Tag Archives: general election

Thatcher: There is No Alternative

There was an alternative: three things the Lib Dems could have done differently

There are two post-election Lib Dem narratives doing the rounds. One is that the Lib Dems were doomed as soon as they entered coalition; that from 12 May 2010 until 7 May 2015, the party was stuck on railway tracks which inexorably lead to them going from 57 MPs to jut 8. The other is that while no-one believes the party would have come out of coalition looking popular, the party made a whole series of mistakes which would have mitigated the losses and resulted in the party still having dozens of seats rather than a handful.

I hold the latter view, but it does appear that fatalism has gripped an awful lot of people at the top of the party. Although I’m not a member and am not planning to rejoin, this troubles me because the last thing I want to see is the party simply go back to repeating history. There is a lot of talk about phoenixes (I’ve used the metaphor myself), but the important thing about the death and rebirth of the phoenix is that it is cyclical. Does the party really want to spend the next 20-40 years rebuilding only to make the same mistakes time and again? I don’t understand the point of a political party that doesn’t learn from its mistakes, and while I can understand why many aren’t really excited by the prospect of introspection right now, someone has to do it (far from it for me to suggest that no Lib Dems are having this debate; the Social Liberal Forum has published a whole series of articles exploring what went wrong, among other bloggers). The “keep buggering on” mindset arguably is as responsible for the scale of this defeat as anything else.

Here then are three specific examples where the Lib Dems could – and should – have done things differently.

Tuition Fees

I’m not going to rake over the coals of the repeated stand offs between Nick Clegg and conference over whether or not to keep the scrap tuition fees policy or the wisdom of parliamentary candidates, including Clegg himself, in signing those NUS pledges; nor am I going to claim that the Lib Dems were in a position where they could have argued for HE spending to have been protected in such a way that fees could have been kept at £3,000.

The crucial issue for me is the presentation of the policy itself. Specifically, why didn’t the party insist on replacing the fees system with a graduate tax. In many important respects the current system is a graduate tax in all but name. Vince Cable himself put it on the record that he was keen to explore this option as early as June 2010.

Why didn’t this happen? Well, the explanation has always been that the Tories wouldn’t let it. I’ve never bought that for several reasons. Firstly, Clegg, Alexander (and even Cable) were against scrapping fees and Clegg’s key advisor Richard Reeves was someone who was frequently antagonistic towards the left of the party. Secondly, the focus of that troika at the time was quite explicitly about hugging the Tories as closely as possible; their stated belief at time was that being seen to be united with the Conservatives trumped all other considerations. And thirdly, we were also told repeatedly that this was a flash in the pan issue, only of interest to the Lib Dem grassroots and student activists, and would be forgotten about by the time of the next election.

Clearly, the theory that there were few political consequences to breaking this particular election pledge has been tested to destruction, but at the time that looked pretty untenable as well. The 2009 expenses scandal had made trust a central political concern, so much so that Clegg himself had chosen to make it his core theme in the election campaign, with an election broadcast which began with the words “no student tuition fees“. The logic of the party’s own election campaign was that this sort of thing was unacceptable.

The Tories of course had good reasons for trying to undermine the credibility of the Lib Dems, but they had every interest in maintaining the stability of the government. If, as we are to believe, the option of a graduate tax really was pushed as hard as Clegg claims and he was rebuffed, then that in turn should have caused him to question the validity of the “hug them close” strategy (which he persisted with even after the AV referendum). It was simply a question of judgement and priorities for the senior Liberal Democrat team, and they made the wrong call.

The 2014 Annihilation

To the annoyance of a lot of my friends in Social Liberal Forum circles, I always believed that getting rid of Clegg and replacing him with someone else before the general election would have a limited impact, certainly if done too early. If Clegg had been replaced two or three years before the general election, as a number of people hoped, then his successor would have gone into the 2015 election almost as tainted and the party would have been open to the accusation of causing government instability in the name of self interest.

2014 however marked a new low for the party, where it had been annihilated in both the local and European Parliamentary elections. In London, it was quite shocking watching the party get wiped out overnight. Lord Oakeshott had commissioned a number of polls which showed that Clegg was a liability to the party and attempted a rather ham-fisted coup on the back of them; but you didn’t need those polling figures to tell you the blindingly obvious. Clegg was a busted flush. A new leader, punctuating a new direction for the party, would almost certainly have made a difference.

The party’s decision not to go down that route was highly depressing to watch. The reason it went into government was an admirable case of putting the national-interest above the interests of the party. The reason it didn’t ditch Clegg was focused more out of loyalty for the individual than anything else. That was neither in the party or the national interest, as the electoral consequences have now shown. Being told by Clegg on a weekly basis that “there is no alternative” had lead to a dangerous level of groupthink.

Of course, a coup would have been risky. But once again, it was in Clegg’s gift to do the right thing.

The 2015 Election Campaign

I don’t really know where to begin with the general election campaign itself. One of the things it had been impossible to avoid as a friend of several Liberal Democrats was that for the past two years they had been told that the secret to the party’s success was to stay on message, and that that message was to be “a stronger economy in a fairer society, allowing everyone to get on in life”. So it was a surprise to see that messaging get ditched at the start of the campaign in favour of “look left, look right, then cross” – a phrase which was as naff as it was meaningless. If I want slogans reminiscent of 1970s road safety campaigns, I visit Scarfolk; I don’t expect serious election campaigns to use them.

