Saturday, 8 May 2010

“A Small, Closed and Restricted Offer”, and other Excuses

There is no sense in dealing with the Tories; they have form for lying and will stab Clegg in the back over PR. A much better deal with Labour could be worked out...

As Nick Clegg talks to Cameron about his inappropriately described “big open and comprehensive offer” he would do well to take the utmost care. Unless he comes away with the promise of an immediate binding referendum on electoral reform, as a bare minimum, he might just as well not have campaigned in the election. Anything less will cost him votes and his reduced number of seats will further dwindle, he will end up the worst loser.

I say ‘immediate’ because agreement on a referendum a couple of years or even months down the line would give the Tories the chance to stab him in the back and call another election whenever they can find an excuse to do so. Let’s face it, the very last thing the Tories want, is any change to the voting system. Indeed their only policy on this issue proposes to make the iniquities of the first past the post system even worse, to the extent that many observers believe it would have the effect of building in a Tory majority which would make it virtually impossible to elect anyone else.

This Tory policy of rigging all subsequent elections should represent a dire warning to Clegg that the Tories cannot be trusted. Cameron has used the expenses scandal as an excuse to try and make parliament even more unrepresentative. Indeed this is one of the main characteristics of Tory politics: the excuse. The Tories have a core political philosophy which is rarely expressed. It includes the clear determination to reduce enfranchisement, obtain and centralise power vesting it in unelected, often private sector organisations, at almost any cost and to use that power for the benefit of the few rather than the many. As such their main modus operandi revolves around the excuse. Any excuse. Their policies are based on searching for the excuse to get away with whatever they can get away with. The economic crisis caused by their friends in the City is the perfect excuse to slash and burn public services way above what is absolutely necessary. The concept of the so-called ‘big Society’, a vague and malleable enough concept to be used as an excuse to cut police and social services. Their policy on free schools, now being abandoned as a failure in Sweden from whence they got the idea, is an excuse to create greater inequality in the education system...

In other words they have form, their principles are flexible to the extent that they will find any kind of excuse to justify any policies which suit them in their all-embracing quest for power at any cost. The main basis of this power is the first-past-the-post system, a system which skews the election results meaning that they get access to unrestrained power on a regular basis. To abandon it would effectively mean that they will never be able to achieve the same level of power in the future. First Past the Post is as such the main basis for their power. Proportional representation is something they will do anything to avoid. ‘Anything’ in this case would include finding any excuse to prevent this from happening. As such precipitating another general election would be something they would be very keen on doing to prevent a referendum from taking place or to prevents the results of a referendum from being enacted. Of course Cameron’s promise of an all-party commission to look into the issue of electoral reform is one of the most obvious way of achieving this. Kick the issue into touch, get into power and call a general election before the issue is resolved…

Fortunately Nick Clegg has to obtain a deal which he can sell to his party. The chances of doing that without an immediate, binding referendum on electoral reform are slim. However he would be ill-advised even to consider wasting his time on negotiations without this crucial part of any deal. He needs to secure agreement on this before discussing anything else. He needs to remember however, that a Tory-Lib Dem pact would be the biggest political gift to Labour in history. With a new leader and ditching some of its policy baggage associated with the Blair-Brown era, Labour would be able to Hoover up a fair proportion of Lib Dem votes along with the inevitable dissatisfied Tory ones.

Let us be realistic; A Tory-led government would become extremely unpopular very quickly. In fact it would have one of the distinctions of being already unpopular even before it takes office. Clegg would, without doubt, suffer by association from this and with the combined exodus of progressives to a Labour Party headed by one of the Milibands, and with people who leave in revulsion at the unnecessarily swinging cuts, their vote would be the gift that Labour has always wanted. Assuming that no proportional representation system has been agreed with the Tories, we would be looking at a landslide for Mr Miliband or Mr Miliband whenever the next election took place.

It is clear that Clegg feels he would be in trouble if he went into coalition with Labour and might lose any referendum on electoral reform (although I am not convinced any referendum would be necessary), because of “public” revulsion (as one paper put it); a euphemism for “Tory media media outrage” at him being seen to prop up a labour prime minister who is unpopular. Obviously his stated demand that Brown goes would be fairly easily met by the Labour Party but having Harriet Harman as caretaker PM for a few months until a new leader can be re-elected would also not go down well.

So I would like to propose a solution which might trump all this threatened media backlash; arrange a referendum in late September or early October and install Nick Clegg as Prime Minister until that time. This would enable Labour to sort itself out with a new leader and give the Lib Dems the best platform from which to argue the case for electoral reform in that referendum. The media would find it much harder to attack a Lib-Lab pact headed by a Lib Dem than by a Labour Prime Minister. A public agreement for the Premiership to be handed back to Labour for the rest of the parliament after the referendum would ensure that Labour get their turn in the time needed to set up the new voting system. Once that has happened, the Lib Dems would probably no longer find it in their interests to continue in a coalition government and an election would be inevitable.

A progressive coalition (which don’t forget would have to include some of the smaller parties such as the Nationalists, Northern Irish parties and the Green MP) would actually represent more than 60% of the electorate, and could be repeatedly justified in such terms. I cannot see any other way that proportional representation can be achieved, other than by such a large coalition.

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