Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Politics and Anti-Politics

The 2010 general election campaign is now just over a week old, and much about it so far has been fairly predictable. However one thing has turned out not to be predictable: the way that disenchantment with the British political process is leading to considerable support for a new Parliament where no party has complete control.

In fact in my lifetime, no political party has ever attained a majority of the vote, however with the exception of just a few months in 1974 and 1979, the electoral system has usually delivered a majority to the largest minority- except in 1974, where the Labour Party gained more seats, but actually obtained less votes than the Conservatives: in other words, the electoral system can sometimes deliver some pretty erratic results. Usually, however, the bulk of MPs are elected for seats which are not competitive for other parties, the so-called "safe seats"- it takes such an exceptional set of circumstances to change the political party in those seats, that it very rarely happens- if ever. So on the one hand we have a lot of MPs who can not lose their seats, on the other, the election becomes focused on the smaller number of seats which are actually competitive, that is where the gap between parties is small enough to hold out the possibility of any change.

For many people, these "safe seats" have something of the flavour of a 19th century "rotten borough" about them, since there is very little sanction that the electorate can have over their MP, except to vote for a different political party- one whose views they may not agree with- in order to remove the MP they disapprove of. Indeed this "tactical voting" has become much more common in recent years. Nevertheless there is something unsatisfying to make a forced choice of a party whose views may not be in much agreement with your own. For some, their distaste for this is mitigated by the idea that at least the "first past the post" system delivers strong government, by which they mean a single party government. Nevertheless that feeling is growing much less sustainable in the face of the repeated failures of single party government: failures often caused by an unwillingness to listen to other points of view and adjust policies accordingly. In fact governments since 1979 have fallen under the control of an ever narrower circle of political advisers- most of whom are not even elected. The electoral system has encouraged a private and secretive government to make decisions for party advantage rather than the national interest.

The latest opinion polls suggest that the electorate may have lost patience with a political elite that it now sees as arrogant, out of touch and increasingly sleazy. Support for a single party government of either Labour or Conservative has fallen behind a dramatic surge in support for the idea of a government where no party has complete control, which is sometimes called a Hung Parliament, though I prefer the Canadian term a "Minority Parliament" since it more accurately reflects what the position is.

Of course, actually voting for a Minority Parliament is quite difficult- the sometimes freakish results that can emerge from a first past the post electoral system make the mathematics of a minority rather precarious. Nevertheless, support for the idea of a minority Parliament has risen in line with a growth in support for the Liberal Democrats. It may thus be that if the idea of a minority Parliament retains its lead in the polls, then the Liberal Democrats could see their vote track up further- which is what has often happened in the course of a general election campaign.

The 2010 general election contains a further wild card: it is the first time that the leaders of the three national parties represented in the House of Commons have taken party in a TV debate. Given that the Liberal Democrats, outside of a general election campaign, do not receive the same continuous coverage that Labour and the Conservatives do, the campaign, and with it the leaders debate, is a considerable opportunity for them. Provided that Nick Clegg can avoid any elephant traps, his simple participation as an equal of the other two will remind the electorate of the existence of the Liberal Democrats- and remind them also that the Liberal Democrats have been by far the least involved in the expenses scandal, and that they have always proposed constitutional reform at least in part to avoid the kind of problems that the scandal has revealed. This, together with the fact that it has been the Liberal Democrats who have predicted much of the course of the global economic crisis and many of the solutions, may help the party to put forward a clearer and more positive message. The fact that today's launch of the Liberal Democrat manifesto also saw the party leadership pointing out that painful increases in tax, combined with real government expenditure cuts were now necessary, provides another clear contrast with Labour and the Conservatives who do not publicly give the same candour to the voters.

The more the Conservatives argue that "We're all in this together", the more voters seem to think that the Tories still view the rest of us with the same patronising tone that we have heard before. The more Labour make promises that are clearly beyond their ability to deliver, the more the voters are reminded that Labour "mistakes" have been at least as common as any positive successes that they can point to.

So, the election reaches a crucial point. In any event the disenchantment and frustration of the voters is so evident that even the most blind backwoodsman MP must see it. The scale of the economic crisis and the need for reform will brook no denial. The question is whether or not the voters are prepared to come out and vote at all. If they do, are they prepared to vote against those who support the system that got us into this mess, or whether they will remember the positive practical and frankly honest message that the Liberal Democrats are putting forward.

When I return to the UK later next week I shall be going to campaign to elect as many Liberal Democrats as we can. I shall be doing so because I still believe in reform within the system: that the political road can still achieve something. For one thing is for certain: those who now view politics itself as the problem, who want to create a new anti-politics- which may not be democratic- are growing in number and may be growing in national support too.

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