But the messaging was to get increasingly worse. First, we had the odd Wizard of Oz references to giving Labour a brain and the Tories a heart; cute, but again essentially meaningless. As the election date loomed and anxiety over the Scottish wipeout intensified, the focus on the Tories and Labour was relaxed in favour of dire warnings about what would happen if the SNP or UKIP have any influence over government. Then it was if someone had suddenly realised that the party had spent four weeks talking about everybody apart from themselves, so a new slogan was concocted, which was possibly the worst yet – “stability, unity and decency” – which managed to sound as crypto-fascist as it was uninspiring.

Clegg’s resignation speech lamented how the politics of fear had won the election. What he failed to mention is that he had spent the past couple of months stoking fear himself. The election broadcasts consisted of night-time road users cautiously attempting to cross roads in the face of speeding incoming traffic. The symbolism is simple enough to follow; a vote for anything other than the Lib Dems will have pant-wettingly terrifying consequences. But nowhere is there a real answer. We know we’re meant to think that the Lib Dems are the only good choice, but we aren’t told why.

Mark Pack has lamented how the ghost of 1992 and the endless talk of coalitions was revived in this election campaign. What I don’t understand is why Paddy Ashdown, leader in 1992 and election supremo in 2015, though it was a good idea. All the Lib Dem campaign did was to reinforce the Tories own messaging about the dangers of a government which Labour and the SNP have influence over. If you tell people to vote for the devil they know, don’t be surprised if they end up voting for the senior coalition partner.

All things being equal, it is very possible that even the best judged election messaging would have made very marginal difference to the election result, but by playing up the unrelenting doom, the Lib Dems were simply curling up and dying. Worse, the party has seen the dangers of appearing too establishment in the past; I’m thinking the 2007 Scottish elections and numerous council elections where the party has been in control as an example. I simply don’t understand why took the conscious decision to spend an entire election campaign trying to sound as uninspired and insidery as possible.

There is a very real risk right now that the Lib Dems simply “keep calm and carry on”. If they do, their hopes of revival are extremely limited. The question I have for the leadership election candidates is: which of the two of you is capable of taking control of your own destiny? Nick Clegg was extremely capable of presenting all his decisions as simply the only logical course of action, that any deviation from the road would lead to chaos and instant death. He surrounded himself with advisors that told him what he wanted to hear, presented every policy choice he took as effectively out of his control, presented every compromise he made as inevitable. In that respect, he could not be more illiberal: his politics was one in which agency had no part to play. It was summed up in his election campaign: straight ahead, with no deviation, in the face of everything which said it was time to turn.

The question Lib Dem members have to ask themselves as they decide which candidate to vote for is: does this man believe that the road back to power is a straight one of “obvious” choices, or a winding one with a series of crossroads. If they know what’s good for them, they won’t go for another leader who believes it is the former.

The Un-credible Shrinking Man (Nick Clegg / Labour PEB)

How Labour’s Lib Dem bashing backfired

I’ve already said what I think about Labour’s decision to target Lib Dem-held constituencies at the expense of Tory-held ones, so I won’t repeat myself here. This article looks at the bigger picture, and how the Labour’s Lib Dem obsession for the past five years ultimately backfired on them.

It is striking how the Labour Party opted to define itself in opposition to the Lib Dems over the last few years, rather than the Tories. The ultimate expression of that was the “EdStone”, a fairly explicit response to Nick Clegg’s broken tuition fee pledge and “no more broken promises” position in 2010. More precisely however, the EdStone was a failed attempt to get Labour out of a hole of its own making.

The main lesson of the Clegg’s 2010 campaign should have been that politicians claim the moral high ground over trust at their own peril. Any party which has been in power for any amount of time knows that not all promises can be kept, even with the best of intentions. After all, I’m a member of the generation of students who was told by their NUS president, a certain Jim Murphy, that we had to drop our support for student grants to help ensure Labour stood by it’s promise not to introduce tuition fees. In the event, Labour – and Jim Murphy MP – did no such thing. More recently in folk memory was of course the notorious Iraq dodgy dossier, and more recent still, the country was still reeling from the 2009 expenses scandal.

The risk that politicians take when they explicitly attempt to taint their opponents with dishonesty is that they end up getting tarred by the same brush. Clegg could get away with it to a limited extent in 2010 because he was a relatively unknown and seen as an outsider. He didn’t need his opponents to do much work making him look shifty after the tuition fees debacle, but Labour went for it like a dog with a bone, even producing their own re-edit of the original Clegg zombie apocalypse PEB.

Did this damage Clegg and the Lib Dems? Undoubtedly. But it didn’t give voters a single reason to support Labour; in fact it reminded them why they abandoned Labour in the first place. Every time Labour focused on this issue, they ceded ground to the Greens, UKIP and SNP who didn’t fit the public’s perception of the politician mold. And as a consequence, they found themselves in a vicious circle, having to up the stakes every time they made an issue out of it. That they ended up having such a problem with trust that they felt they had to engrave their election promises literally in stone for people to believe them should have been a lightbulb moment; when you reach that stage, the truth is that you’ve already lost.

