less nonsense. The Conservative Party in my lifetime at best has scored 44% (in the khaki election of 1983) and that, which ever way you cut it is not a majority. In 2001 and 2005, the Conservatives scored 31.7% and 32.3% - less than one third of the votes cast- and if you think that is a majority then you are clearly a product of the schools of "Broken Britain".

Meanwhile, the Labour Party did not do that much better: on only 35.3% of the vote they were able to have 100% control of the government. The incompetence and waste of the current Labour government (and previous Conservative governments) might have been far less if there had been other parties inside the caninet and scrutinising the decisions made.

You are trying to defend the indefensible- and failing.

Newmania said...

...and the Liberal Party which you dream of lodging into a pivotal place far form the gaze of the voter. Is it 15% ? What proportion of the country want PR, a minority , a small minority so it is you that are defending the indefensible .You do not want democracy you want to lever a small vital constituency into an even more privileged position that they already have. I say have the referendum , and kill it stone dead for all time . This would stop Clegg dealing his way in the event of a hung Parliament behind closed doors ( As usual)


Just or one second get out of your theoretical matchstick tower and take one issue which happens to be in he Press today . Immigration.. Cutting it is the number one concern, even now, both amongst Labour and Conservative voters. It has been that way for a very long time . Clearly our democracy is failing to deliver what the majority want. What government do you imagine emerging from the backroom stitch up that would improve that ? You have no answer. You think the majority are too stupid to decide .
You envisage a system where power is wielded not by the largest Party but by the smallest via entirely unaccountable Party creeps wheel and deal in the darkness .
PR may work for countries that have a tradition of trusting elites to get on with managing but in this country we want to be able to see their faces and tell them to go .
In this country you have to gather broad support from real people . It is great mistake to imagine that democracy can be worked out on paper . It is in fact the classic error of the Liberal.

I have no objection to Liberals being included in the Cabinet . I also think that your "Maths" is not entirely irrelevant. I suggest a reform the House of Lords who would be Partly elected by PR. This would add weight to the scrutiny process which I agree needs it , it would also stop tactical voting which is unhealthy. I like the idea of open Primaries , direct election of Police chiefs , local referenda and more use of referendums . I would also cut the MPs to half their number and drastically reduce the numbers from devolved Countries to address the con perpetrated on the English voter .

Quite a bit more actually all of which would deliver the electorate what they want and not what the elite thinks they ought to have

Giovanni said...

Cicero,
the point becomes about what is more important: government or rappresentation?

Countries that prefer PR are usually run by coalitions and the question becomes what is more important, a government that gets things done or a government that is so inclusive of so many disparate parties that it is effectively paralysed? This is what happened in Italy, in Germany and in other countries.

Look at Belgium: a PR system that returned so fractured a parliament they were unabled to form a government for six months! Look at Israel. Look at Germany again where the SDP and the CDU were forced into a Grossecoalition. Could you see Cameron and Brown in a similar set up in the UK?

(Italy by the way returned to a corrected PR system in 2006- which brought about the disastrous coalition that backed the Prodi government)

PR means vast coalitions that revert to a consensus politics that eschews any kind of confrontational government, even when the need for strong action and reforms are needed.

The PR system that you advocate would render the systemic reform of the UK you advocate - and which to some extent I agree with- MORE difficult, not less.

Sorry, but if the price of having a few dozen more Lib-Dem or Green MPs is a government paralysed, then it's too high a cost.

One additional point: PR favours dissagregation of parties. The three main UK parites, Labour, Tory, Lib-Dem are tents with many disparate voices. A PR system would encourage the break-up of these parties into a number of successors, all of whom could probably get 5% of the vote here and there and splinter parliament even further. The Liberal and SDP wings of the Lib-Dems would suddnely fail to see a reason to hang together- for they would no longer be hung separately- as would Blarities and Socialists in Labour and Thatcherites and "wets" in the Tories.

Cicero said...