As has been expressed to me on and off the record by numerous Labour activists over the last few years, one of their key objectives over the last few years was to wipe out the Lib Dems, and thus revert back to two party politics. The Tories were keen to see the same thing happen, and so we have seen several examples over the last few years where they have actively colluded to undermine the third party. Miliband himself, to be fair, did briefly put himself above all that during the AV referendum, but lacked the authority to restrain most of his party from signing up with the Tories. They did it again during the attempts to reform the House of Lords. I’ve upset many Lib Dems arguing that they have to accept their own share of the blame for this failure, but that wasn’t to suggest that Labour weren’t also shortsighted.

The attacks were repeated and personal, at one point producing a highly glossy election broadcast in the run up to the European Elections to brand Clegg as the “un-credible shrinking man“. And again, it was extremely effective.

Labour may have been successful in wiping out the Lib Dems, but as we are now all too aware, the attempt to revert to two-party politics went absolutely nowhere. Anyone with any awareness of political and social trends in the UK over the past 50 years could have predicted that would happen. When Labour should have been worried about the Tories, all they seemed capable of focusing on was the Lib Dems and their so-called “betrayal”. It smacks of all-too Old Labour bullying, and like all playground bullies, it revealed a distinct lack of self-confidence and deference to the even “bigger boys”. While he was busy hitting Clegg over the head at every opportunity, Miliband was letting Cameron set the terms of the debate. For all this talk of the Conservatives being stuffed by members of the upper classes, whenever they were in the room Labour couldn’t tug its collective forelock hard enough.

I don’t actually believe, or even particularly make sense of, the idea that Miliband failed because he wasn’t “Blairite” enough. Blair fought his first election campaign when the Tories’ economic reputation was in tatters due to events he could not claim credit for; Miliband faced a party which was, putting to one side how for a moment, steering the country through an economic recovery. Arguing that Miliband should have both taken more responsibility for Labour’s economic mismanagement and claimed more credit for the golden age of Blair, the First Lord of the Treasury who deregulated the City spent money like water during an economic boom which any Keynsian would tell you should have been tackling the national debt, is simply rubbish. Surely they aren’t suggesting that Blair was so weak that he daren’t stand up to Gordon Brown?

But one thing Blair understood was that to govern, he needed to take seats off the Tories and not sweat the small stuff. It is hard to believe he would have achieved the 179 majority he had done if he’d spent so much time and energy trying to stop the Lib Dems from making their own breakthrough, citing the ancestral hatred borne out of the 1983 “betrayal” of the SDP.

If Labour had taken twelve more seats from the Tories instead of the twelve they took from the Lib Dems last week, Cameron would have been denied a majority. More than that however, if it had focused on the Tories over the last five years and not allowed itself to have become obsessed with the notion of restoring a two party hegemony, it would have done better still.

History consistently tells us that the right has always done better out of the two party system than the left, yet this is a lesson that Labour have stubbornly refused to learn. If Labour is serious about coming out of this slump it now finds itself in, it will have to correct this mistake. Membership in the Greens, UKIP, SNP and now, apparently, the Lib Dems, is surging. Like it or not, the smaller parties aren’t going to be going anywhere. It is time they evolved or stepped aside.

Ed Miliband stone pledges

Random thoughts on the election

I haven’t had much sleep, but here are a few random thoughts about the election.

I’m angry with the Labour Party. I did my bit: I voted Labour in a constituency where they are in second place to a Tory with a majority of 106 (Hendon). I admit, I didn’t do that last time, high as I was on the prospect of the LDs getting 30% of the vote, which turned out to be a false dawn. But I didn’t make that mistake twice.

But where the hell were Labour? During the campaign proper, just one highly generic Labour leaflet was hand delivered in our area. By me. It was clear that the guy in charge of distribution was overwhelmed and didn’t really have a clue what he was doing. Sure, they hurled a load of equally generic and uninspiring literature out in the post, but there was virtually no evidence of a campaign at grassroots level. My wife and mother in law, who had offered to help, were given nothing to do (apart from the aforementioned leaflet and a target letter a few weeks earlier). You’d be forgiven for thinking Hendon was a safe Tory seat from the level of activity either party were putting into it on the ground.

Meanwhile, Labour activists in North London are busy patting themselves on the back for booting Lynne Featherstone out of Hornsey and Wood Green. Leaving aside any personal feelings I might have about that, Labour winning in Hornsey did not help to deny the Tories a majority government one iota. A win in Hendon would have.

That’s elementary electoral maths. Of course, you can’t predict what is going to happen in each individual seat. But if you put zero effort into the Tory marginal and bust a gut winning the Lib Dem marginal, then it is hard to deny that you had rather skewed priorities. And this pattern seems to be reflected across the country, with Labour going all out in Lib Dem constituencies and just tinkering in Tory seats. Norwich is another clear example, with Labour failing to gain Norwich North whilst slugging it out with the Lib Dems and Greens in Norwich South.

Labour made a huge deal out of their doorstep operation at the start of the campaign. I suspect it may have been exaggerated, but assuming for a moment that it wasn’t, it’s clear they were marching on the wrong bloody doorsteps. Who was making these calls? Presumably the same person who commissioned that ridiculous pledge stone. Presumably the person who decided on those meaningless “pledges” which were carved onto the pledge stone.

Anyone who says that Miliband failed because he went back to the politics of Michael Foot deserves to have their head rammed against that blasted lump of rock. Because say what you like about Michael Foot, he’d never have lead a campaign which was based around six vague and meaningless pledges like those ones. And he certainly wouldn’t have dreamed of doing something as hubristic as engraving them anywhere. I mean seriously. Would Michael Foot have cribbed an abbreviated Tory campaign slogan from ten years ago like “Controls on Immigration”? If you’re going to blow a racist dog whistle, at least find one that isn’t so ineffectual.

Labour didn’t lose because it veered to the left. It lost because it has no idea what it is. Either an authentically left wing Labour Party or an authentically right wing Labour Party would have done better than this vague shower.

The country didn’t turn to the Conservatives. Seriously, look at the results. Overall, they gained 0.8% of the share of the vote. Labour gained 1.5% of the vote share (if they hadn’t lost votes to the SNP in Scotland, they’d now be neck and neck). That the former shift gifted the Tories 23 more seats while the latter even larger positive shift cost Labour 26 seats isn’t just stupid; it’s morally repugnant.

The examples of how this voting system has denied the British public its voice are everywhere: the SNP winning 95% of the seats in Scotland with just 50% of the Scottish vote. The fact that the Tories have done virtually the same thing in the South of England. The fact that the SNP won 56 as many MPs as UKIP despite winning almost a third of their UK share of the vote (4.7% versus 12.6%).

The thing that seems to be giving some people pause for thought about electoral reform today is the prospect of it leading to a Conservative-UKIP coalition. That’s a hard bullet to dodge; all things being equal, it’s exactly what would have happened, albeit with the slenderest of majorities. However, it is also the case that all things wouldn’t have been equal. For one thing, the Greens would almost certainly have got more votes. For another, we wouldn’t have seen Tories voting tactically in the north for UKIP because their own party was a wasted vote. And UKIP’s own populist leftwing positioning would either force them into getting some concessions from the Tories or would have bitten them in the bum.

I’d go as far as to say that even a UKIP/Con coalition would be better than what we got for the simple reason that it would have included Conservative and UKIP MPs from across the UK. The “Maggie Simpsonification” of the UK would simply not have happened. Given the choice between a monolithic one party rightwing government with no representation north of the border and a wafer thin majority and a two party government rightwing government with some representation north of the border, I’d take the latter every time.

Maggie Simpson UK election map

I would strongly urge you to sign this petition and get stuck into the campaign for voting reform in the UK.

There is nothing good about the Lib Dem humiliation. It’s no secret that I was no Nick Clegg fan. I didn’t quit the Lib Dems because of him, but he certainly wasn’t doing anything to keep me there. But I certainly don’t take any pleasure over what happened to them yesterday. They didn’t deserve it, and British politics is the worse for losing them. Hell, it’s the worse for losing the bloody Orange Bookers.

The dismay I’ve seen online in response to the prospect of a majority Tory government bears this out. The capacity for leftie magical thinking never ceases to amaze me. Somehow people can vote for a party that they no has zero chance of winning in a Lib Dem-Conservative marginal seat and still be dismayed when the Lib Dems get wiped out as if magical pixie voters were going to keep them elected so they didn’t have to. So many people who spent the last five years insisting that the Lib Dems made absolutely no difference in government seem to now be reeling off lists and lists of dreadful Tory policies which will now be implemented without the Lib Dems in the way to stop them.

Let’s be clear: yes, the fact of the coalition, the tuition fees “original sin” and Nick Clegg’s unpopularity were strategic dead albatrosses around their necks. Yes, they ran a dreadful, confused and negative campaign (at least the air war; I can’t comment about campaigns on the ground because I wasn’t there). But at the end of the day they lost in no small part due to a fit of pique by voters more concerned about their own political purity than stopping the Tories. That’s on them. It was on me when I did the same thing five years ago, so I know how it feels. I don’t condemn anyone for doing it – I understand the temptation – but I do expect them to accept responsibility for it.

unlock_democracy_smithsquaredemo_8may2010

Will the UK voting system survive 2015?

Consider the following bizarre potential outcomes for the 2015 general election:

  • The SNP romp home, winning well over 20 seats. The Green Party also do the best they’ve ever done, gaining 5% of the national vote. Yet the latter party only win a single seat despite getting a higher UK share of the vote than the former.
  • UKIP do the best they’ve ever achieved in a general election, with 16% of the vote. They only win around half a dozen seats however. The Lib Dems meanwhile creep home with just 15% of the vote, yet hold onto over 20 seats.
  • Labour gets slightly fewer votes than the Conservatives. Despite this poor performance, they win more seats than their opponent. Their total vote share hovers at around 60% of the vote, the lowest combined score since 1918.
  • No single party gains a majority. More than that, no two party majority is possible, with the exception of a Labour-Conservative coalition.