Giovanni- I think your point that it is about the balance between representation and government is right. However my view is that the quality of government we get under FPTP is actually pretty dreadful. The fact is that because our political system is so uncompetitive, the two alternating parties have ended up not being held to account for how they conduct their governments.

Since more or less every other system is more proportional than ours, it is quite easy to say "look at X, how dreadful it is: that's because of PR". But I would argue that Germany and France and even Spain have been far better run than the UK over the past ten years, and all of them have more proportional systems than us. Yet there is no such fragmentation of the party system that you say would happen. All have been able to put together viable coalitions and stable governments. (Neither, BTW are Liberals automatically included, and there is no automatic reason why they should be: the last time the German FDP was in Power was in 1998- though I have high hopes of a CDU-CSU-FDP coalition next time.)

Frankly you clearly admit my contention that both the Conservatives and Labour as they stand today are coalitions, (the Lib Dems are actually less so, but there are less of us), and in my view a more open electoral system would make these nuances of oppinion explicit: I think that is being a lot more honest with the electorate than the current system is.

Arguably a more open and competitive electoral system might have allowed the necessary reforms of the early 1980s to have taken place in the 1960s ("In place of strife" etc.). FPTP made continuing Butskillism the order of the day and we had to go through the disastrous 1970s before the political system delivered the changes that were being talked about 15 years earlier.
Newmania, I think the potential reform points you name kind of don't matter if the most important democratic institution of our constitution: the House of Commons completely ignores how nearly half the people who bother to turn out actually cast their vote.
Just to answer your point of immigration, it is certainly a hot issue according to the polls, but in fact this year it very much looks like there will be a net emigration from the UK, so Andrew Green's idea that a population the size of Bristol is entering the UK every year is simply barking mad. I will not be jumping on that particular bandwagon.

Newmania said...

Arguably a more open and competitive electoral system might have allowed the necessary reforms of the early 1980s to have taken place in the 1960s ("In place of strife" etc.). FPTP made continuing Butskillism the order of the day

Seriously you this PR would have jogged the consensus of the Political class that is exactly what it is designed not to do. This statement is hardly pub-worthy

Newmania, I think the potential reform points you name kind of don't matter if
the most important democratic institution of our constitution:

Oh I think they do. The end of tactical voting would erode the Liberal Party into nothing while alotting it a larger role in amending ( A good place for that cast of mind I think.) The end of the deployment of working class votes for progressive projects they hate would be the end of the Liberal agenda .The correction of the WLQ would quite properly show the Conservative Party to be the dominant Party . At a last resort there will have to be an English Parliament which would be perpetually Conservative by any system

the House of Commons completely ignores how nearly half the people who bother to turn out actually cast their vote.
Under PR it would ignore almost all of then except a few tiddlers in the middle


Just to answer your point of immigration, it is certainly a hot issue according to the polls, but in fact this year it very much looks like there will be a net emigration from the UK,


Only because of the huge scale of the EU influx previously some of which is ebbing away. That is highly misleading comment and does not effect the rate of change which is the problem and which will remain so. My point was that PR is likely to entrench the opposition of the political class to Nationalism and further disenfranchise the majority . You have not even addressed this as you do not address the fact that the majority do not want this political stitch continental system imposed on us ,I am happy for there to be a referendum once and for all because I fear the ever cynical Liberals will try and impose it behind closed doors . You would not .Who is the democrat ? Me . I know what you Liberals have in mind , a little tea party for Cleggy Davey and ,oo shall we say Milly to manage us un disturbed by the troublesome voter who does not even know what he is voting for. You can sink us the EU , open the borders cart our children off to state crèches where they can learn how wonderful it all is .

Not here NOT EVER

Cicero said...

Newmania, you are truly living up to your name again: this is simply paranoid fantasy. There is not one ounce of fact in any of these statements.

However many times you state these things and however angry you may make yourself, there is not a shred of truth in any of them.

I would go an have a lie down in a dark room.

Newmania said...

CS whatever zesty vigour I may inject into ,my remarks you may rest assured I am only enjoying myself.