I’m not suggesting that all of these outcomes are going to happen, merely that at this point in time they are all feasible. If they do all happen at once, it will be the perfect storm of electoral outcomes which will put our single member plurality voting system (“SMP”)* under greater strain than it has ever known.

This has in fact been a long time in coming. The reality is that “two party politics” is a historical quirk that has only enjoyed a very brief period of popularity. The modern political party as we now regard it didn’t even exist when the Third Reform Act was passed in 1884 enfranchising most men over the age of 21. 16 years later the Labour Party was born and we had decades of 3+ party politics until the Liberals pretty much gave up the ghost in the 1930s and 40s. In 1951, two party politics reached its apex with the combined Labour-Conservative vote reaching 96.8% but by 1974 that was down to 75.1% and in long term decline.

We can see this trend by looking at how the gap between Effective Number of Parties (“ENP”) by votes and seats has widened over the last 70 years (ENP is an academic concept used to estimate the number of parties active in an election according to their relative strengths). As you can see, the disparity between votes and seats has widened almost inexorably.

Effective Number of Parties by UK General Elections, 1945-2010 (Gallagher, Michael, 2014. Election indices dataset at  http://www.tcd.ie/Political_Science/staff/michael_gallagher/ElSystems/index.php,  accessed 1 January 2015).
Effective Number of Parties by UK General Elections, 1945-2010 (Gallagher, Michael, 2014. Election indices dataset at
http://www.tcd.ie/Political_Science/staff/michael_gallagher/ElSystems/index.php,
accessed 1 January 2015).

Indeed, it is also worth bearing in mind that the voting system itself was stitched up to reinforce this hegemony. SMP is not, in fact, the only voting system to have been used in a House of Commons election. Multi member constituencies were quite common for urban areas at first, and university seats were elected using Single Transferable Vote from 1917 until 1950. You can see how, in the first decade after single member constituencies were universally adopted in 1950, the disparity between votes and seats actually got worse. By contrast, if we had not gone down that route, it seems likely that UK elections would have done a better job at reflecting votes cast.

Josep Colomer asserts that as political systems embrace multi-party politics, they tend to drift inexorably towards proportional representation.

A crucial point, however, is that coordination failures can be relatively more frequent under majoritarian electoral systems, especially for the costs of information transmission, bargaining, and implementation of agreements among previously separate organizations, as well as the induction of strategic votes in favor of the larger candidacies. With coordination failures, people will waste significant amounts of votes, voters’ dissatisfaction with the real working of the electoral system may increase, and large numbers of losing politicians are also likely to use voters’ dissatisfaction and their own exclusion, defeat or under-representation to develop political pressures in favor of changing to more proportional electoral rules.

In other words, eventually the ability to “do politics” using a majoritarian system becomes increasingly difficult as more parties become effective agents within the system. He goes on to suggest that “above 4 ENPs, establishing or maintaining a majority rule electoral system would be highly risky for the incumbent largest party, and possibly not feasible either due to pressures for an alternative change supported by a majority of votes.”

Sadly Colomer doesn’t actually tell us how this switch will happen, but we are already seeing the current system falling apart. Of all the potential outcomes I listed at the top of this article, the biggest problem from a governance point of view is that difficulty we might encounter in forming a government. In 2010 (and despite the more fruity speculation by some), the arithmetical logic behind the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition was quite straightforward: there was simply no other way to form a two party coalition, apart from a Conservative-Labour one of course. Despite some sunny optimism about the viability of a Labour-LD-SNP-Unionist government, the fact is that such a rainbow would have been incredibly hard to maintain.

A lot of political commentators have asserted that the outcome of the 2015 general election is impossible to predict. They are only half right. It’s actually quite clear which way people are going to vote; what is unpredictable is a voting system that is so poorly suited to its purpose that the numbers that it chews out could go anywhere. That this doesn’t lead more people than it does to declare that it is time to pick another system is a sad testament of how badly let down our media and politicians are letting us down.

After the 2011 AV referendum, the No campaign declared the matter of the voting system settled for a generation. The 2014 Scottish independence referendum has already demonstrated to us how such things are rarely that simple, and it seems likely to me that the debate over whether SMP is any longer fit for purpose will kick off in a big way after this year’s election. At least, it will among the public. The question is whether civil society and the media will join that throng or allow it to peter out. It can’t be left to the Electoral Reform Society and Unlock Democracy to make the case.

And how will the political class respond? Will they embrace the tide of history in the way that they did eventually over the Reform Acts and female suffrage, or will they continue to resist it? I hope they’ll take the pragmatic, former option; if they don’t we could be looking at decades of instability. For me, it’s the only truly interesting question about this year’s general election; until we have a system which in some way reflects the settled will of the people, everything else will just be a case of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

* Personally I prefer to refer to the UK voting system as “single member plurality” and not “first past the post”. This is for several reasons. Firstly, it is a simple fact that it better describes the actual system: we have single member constituencies and you win by getting the plurality (largest share of the vote). “First past the post” on the other hand doesn’t actually describe how the system works at all – ironically, to the extent that it describes anything, it better describes the Alternative Vote system/instant run-off voting which actually has a “winning post” (50%). Secondly, it is the internationally recognised description of the system; the UK loves its quirky and confusing names for voting systems (Additional Member System instead of Multi Member Proportional for example), and it is a fairly contemptible bit of British chauvinism. Thirdly, I think that allowing the supporters of SMP to use their preferred, familiar term puts them at an advantage as all other voting systems sound alien and technical in comparison. That’s nonsense, and I don’t think we should allow them the privilege.

Andreas Whittam Smith and why Democracy 2015 should be called Technocracy 2015

Andreas Whittam SmithI’ve been following the development of Democracy 2015 in a professional and personal capacity since it launched this summer and listened with interest to Andreas Whittam Smith’s speech at the Unlock Democracy AGM on Saturday. Sadly as a result of Whittam Smith’s speech on Saturday I’ve been forced to reassess the project, away from a relatively harmless hopeless cause and towards a dangerous, profoundly undemocratic idea – which fortunately is unlikely to go anywhere (I should emphasise at this point that these are my personal views only).

If you don’t know, Whittam Smith’s big idea is as follows: he’s trying to find 650 people to stand in every constituency in the 2015 general election, sweeping the board and helping to establish a reforming parliament that will take all the difficult and radical decisions that the politicians from established parties consistently fail to. The candidates, who will preferably be selected by primaries, will served for a single term and all have experience of “running things” – be it the head of a school, a trade unionist or a someone with a business background. And finally,this will all be paid for by supporters donating a maximum of £50 each.

As a former party agent and campaign organiser, it is easy to scoff at the practicalities of all this. Even leaving aside the election campaign itself, there is the question of how all these targets will be reached. Whittam Smith stated that he expected the £35,000 cost of running a primary in each constituency that the Conservatives have had to spend would be lowered if you had economies of scale – ignoring the fact that largest single cost will be on postage which will have a fairly flat marginal cost. If you think this all sounds hopelessly impossible and impractical however, Whittam Smith has a simple answer: he agrees with you but feels he has to try anyway.

That isn’t a remotely satisfactory answer. I don’t find it especially noble or inspiring to see people embarking on a project without any credible strategy or targets whatsoever. It is, after all, other people’s money – and blood, sweat and tears – which he is planning to use up on this project. He isn’t so much a Scott of the Antarctic as a Lord Kitchener: sitting safely behind enemy lines while sacrificing others on deeply flawed plans. I can guarantee that his followers will remain quite as enamoured as they clearly are if they end up with nothing to show for at the end of this little adventure.

Thus far, this is nothing I didn’t conclude from the first week of Democracy 2015’s launch. I was struck however during Whittam Smith’s speech on Saturday by how his analysis was not only wrong but positively scary.

His main broadside against the political establishment is that it is fundamentally incompetent. No argument there, we see evidence of this pouring out of Whitehall and Westminster on a daily basis. But his analysis is that at the root of all this is the fact that politicians are simply poor at managing things: replace them with people with managerial experience, so the argument goes, and everything will be solved.

I’ve been a “manager” for the last 5 years but it is only in the last 12 months that I’ve had to fully manage staff on a daily basis. What I’ve learnt as both a manager and an employee is that “management” and “competence” can often be wildly divergent. Often the most talented person in an organisation can be someone who lacks the temperament or inclination to be a manager. Often the people who rise the most rapidly are people who’s ambition is far greater than their actual ability, but manage to float to the top because other people lower down the food chain manage to keep things on the rails and because few organisations would risk giving an incompetent employee was a bad reference and face either being stuck with them or an industrial tribunal. And then there is the Peter Principle, the dictum that “employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence.” Great members of staff can make terrible managers, and vice versa. So when Whittam Smith dismissed the idea of cleaners and lower down the work chain as making suitable MPs, he wasn’t just being snooty but actually quite naive.

Perhaps a good test of how good a manager an MP would be would be to force them to manage and motivate a team of volunteers, raise their own money, build relationships with constituent groups and the press and generally run a difficult and stressful election campaign? Of course that happens to be what most winning candidates in marginal constituencies do indeed have to do. Not all of them do (sometimes you can get away with recruiting the right campaign manager at an early enough stage and leaving them to it – the lucky ones have the right campaign manager allocated to them by the party), and not all of them go on to become good managers, but it’s as good a test as any and certainly suggests that the key to having good people with managerial experience in parliament is to have more competitive elections.

But is management the answer to everything? Here I just think that Whittam Smith doesn’t just misunderstand the problem but is actually seeking to reinforce the status quo which has got us into this mess in the first place. As well as believing that having more managers in parliament would improve things, his concern is that ministers spend too much time interfering with the peope who are meant to manage the implementation of policy – the civil service. As an aside, I think he has a rather uncritical attitude about the civil service (the civil service is often known as the fourth political party in party circles with good reason, as anyone who has tried dealing with them will know), but the simple question you have to answer yourself is this: if the problem is too much ministerial interference and micromanagement, how will promoting more of a management culture in parliament and government help? I can’t think of anything that would make it worse. Imagine the former head of a school blundering in as the new secretary of state for education attempt to run the department like a school?

I have a rather different analysis. In my view, while I agree that the problem is that politicians have become obsessed with micromanagement and find themselves out of their depth, the cause is that politics has converged. Because there are no longer any big ideas being fought over in parliament it is only natural that politicians will turn their attention to things like competence and organisation. If parliament was fighting a daily battle over what kind of immigration policy we should have, it would be rather more content to leave civil servants with the job of implementing government policy – and ministers would too.

If I’m right, then Whittam Smith’s proposal would only make things worse. Having hundreds of MPs elected specifically on the basis of their management skills and a mandate to crack down on incompetence will only lead to more micromanagement, not less. The civil service, will not thank us for it even if former members of their ranks like Gus O’Donnell and Siobhan Benita seem to have similar shortsighted views.

What’s more, it’s the same agenda that Tony Blair inherited from Bill Clinton and bequeathed Cameron, Clegg and Miliband: ideology is dead; what matters is what works and seizing power. Whittam Smith was extremely dismissive of the people who criticised him from the left and seemed proud of his position in the centre ground. It seemed pretty evident that if he has his way, Democracy 2015 will fight on a platform firmly in the middle of the major two parties, but with a populist, anti politics edge. That’s the platform Nick Clegg adopted in 2010 and it didn’t work out too well for him.

Where he differs from the Blair copybook is his insistence that his successful candidates should only serve a single term. Whittam Smith sees this as a way of avoiding corruption, but the main purpose of re-election is accountability. What accountability will we have over MPs who plan to vanish after five years? At one stage in his speech, Whittam Smith said that he was sure that his one term MPs would have no problems seeking future employment. I agree, but most likely in the same jobs all too many MPs find themselves doing: consultancy, lobbying and public affairs. How many will spend the last few months in office behaving like taxi cabs Stephen Byers and Patricia Hewitt? And how many will find themselves in the same position as Louise Mensch, bored of the role and walking after just a couple of years?

None of this remotely resembles anything which you can call democracy. When unaccountable “experts” take over a country we call them technocrats. It’s the last throw of the die for a failed state. Is the UK a failed state? It is certainly failing but I don’t see us having exhausted all other policies first.

NaBloPoMo November 2012What we need in the UK is almost the exact opposite of what Andreas Whittam Smith is proposing: greater accountability of parliament and a return of the battle of ideas. Neither are easy to achieve within a system which is as jury rigged to favour the status quo as ours, but even if it has as much a chance of success as the Whittam Smith plan, it is certainly a more worthy prize (which isn’t to say we should be as excited by adventurism and simply stumbling along in the way that he intends to proceed). By contrast, no good can come from a project which ultimately has nothing more to offer than the technocracy of modern politics without even the veneer of idealism.

Polly Toynbee: you can stick your clothespeg

Think this election is different? Think the polls are showing this election has become a three way race and that the Lib Dems are insurgent? Allow Polly Toynbee to disabuse you.

For Polly, we are in a political Groundhog Day. 2010 is the new 2005. You remember 2005, don’t you? While Labour’s illegal Iraq invasion was at its height and its love affair with big business was at its most passionate, Polly Toynbee was telling everyone who would listen to stick clothespegs on their noses and vote Labour regardless. It would appear that Toynbee’s brief dalliance with David Owen in the Eighties has had the effect that, as a true prodigal daughter, she will always find a reason to back the Labour Party even though she can find precious little to agree with them on. Her argument is not so much “my party right or wrong” as “my party, wrong, wrong, wrong.”

The 2010 version of the clothespeg campaign appears to have taken this a step further. No longer interested in even attempting to defend Labour, the crux of her argument is rooted purely on the basis that 1) they aren’t the Tories and 2) voting Lib Dem is a wasted vote, all the time, always, regardless of what the polls say.

Here are four reasons why she is hopelessly, utterly wrong:

Firstly, there is plenty of evidence out there to suggest that Lib Dem support still has not peaked in this election and might still get us into the 38-40% level of support needed to not only be the largest party but to form a majority. The Sun commissioned a poll by YouGov which showed that 49% of the public say they would vote Lib Dem if they thought we had a chance of winning outright, a finding which clearly terrified them and they promptly attempted to bury. Will that happen? I have to admit it is unlikely, but it does suggest there is all to play for. Toynbee quote Ben Page who promises to “run naked through the streets” if Nick Clegg were to win. Of course, what she doesn’t mention is that Page said this on 16 April when pollsters were just waking up to the Lib Dem surge in the polls. I have no doubt whatsoever that if Page had held his tongue for just 24 hours, he wouldn’t have made anything like such a confident prediction.

The polls over the last couple of days have the Conservatives creeping ahead and the Lib Dems being stuck at around the 29-30% mark. Could this mean the Lib Dems have peaked? Possibly (which would still make them the second party in terms of vote share; Labour are resolutely in third place now), possibly not. What we do know is that the BBC’s leaders’ debate this coming Thursday will be watched by a lot more people than the Sky News one and will thus be harder to spin by the rightwing press. We are also now much more alert to “happy accidents” such as pollsters starting their survey before Clegg has finished his closing speech. And we know that there is plenty of time for the Lib Dems to accrue more heavyweight support and momentum. I’m not predicting anything, merely pointing out the futility of writing the party off at this stage.

Secondly, Polly is simply wrong to assert that if the Tories win the plurality in terms of both seats and votes, they will have “won” the election. They would certainly have won the right to try and form a government, as Nick Clegg has said, but that is where our obligation to them ends. If the Lib Dems come second, then the party the Tories will have to persuade to help them out will be the third party, Labour. Don’t see it happening? Well, I wouldn’t run down the streets naked if it did, after all Blue-Red alliances are not exactly unheard of, but I would certainly consider it unlikely. And even a Tory minority government is not exactly a stunning victory, hamstrung as it would be by a combined Lib Dem-Labour majority.

Thirdly, as I argued on Comment is Free last weekend, a strong Lib Dem vote in this election is the best possible result if you want meaningful political reform. At this stage one has to question Polly’s motivations. Is she really the stalwart electoral reformer she claims to be? She brands Labour’s commitment for a referendum on AV as “pathetic” yet for the past five years been a part of that happy band of Labourites who have been working behind and in front of the scenes to make the mood music for AV as a stepping stone towards full STV compelling. So why complain now? And if it isn’t good enough, why support them now?

Back to my substantive point though, the best two arguments for PR are that a) FPTP produces undemocratic outcomes and b) FPTP doesn’t even produce the “strong” government (which is another way of saying weak parliament) its supporters insist is the only sensible way of carrying on. I can cite you examples worldwide why both are the case (FPTP using Canada has been stuck with a balanced parliament for six years and three consecutive elections now) but what will really motivate the British public is seeing how broken the system really is upfront. If Toynbee is interested in taking the case reform beyond the dinner table, then she should be urging people to vote Lib Dem in their droves right now.

All this will be undermined if people fall meekly in line by voting tactically. Not only does that exhaust the movement for reform of its momentum by boring people to death with psephological arguments about making the most of their vote in their constituency, it means that the Lib Dem vote share will inevitably go down and thus rob us of our strongest symbolic argument for reform. It isn’t just Toynbee making this mistake; Vote for a Change is ignoring the way the polls have shifted and adopting the tactic of trying to bore for electoral reform as well; these people badly need to get with the programme.

Thirdly, and most contentiously, I would argue that Clegg may yet emerge as the consensus choice for Prime Minister if the Lib Dems come first or second in terms of vote share, regardless of the number of MPs they get.

It isn’t that I think this is a shoo-in; it is just that I think that the three other options being talked about are highly problematic. A Cameron premiership would be dependent on Lib Dem or Labour support and an insurgent Clegg is unlikely to go along with that. If Labour come third in terms of vote share then it is surely game over for Brown; even he, surely, isn’t deluded enough to think he can hang on? But the “David Miliband” option isn’t exactly problem free either. There would still be the little matter of Labour losing the election, it would lead to the second consecutive Prime Minister with no personal mandate (after the first one had been rejected) and it would be problematic for Labour itself which is badly in need of a period of reflection and an open leadership election.

In comparison, Prime Minister Clegg doesn’t sound like too bad an option. It would be a vindication of the popular vote, it would allow Labour to go off and select a leader of their own and it has a certain constitutional neatness to it, with the Prime Minister of the day having to negotiate with parliament rather than take it for granted. It wouldn’t be an easy option by any stretch of the imagination – Clegg would be in for one hell of a rough ride. It might have to be part of a two- or three-way coalition and it would almost certainly not last longer than a couple of years, but two years of consensus politics guiding us out of the economic downturn and introducing a series of necessary political reforms (including a referendum on whether to replace the voting system with a proportional system) sounds quite enticing to me.

If there is a clearer and more productive way forward than that in the case of a hung parliament, I haven’t heard of it. So let’s stop all this talk about tactical voting and the risks of getting both Brown and Cameron if you vote Lib Dem. The only thing we know for sure in this election is that a vote for the Liberal Democrats will get you Nick Clegg, Vince Cable, more Lib Dem MPs and a stronger Lib Dem mandate for change. Everything else is just noise.

Finally, a short coda in response to David Miliband’s claim that the Lib Dems are anti-politics. If by “politics” he means establishment, then he is in fact correct. But the sort of system the Lib Dems are standing for in this election is a noisy, argumentative one in which ideas and policies are contested. Politics in other words. The one party rule that Miliband et al stand for is the very definition of anti-politics, where MPs are leant on to do what they’re told, where governments rely on huge majorities to force everything they want through, where oppositions can oppose without ever having to accept responsibility and where people like Messrs Miliband and Cameron merely have to wait in the wings until their inevitable rise as heirs apparent. If Miliband wants to defend the status quo, let him, but don’t let him get away with claiming it is “politics”.

That which does not kill me makes me stronger

Wondering why I haven’t been blogging recently? I’ve been building this:

After the nightmare that was Vote Match Europe, this one was comparatively plain sailing (on the launch of the Europe version I was still trying to make it work five minutes before Stephen Fry started promoting it at the launch). Nonetheless, I’m desperately in need of some sleep. Please spread the word and give us some linky love.